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The New WQXR

Thursday night, at 8 p.m., the new WQXR as owned and operated by WNYC hit the airwaves.  The station moved from 96.3 to 105.9 and became a public radio station, while continuing to broadcast classical music. The new version of the old station started with a few introductory remarks and a concert performance by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra broadcast live from Carnegie Hall.

But what’s next?   How will the station’s overall sound change? Playlists for the few hours of operation so far are online (lots of standard orchestral music, but also Arvo Pärt and an opera aria), but it’s hard to tell the overall direction from such a short sample.

An October 1 New York Times article that discussed the programming philosophy and guidelines for choosing the station’s music suggested some unusually strict limits (“Ravel orchestra music but not solo piano works; Sibelius’s symphonies but not his tone poems”).

The article referred to programming guidelines and a mission statement, with some short quotes. When I asked WNYC for the statement, their publicity director said the document is “a casual, internal document, not an official public one.” But they arranged an interview with Dean Cappello, Senior Vice President of Programming, to discuss the programming a bit more.

The Times article referred to specific recommendations and limitations on certain composers or genres. Cappello didn’t discuss specific examples but emphasized that there are no hard rules:

It’s important to know that there’s nothing that is absolutely required, and there is nothing that is off the list.  I think that’s just a really important message. This is kind of like, what does a whole radio station sound like, with human beings who are curating it and inhabiting it every day and speaking to the rest of the city and the people who are listening online.  I would say, we don’t really have guidelines; we have fights we have with each other over what’s the right thing to put on the air.

Cappello did acknowledge that their direction was influenced by wanting to still appeal to listeners who are used to the sound of WQXR, even as they extend the range of music they will play:

WQXR has a long history and tradition of programming that’s on the air, and an audience that likes it. So this is different from what we might have done if we had started with an absolutely blank slate and said, “Well, here’s an opportunity to just start a radio station that doesn’t already exist, what do you do now?”  It doesn’t mean that we would somehow go off on some giant limb that we’re not going off on now, but I think there is an expectation that people have, who have loved WQXR and have grown up with it, and we want to make sure that we don’t disrespect the audience that uses it.

The opening night concert did reflect a less restricted program than the guidelines referred to in the Times article suggest, with music by Stravinsky and Aaron Kernis, alongside Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

The Times article led to critical discussion among radio programmers on the AMPPR listserv and on blogs. Some people indicated they were troubled by the restrictiveness of the guidelines, and many were surprised at which composers and genres were and were not on the recommended list.  In response to the article and these criticisms Cappello said,

I think it comes from the right place. Which is to say that Dan Wakin [the Times reporter] and other people are very concerned that serious music, and classical music, and other kinds of cultural expressions be really respected. …I think there’s been a lot of concern among WQXR listeners, the cultural press at the New York Times, that this be something that we take very seriously, and not just do an ‘oh by the numbers kind of thing’ and stick it on the air.  And I think that’s where any kind of concern expressed comes from.

Cappello pays attention to audience research, especially what it says about how audiences use radio and how that changes based on the time of day.  But he doesn’t want the station to be ruled by the numbers.

I think bad radio stations set up parameters, push a button, and then put things on the air. I think that we have a very big investment in starting with some kind of a rough plan, but managing it in a hand-built way, including the participation of the people who will be on the air, who have been chosen because they have things that they really love, and passion. …It becomes a very complex conversation with a lot of different people in the room to say what, on any given day or any given hour, what is the thing that we should have on the air, and I might add it also should be reacting to what is happening in the world at large.

The other project that launched at the same time is the online-only channel Q2, which Cappello called a “bear hug to serious music.”

… WQXR will have one kind of appeal to a broad classical music audience, and other people who may find it even if they’re not classical music listeners, but will like it.  Q2 gives us an opportunity to feature things differently, to be more expansive, to play things that maybe don’t work as well when you’re sticking them in the middle of a big radio format.  We have a long tradition of new music, original music, John Schaefer’s New Sounds, and other things that have been on this radio station for a long time. I’m calling it the sassy cousin of WQXR in a certain way. It can have a certain attitude, it can be more expansive, … we can kinda stretch the boundaries of classical music in a certain way.

As for the direction that New York’s new/old classical radio station takes, Cappello expects things to change over time: “The WQXR that launches from WNYC October 8 will probably be different from what we will have six months from now or one year from now or two years from now, if we’re doing it properly, because we’ll be constantly looking at what the reactions are and what’s working.”

Our previous posts on WQXR/WNYC:

* A Thoughtful, Upbeat View of the WQXR/WNYC Switch

* WNYC to buy WQXR, keep it classical

Elsewhere:

* Todd Mundt recorded their first moments

* WQXR’s site and weekly schedule

* Press release about the change

* New York Times article

* Criticism from Ralph Graves

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9 Responses to The New WQXR

  1. Richard Mitnick October 10, 2009 at 12:45 pm #

    Hey Mona-

    Just one thing: The Q2 stream is the “former” wnyc2 stream, built by George Preston and Brad Cresswell, both of whom have moved on. There will be no change in the programming of the stream, as opposed to at least for right now Evening Music. Evening Music is being re-cast to appeal to the WQXR listeners, less adventurous for now. But the stream will go on as it has.

  2. Richard Mitnick October 13, 2009 at 7:09 am #

    Mona-

    Pretty sure I left a comment clarifying that Q2 is the old wnyc2, with no changes in its programming.

    >>RSM

  3. Robert October 13, 2009 at 1:11 pm #

    Live upstate in Dutchess County. My first question to WNYC (I’m a long time listener and member), and one of the first questions on their public feedback website when the merger was announced, was regarding the fate of the Poughkeepsie repeater broadcasting on 103.7 MHz.

