Bach to school
With classical's shrinking presence on commercial airwaves, we scan the collegiate dial for signs of life.
Not so long ago, Chicago boasted several classical-music stations. WNIB 97.1 FM found its niche in celebrating local acts until its demise in 2001; WEFM 95.9 FM, remembered most for its promotion of Zenith products, switched to pop in 1978. Even as the perennially amazing WFMT 98.7 FM still thrives, we can’t help but hanker for an alternative sensibility. College radio, for all its brazen amateurishness, presents a potentially limitless resource for eager young minds ready to counter more mainstream classical programming. We size up five local college-radio stations to see how—and if—classical music fits into their mission.
WDCB, 90.9 FM
College of DuPage
It’s a public-radio station, but Glen Ellyn’s WDCB still grooms student interns and community volunteers. Yet it hasn’t broadcast classical music in five years. Gone are the days of the locally produced variety show Classical Confab and syndicated programs PipeDreams and St. Paul Sunday balancing the station’s steady supply of jazz and American acoustic roots music. As longtime director of marketing, Ken Scott hasn’t seen a high turnover rate in hosts that could open up a slot for a classical hour anytime soon. “I’d have to fire someone,” he jokes. Still, with the right timing and a catchy proposal, Scott hints, classical could very well float in from the western ’burbs again.
WHPK, 88.5 FM
University of Chicago
In Chicago, this is academia’s epicenter of classical-music broadcasting going back to 1946. “We play anything and everything, from Renaissance to Baroque to classical to the 21st century,” says student host Sergio Mims, who broadcasts every Tuesday at noon. Creative programming like Angst in My Pants (Wednesdays, noon–1:30pm) chronicles moody art music from 1890–1990, while a weekly program called Chicago Tessitura (Mondays, noon–3pm) puts opera back on the airwaves. According to classical format chief Emily Balsamo, WHPK is in the process of arranging live chamber performances, too.
WLUW, 88.7 FM
Loyola University Chicago
Inside the WLUW office, located on the first floor of soon-to-be demolished Damen Hall (the station will move downtown to the Water Tower campus this summer), few of the thousands of compact discs that line the walls are Mahler. Yet the station is home to a couple of legendary local shows. Accessible Contemporary Music’s Seth Boustead hosts a one-hour program, Relevant Tones, which plays on the third Sunday (6–7pm) of every month, showcasing his new-music group’s recent activity. And for over a decade, Philip von Zweck’s Something Else (Sundays, 10pm–2am) has served up experimental and avant-garde sounds. Though the university took control of the station from WBEZ in May 2008 as a tool for its communications school, general manager Danielle Basci says the station still embraces the broader community, and any outsider can submit pitches to host his or her own show.
WNUR, 89.3 FM
With gorgeous new multiroom studios and a vast LP archive, Wildcats and local volunteers rotate in to host Classical and Beyond (Saturdays, 1–4pm), which emphasizes vanguard obscurities like Lukas Foss’s screamingly eerie wind quintet “Cave of Winds” and Chicago-born experimenter Mark Applebaum’s “Magnetic North.”
WRDP, online at radio.depaul.edu
In a tightly secure, subterranean room adjacent to laundry machines and a student TV lounge, DePaul’s student-run radio station screams potential. Production editor Delmy Cabrera describes WRDP as not a “rock or hip-hop station but however students want to define it.” The station’s only classical program, Cyber Classical (founded and cohosted by yours truly during my college days), ran for two and a half years between 2006 and 2008 and rivaled most pop-music shows for listeners, Cabrera says. Despite DePaul’s excellent music school and renowned music faculty, a fertile partnership between the two institutions remains untapped. And the generous three-hour time slots are ideal for cultivating a substantive program with interviews and longer playlists. Sadly, “the Digital Demon” doesn’t appear on an analog dial, so Chicago’s countless commuters must look elsewhere regardless.