The Silent Minority

Until about nine months ago, in the fall of 1970, FM radio station WFLN, Philadelphia, was just another one of that dying breed: the classical FM station. Like its counterparts in the few remaining classical-radio cities, it provides the major part of the high-fidelity listener's radio diet, and also like most similar classical stations, its fidelity was nothing to brag about.

This was not because of indifference or lack of funds for better equipment, but because WFLN had been following one of radio's traditions which happen to be detrimental to audio quality. They were "reaching."

Radio advertisers, like all advertisers, think in terms of audience. The larger the station's listenership, the more people will be reached by the advertiser's message and the more the station can charge for airing it. A classical-music station has a limited potential audience to begin with, simply because the vast majority of Americans, for various reasons, feel that listening to classical music is something one does for cultural enrichment rather than for enjoyment.

But the classical-station listener often has expensive tastes in the products he buys, and the people who sell such products find that they get a better return on their advertising dollars from a classical-music station than from one with a wider audience. But the station must still reach as much of its potential audience as possible, and this is best done (within their legal limit of transmitting power) by keeping the signal loud.

Unfortunately, classical music, unlike pops and background music, is quiet most of the time. Crescendos comprise but a small fraction of most classical works, and quiet passages don't have the "reach" that is needed to push the signal out to the fringes of reception. So, WFLN was doing what everyone else is doing; using peak clippers and volume compressors to hold the average signal level close to the permissable maximum and prevent the quiet parts from getting too quiet. Since all volume compressors have audible distortion, and dynamic range is an essential part of classical music anyway, the result was not one to gladden the audiophile's heart. The sound was tolerably clean most of the time, but every crescendo stirred up the mud in the limiting and compressing devices. And whenever a protracted quiet passage came along, the volume (and the background noise) would creep up, up, up until the next crescendo choked the sound back to normal.

Finally, someone at the station got fed up and "did something" to their compressors. There was no public announcement, no claim to "improved fidelity." One day, their signal quality was mediocre, the next day it was clean, transparent, and for all intents and purposes completely uncompressed.

Then the station's management sat back to wait for the anticipated listener reaction. And waited. And waited. And waited. For two weeks nothing happened. Then, within a couple of days, there were two calls to congratulate them for their new sound. WFLN program director Jim Keeler identified one caller as Eugene Coggins, of Paoli High Fidelity Consultants. The other was Ye Editor & Publisher of Stereophile.

Six weeks later, the grand total of calls commenting about the improved sound stood at five, despite the fact that we had phoned several critical-listener-type friends, urging them to listen to the new WFLN sound and register their approval if they liked it. They all said they liked it. Only one of them bothered to let the station know he' liked it.

This miserable display of human inertia was by no means unusual. Every two years, it accounts for the election of corrupt politicians all over the country, and more often than that, it is a source of discouragement for some FM station or recording company that improves its sound quality in the hope that someone will notice and appreciate.

It is a truism, and not a happy one for man's self-image, that people are much more likely to make their voices heard when they dislike something than when they like it. But when it comes to the quality of the program material made available for reproduction through our thousand-dollar hi-fi systems, it seems that hi-fi enthusiasts are incapable of getting off their fat asses even to register a protest, let alone a vote of approval.

Maybe we, as a group, just don't expect better sound from FM and recordings than we're getting now. But dammit, when it happens, the least we can do is give the responsible parties a pat on the back. Critical hi-fi listeners are a tiny minority of the general public as it is. If we remain steadfastly silent on matters of concern to us, we don't deserve any consideration by the people who decide what kind of fi we get to listen to.

