Wednesday, June 25, 2008

One Big Step for Dr. Dick, One Small Step for Radio

Since it’s now in the Patriot-News today and on yesterday, it’s time to post about it here at Thoughts on a Train.

When people asked me what I did for a living, I used to say “I stand in a small room with carpeting on the walls and talk to myself all night.” At least until we moved into the new fishbowl of a control room at WITF’s new building with all its glass.

It was only supposed to be a temporary gig, when I became the evening announcer at WITF-FM 18 years ago. After leaving the Harrisburg Symphony where I was assistant conductor, orchestra (and personnel) manager, presenter of pre-concert talks and, among other things, the voice for the symphony’s preview interviews on WITF-FM in the mid-80s, I worked at B.Dalton’s, the bookstore in Strawberry Square, for five months until WITF’s station manager Wick Woodford walked by one afternoon, surprised to see me, and talked to me about an opening they had for an evening announcer. I said, “sure, I’ll come out for an interview.” I knew nothing about radio and less about the technology but I knew my classical music pretty well and figured I could manage that for a while.

That was in 1990. A few years later, I started thinking it was time to move on: I’d been shot down for a couple of teaching jobs because I already had my doctorate and was probably too expensive for these colleges – not that they asked: they both hired younger composers just finishing up their Masters degrees. The department secretary at one of them even told me, “unless you have a letter in your file from Aaron Copland, they’re probably not even going to consider you,” so I said “well, I know George Crumb, is he big enough for you?” Huh...

Then Wick told me he was making me the Music Director for FM. I didn’t want the job. I wanted to get back to teaching and mostly to composing. But it was too easy to stay and the other teaching jobs turned out to be farther and farther away. I was born and raised here and didn’t want to leave my mother alone as she got older: she was settled in her house, the one I grew up in (and the one I’m now living in) and was not eager to follow me anywhere or to move to Rochester to be closer to my brother. Over the next few years, weeks became months became years and suddenly I’d been at WITF 10 years. Then 15 years.

Changes were made, there were issues to deal with, personal contretemps that fired up into nasty office politics, people came and went, often unceremoniously. There were several times I felt I had to get out of there for one reason or another, often just to keep soul in line with body. During the ‘90s, the easiest way for corporations to balance the budget seemed to be by firing people before the fiscal year ended: to this day, many of us regard June 30th with a sense of dread.

But I enjoyed bringing good quality classical music to listeners in Central Pennsylvania, talking to them while taking their requests on Wednesday nights, tracking down a recording of something they’d heard and wanted to add to their own library, running into them out in public. Judging from many of the comments I’d gotten from people, what they liked most was learning a little something about the music, what was going on in the composers’ lives at the time they wrote it, realizing they were not just marble busts but real people, too.

For a while, we did an on-air “module” called Concertos to Kazoos, a kind of “Ask Dr. Dick” where originally listeners could send in questions about classical music that devolved into funny shticks with no real educational value but sometimes could still be fun. That was how “Dr. Dick” came to WITF-FM – we needed a radio-persona style nickname for me and Cary Burkett suggested this one – which I said was fine with me: students of mine at UConn called me that back in the ‘70s. I think one of my Eastman students called me that even before the Dr. became official..

Then came the blog, starting in December of 2004. 364 posts later, it’s now closed and the links on the WITF website have been removed. You can still find it by googling it, but I’m sure it will soon disappear into the Limbo of Dead Blogs. I plan on continuing some of the threads here – especially information about up-coming performances or maybe writing ‘reviews’ [sic] about ones I attend. So if you’ve found Thoughts on a Train, please spread the word around to your friends and link to me on your blog!

It was always important to me to get listeners out to hear live music, and it was great to be able to program an evening’s music on the radio where every piece would have some tie-in to an up-coming performance in the region, whether it was one of the area’s orchestras, a program at Gretna Music or Market Square Concerts or a recital at a college or church: “here’s music you can hear live in the area” was one way I could tie the classical music in with life as we know it here at home. The News Guys can do that easily: they’re reporting the news, after all, but classical music is usually just seen as this lump of old stuff that people put on so they can sit back and watch their fish tanks. I liked having it a little more integrated into the community, reflecting the many (if not always varied) experiences that can enrich our lives and also support our local arts groups.

