Just about everybody I know these days seems to listen to National Public Radio. When the news came through the other day that shock jock Howard Stern was signing a $100-plus million contract with Sirius Satellite Radio, the subscription network that charges $12.95 a month, I couldn’t quite comprehend it. Who would ever listen to him, let alone pay to listen to him? Everyone I know listens to NPR.
When I visit my friends, the talk never gets around to what the politician of the week had to say on the Imus show or what Mike and the Mad Dog have to say about the Yankees. Instead the conversation is peppered with references to insightful commentary on NPR. I’m usually left out in the cold.
At a Princeton Reunions recently, a friend of mine got into a discussion with Tom Reid, who preceded me on the Daily Princetonian and now writes for the Washington Post. The talk turned to the British theatrical production lampooning America’s interest in the Jerry Springer show. My friend referred, naturally, to a recent NPR segment on the subject. To which Reid replied: “I’m so glad you heard me.”
So everyone I know either listens to NPR or reports for NPR. Except me. I listen to the little known classical music station, WWFM, emanating from the campus of Mercer Community College. With virtually no commentary, and terse hourly newscasts from the BBC, this public station offers few opportunities to appear erudite at the next cocktail party. Instead its staple is a remarkable medley of mostly classical music, offered almost totally 24/7, the perfect antidote for a tired brain that spends its working hours ingesting, digesting, and editing the contents of this newspaper every week.
If I wake up at 4:30 in the morning to start editing a story on ethical issues surrounding stem cell research (see page 5 of this issue) or the upcoming Brahms Festival at Westminster Choir College (page 48) or the latest developments in the pharmaceutical marketing game (pages 59 and 64), a piece of classical music is the ideal companion. At that point all the things that I can consider are being considered.
A year or so ago I switched my car radio from the Philadelphia country & western music station, which had begun drifting to that annoying format of three wise-cracking announcers laughing at each other’s jokes. Now I listen to WWFM in the car and I sense a decline in the number of road rage episodes.
While not exactly Howard Stern, WWFM does have a few quirks of its own. One is the hourly update of weather forecasts not just for central New Jersey but also for portions of Colorado. How can it be, I ask in a phone call with Jeffery Sekerka, development director of the station.
The Colorado connection turns out to be a very small piece of the WWFM listening area, but it’s a telling detail. Back in the late 1990s, the classical music station in Denver went off the air. Two radio networks in the state, searching for classical content, approached the Mercer County station. WWFM agreed to provide the content via satellite, but with all the central New Jersey references — including programs of concerts with the American Boychoir, Westminster Choir College ensembles, Princeton Pro Musica, and Princeton Singers — still intact. Colorado took it.
That’s the story for radio stations offering classical music. WFLN in Philadelphia “went dark” in 1997, says Sekerka. New York City, which used to have four stations, now has just two. Detroit’s station is gone. Houston’s classical station is expected to close down soon. “We are the only 24-hour public classical station between Massachusetts and Delaware.”
Oddly enough the popularity of NPR may actually have contributed to the decline of the classical music stations. While WWFM is a member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as is the case with NPR stations, WWFM turns to Public Radio International — not NPR — for most of its outside content. But, says Sekerka, “NPR is very well branded. People think of them first.”
Thanks largely to modern technology, including satellites, “translators,” and the Internet (wwfm.org), WWFM’s classical network has now expanded its network far beyond the Mercer College campus.
The network now includes four full-service stations WWFM at 89.1, WWNJ in Dover Township at 91.1, WWCJ in Cape May, 89.1, and WWPJ in Pen Argyl, PA, 89.5. Plus there are translators in Philadelphia (107.9), Easton, PA (93.1), Allentown, PA (92.7). Hunterdon County (105.7), Burlington County (107.9), Warren County (96.9), and Atlantic City (93.9). That’s all in addition to the classical music-starved folks in Colorado, who had to reach out to New Jersey for sustenance.
Now the station reports an audience of about 105,000 listeners, and even some modest celebrities. During the course of the most recent fundraiser a pledge came in from none other than Vic Damone, the crooner, now living on the Jersey shore. No, Damone is not Howard Stern and he won’t be invited on Imus. But, all things considered, WWFM still has a nice little audience.