Late Again!
Anyone comparing our cover date (below) with a calendar may be excused for wondering if we aren't a little behind schedule again. We are, mainly because Ye Editor took on a freelance job last summer that turned out to be three times as much work as he thought it would be. I apologize. We may be late again, some time in the future, but I can assure readers it won't be for the same reason. Once burned...—J. Gordon Holt

COMMENTS
AllanMarcus's picture

Do people still listen to radio? Six callers may have been a third of the listening audience :-)

dalethorn's picture

That was 1971 and this is 44 years later, and my local NPR station, on the left side of the dial as usual, is still playing classical music. The fidelity isn't the same as my hi-fi system, and probably not as good as the latest streaming station, but it sounds "good", and it's enjoyable if the music fits my taste.

xyzip's picture

Streaming audio is generally not even 320 kbps, whereas noncommercial FM radio-- the typical npr - college side of the band-- is generally cd sourced and 1411 kbps, a very significant difference. (Sometimes these stations even play analog sources, unaware perhaps that they could be dedicating their on-air time to facebook, texting, and Angry Birds, if they would only automate the station to digital mp3 playlists ...)

Some classical (and other genre) broadcasts feature live feeds from symphony halls which can be superior to even the cd bitrate. Add some compression yes, and the sound is still way way better than typical streaming rates, still and pathetically only 96-192 kbps.

I don't say 'painfully' low-bitrate, because our frenemies the Algorithms that are expensively researched and developed to fool consumer ears into that less-filling-seems-fine sound -- that people in generic demographics have pronounced "enjoyable".

Those who don't really know that traditional FM radio is a vanishing treasure aren't the ones who will care when it does vanish. And it will. So it's down to the rest of us who know to support what's left of the format/ resource while we can.
x.

dswierenga's picture

To get an idea of how many listeners public classical music stations have, check out how many of them are willing to contribute to the station. Thousands upon thousands here in Austin for KMFA.

John Atkinson's picture
I added the image of the cover of this issue to the Web reprint - some interesting classical works listed :-)

Also, out of morbid curiosity, our webmaster Jon Iverson looked up what had happened to WFLN following this experiment. According to Wikipedia - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WFLN - WFLN ended up as the Florida home of Rush Limbaugh.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture

Limbaugh lives in the brains of millions of people. Truly a fright.

mvs4000's picture

I was actually toying with the idea of getting a digital subscription but this post reminded me why I let my subscription to the print version lapse in the first place.

Fine job alienating about half of your potential subscriber base.

John Atkinson's picture
mvs4000 wrote:
Fine job alienating about half of your potential subscriber base.

I have no idea what you are referring to. I made a factual statement about the fate of the classical radio station. I made no comment either pro or con Rush Limbaugh, if that's what you believe.

From the Wikipedia article lined above: "The call sign WFLN was originally assigned in 1949 to a Philadelphia FM radio station located at 95.7 MHz...[In 2015] WFLN is a commercial radio station in Arcadia, Florida, broadcasting on 1480 AM...The station runs a slate of conservative commentators including Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity..."

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

mvs4000's picture

A "factual statement" would have been "WFLN is now a talk radio format station", a backhanded swipe that you can later lawyer up on specifically mentions Rush Limbaugh.

John Atkinson's picture
mvs4000 wrote:
a backhanded swipe that you can later lawyer up on specifically mentions Rush Limbaugh.

You appear to be reading things into my words that I did not say. Again, I made no statement pro or con Rush Limbaugh. Neither did the Wikipedia article to which I was referring.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture

I plead guilty to the Rush Limbaugh comment, but not as a negative swipe at his politics or personal leanings. It goes deeper than that, as audiophiles typically do go deeper into things. I merely intended that a mind is much better off choosing a high level of culture as in audiophile listening, rather than the babble that commercial radio and TV usually put out.

Volti's picture

I love happy endings.

Greg

Al from Hudson Avenue's picture

How about playing mp3s like the Southern classical station apparently does down here? I thought that classical music radio was the home of hi-fi FM but the hillbillies don't do it that way.

Of course I could be wrong but I don't think that I am.

Sal1950's picture

"I thought that classical music radio was the home of hi-fi FM but the hillbillies don't do it that way"

Nope, we save our best resources for the two best types of music, Country and Western.