    Neither my post or my subsequent e-mails ever received a reply from WNYC. So I figured the Poughkeepsie repeater was doomed as was the NJ repeater.

    To my surprise, the Poughkeepsie repeater at 103.7 is still up and running.

    Since I haven’t seen any comments regarding the repeater either way, I still don’t know if it’s here to stay or they’ll pull the plug when the contract comes up for renewal.

    While I also love the other public radio stations I can receive in my area – WAMC, WMHT, and WNYC (which is often hard to receive), it would be great to have the new WQXR on the repeater and for the first time have a WNYC presence, vis WQXR, in the area that doesn’t require an outdoor antenna to receive it at home.

    As a long time WQXR listener, I do miss some of the NY Times content. It would have been great to have maintained both NYT and NPR news and information content, along with the great music programming.

  4. Richard Mitnick October 15, 2009 at 5:58 am #

    Robert-

    I live in Central New Jersey, about 40 miles from New York City.

    I years ago put up the largest antenna sold by Radio Shack, all to get clear reception of “Music From the Hearts of Space” on WNYC. Even though my TV is now all HD from Cablevision, I still have up that antenna, and I bring in 105.9 just fine in the house.

    If people complain that now with digital cable or FIOS that having an antenna is unsightly, well, that is a trade-off. I would rather have good reception of 105.9.

    >>RSM

  5. David Rich October 18, 2009 at 4:50 am #

    On the Internet WQXR is being streamed at 32kbits/sec (MP3) which results in the quality of an AM radio. WNYC and Q2 are available at 128kbit/sec (MP3) which is better than the average classical music station. I wrote to WNYC to find out if they were going to up the bit rate of WQXR but got no reply. At the current bit rate anybody who lost the ability to hear WQXR over the air after the transmitter switch will have to listen to another classical station on the net if the have any sensitivity to audio quality.

    WNYC has just put the WQXR signal on WNYC-HD2 apparently bumping Q2 of the air. WNYC has 3 HD stations. At the moment HD3 is the same as the main feed from WNYC. The quality of any one of these HD channels depends on how many bits of the total being transmitted to the HD radio are allocated by the engineer to each channel. From the sound I am getting it appears that at least 64kbits/sec are being allocated to the WQXR signalon HD2. The quality is somewhere between 96bits/sec – 128kbits/sec using the MP3 coding. MP3 is the most common coding used for internet radio. The MP3 coding system is not as advanced as the one used in HD Radio so it takes more bits/sec to produce the same sound quality.

    Technical reports, as well as user experience, have shown that an outdoor antenna greatly improves the chance of getting an HD signal. HD radio is like DTV so you receive it as the engineer sent it out or you get nothing. It is possible in some areas that you could get WNYC HD2 cleanly but have a very noisy over the air analog signal at 105.9MHz. This would mostly likely occur in a car which by definition have outdoor antennas.

    I am slightly outside the local coverage area of WNYC predicted coverage area map

    http://www.radio-locator.com/cgi-bin/pat?call=WNYC&service=FM&status=C&hours=U

    Using a Sony XDR-1HD (This unit has similar HD reception to other HD component tuners) and a 5ft tall directional Audioprism 8500 indoor I can lock onto the HD-2 signal but it drops out often enough that I do not consider it usable.

    I am slightly outside the distant circle on the predicted coverage area map for WQXR.

    http://www.radio-locator.com/cgi-bin/pat?call=WQXR&service=FM&status=L&hours=U

    The Sony XDR-1HD is acknowledged to be the best analog tuner currently available and I am getting 105.9MHz with this tuner in good sound but this is in part a result of the tuner applying an advanced noise reduction system for low level signals. The noise reduction system reduces stereo separation and and the upper harmonics of the music. When WNYC HD-2 was up long enough for me to compare the two signals in my area I thought HD-2 sounded better despite the some small digital compression artifacts. Inside the local coverage area 105.9MHz analog might sound better than 93.9MHz HD2. As an aside table radios are not able to get WQXR at all in my area.

  6. EddieK October 19, 2009 at 10:16 pm #

    I would love to hear more early music – at 96.3FM, you would rarely hear anything earlier than Rameau. I’m a big fan on Renaissance composers such as Dufay, Ockeghem, William Byrd and John Dowland. I’m not counting on hearing too much along those lines, but scanning the past week’s playlists, I saw they played Hildegard von Bingen – it doesn’t get much earlier than that!

    • Richard Mitnick October 24, 2009 at 11:07 pm #

      Hey Eddie-

      Sorry I am late to see your comment.

      You need to go on http://www.wqxr.org, find the “blogs” for Terrance and David and tell them. When you go to the site, just scroll down, you will see the “blog” links.

      >>RSM

  7. matt November 1, 2009 at 11:31 pm #

    The switchover was on a Thursday night, not Friday.

    I also miss the NY Times features.

    I hate the constant mention of the call letters before and after each piece. That may have been necessary in the days of WQXR needing ratings to sell ads. But today it’s different; also measuring audience size has been automated so no more phone calls and diaries to log listening habits.

    Anyway, to these ears, WQXR has gone downhill. It’s a big bore now.

    • Mona Seghatoleslami November 2, 2009 at 6:54 am #

      Matt — I corrected the day, thank you for catching that.

      Richard — Thank you for clarifying that Q2 replaces WNYC2, rather than being an additional classical music stream.

      Thank you all for commenting and sharing your experiences with the new station. I haven’t been keeping up with comments recently, because I was so swamped with our fund drive. Hopefully things will start calming down a bit around here:)

      -Mona

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