As it became less important to the radio business in general, it became more difficult to make it work for me, personally. It’s happening around the country: what’s been going on here is just part of the problem classical music on the radio has nationwide, in fact part of the problem the Arts in general are having nationwide. Usually, I’m not one to say “Classical Music Is Dying” because, first of all, they were crying about that when I was a kid. But as educational programs in the schools diminish or disappear, the future audiences for these groups diminishes with them.

It doesn’t take much, though, for a single experience, one simple unexpected encounter, to change something for one individual.

There was a recital by the Harrisburg Players Collective at the Fredericksen Library in Camp Hill one afternoon, and I remember seeing a mother with her young son – maybe 5 or 6? – walking around behind the two musicians who were playing at the time. The boy hung back, his mother reached back to take his hand and lead him out to the circulation desk, ready to check out an arm-load of books. But he still hung back and so she put the books down, sat down on a chair and held him on her knee so he could see better. You often see looks on children’s faces of such intensity and awe, and this was one of those moments I wish I had a camera. That was probably five or six years ago and I wonder if that boy is taking violin lessons now, inspired by that chance encounter because his mom took him to the library (a good sign to begin with) at just that moment. Not that he has to become a musician – whether he does or not is not the point. His life may be enriched by the discovery of this whole world of music whether he pursues it as a career or not. After all, musicians – and radio stations – need audiences.

When I was told at a staff meeting earlier this year that, as the industry continues to evolve and WITF with it, “perhaps you won’t be on-air anymore, maybe you’ll be working on educational projects,” I said, “okay, let’s talk.” After 18 years, I was up for a change and going out to schools and various public groups to talk about the music I love seemed a good fit, perhaps offering some music appreciation courses for students and adults at the Public Media Center, continuing as I had done with “Opera Outreach” in years past, talking to kids about how you turn stories into operas.

Talking about this with some of the musicians in the community, there was a good deal of excitement about the possibilities. But the interest at WITF was not forthcoming – a simple exploratory meeting could not be scheduled over a period of three months because the other two were so busy – and so the predictable finally came to pass.

On Thursday, June 19th, five weeks after I’d started getting “the drift” – you know how you can sense these things – my employment with the company was terminated.

By that time, the only thing left to clear out of my desk was my own CD player/radio and my personal special backless chair which I needed for my back trouble: most everything else had been taken home or tossed out in a slow spring cleaning that began even before mid-May (when my friend and colleague John Clare left to take his current job in San Antonio). When I mentioned that that day, someone said to someone else, “and you thought he was just being tidy.” (Dr. Dick is never “tidy.”)

I’m not sorry it happened. I am sorry I didn’t have a chance to say good-bye to my listeners, to my readers at Dr. Dick’s Blog or to the colleagues I’d worked with during those 18 years.

Friends and people I don’t know have told me they’ll stop contributing to WITF as a result. I can’t say that’s a good idea: if you still listen, I still feel you should support the station to the level that you value it. If donations are withheld, it only increases the risk classical music will be lessened or even replaced with something less to your liking (they tell me that’s not the case: “WITF remains committed to classical music”). If you choose to no longer listen to the station, you’re missing reports from the great FM News Team and their perspectives on life in Central PA. But everybody has to make that decision for themselves.

As the quote from Henri Bergson at the top of this blog states – “To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly” – change happens to everyone and every thing. Change can go in different directions, for better or worse, but we all have to deal with it. Like aging, the alternative is often not so good.

For me, right now, I’ve got a job to find, but in the meantime, I want to settle in on this new violin and piano piece. It’s just what I happen to be writing now, nothing momentous, just something more realistic than a symphony or an opera. But it’s a good time to concentrate on it. I’ll be blogging about that as I have before.

So check back.

Dr. Dick, a.k.a. Dick Strawser

No comments:

Post a Comment