Jal Mistri's picture

WFMT in Chicago is perhaps THE model for a classical music station. Not only is the audio quality superb, but the hosts/announcers are knowledgeable and totally "non-intrusive." Although they do have commercials, they are not loud & blaring and with stupid jingles. Instead, they are read by the announcers themselves. How do they manage this? With the strong financial support of their listeners. They raise hundreds of thousands of dollars through their twice a year pledge drives. So yes, there are still people who are willing to "put their money where there mouth is" when it comes to classical music.

dalethorn's picture

I miss Karl Haas - I wonder if there's another like him.

Venere 2's picture

Johnny Fever on WKRP is much like Haas.

bobusn's picture

Smile...I truly, truly loved Karl Haas' programs. But now I can't hear his voice in my head saying, "Hello everyone," without picturing Joerg Sprave from The Slingshot Channel. Ha!

davehoeffel's picture

As a native Philadelphian, this was a fun flashback. I'll never forget "Philadelphia's Fine Arts Station." And as a broadcasting professional with 38 years in the business, I thought I'd share my thoughts on this article, and the subsequent comments.

Sadly, FM hasn't truly been a "Hi-Fi" medium since the introduction of FM stereo. The trade-offs necessary to transmit a stereo signal that is also compatible with mono radios (this standard was required by the FCC so that pre-existing radios didn't become obsolete in the 1950s) adds noise to the signal, accentuates interference, and reduces frequency response, especially given the limited bandwidth available. And compression has always been a necessary evil, given the real-world environments in which radio is listened to, which in the vast majority of the cases is a) in the car, or b) in the background. A well-processed signal will retain a sense of dynamics while keeping the quiet passages from falling below the "road noise" threshold. This is the primary reason why compression and clipping are used. They have little impact on the size of, or the fringe coverage of, an FM station's signal. They DO make a difference for AM, but I digress.

Today, most stations are using digitally-controlled processing for their analog signal, with the hottest new processor being the Omnia 11, which, in my opinion, does a nice (but certainly not audiophile quality) job. The device has the ability to analyze each song or element being broadcast and automatically adjust its parameters accordingly. Check it out here: http://www.telosalliance.com/Omnia/Omnia11.

Regarding the question from Allen Marcus, yes, most people still listen to the radio. 92% tune in weekly, according to a survey conducted by Nielsen. http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/press-room/2014/radio-increases-year-over-year-reach-by-more-than-1-2-million.html

Regarding the comments about thousands of Classical listeners in Austin, and hundreds of thousands in of Classical listeners in Chicago, these statements are true. But sadly, Pop, Rock and Country stations tend to draw millions of listeners in a market the size of Chicago, and many broadcasting companies find those formats to be much more profitable. Yes, Classical tends to draw an affluent audience, but it's also an older audience... one which tends to be less influenced by advertising... one which tends to have made its "brand decisions," according to research conducted by ad agencies. Personally, I think that those agencies are wrong, but the fact is that they control the purse strings. This is why a station like WFMT must hold fund drives to survive, and why so many Classical (and Jazz) stations have migrated to the non-commercial band (below 92mhz).

And regarding WFLN being on the AM band in Florida and hosting Rush Limbaugh, etc., you are confusing call letters with radio stations. i'd guess that the Florida station grabbed those call letters when they became available because they denote "Florida News," or something like that. The 95.7 frequency in Philadelphia - WFLN's previous home - has been through a series of Pop and Rock formats, and is currently licensed as WBEN, "Ben-FM" (think Ben Franklin, complete with cute little promotional announcements featuring an alleged Ben Franklin sound-alike), programming a Classic Hits format... and running a TON of compression and clipping, which management thinks suits the format, which primarily consists of corporate rock and pop hits (think Bryan Adams and Prince) from the 80s.

And thanks for the photo of the old Scott receiver. Sure was nice to see one of those again.

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