My Love Affair With Internet Radio

Jeff Rosenfeld on August 12, 2008

On the day my lifelong infatuation with classical radio died, I hardly realized it would be revived by the Internet just a year later and become better than ever — so exciting that my CDs are quickly becoming superfluous, forgotten on their dusty shelves. Studio recordings simply can't compare to the magnetism of the great live performances on Internet radio. (See a list of recommended stations, below.) When I go to a recordings store these days I find myself going through the motions. My eye drifts nervously up to the clock as I calculate what time it is at various radio stations across the globe, plotting my next date with the live concerts on my computer.

Radio has won back my heart and I know I will never have to leave it again. I remember the nadir well, because not long ago I thought I had sworn off radio for good. It was in the summer of 2005. I reached for 1510 on the AM dial of my car radio and was greeted not by an unfamiliar and intriguing concerto or symphony, but by a blast of bluegrass. Without fanfare, KMZT, “K-Mozart,” had pulled the plug on classical music in the Bay Area, following its august predecessor KKHI into eternal silence. At the time, I barely realized that my relationship with the vitality of classical music nearly died with it.

With its solid, intelligent programming, KMZT, though sonically limited, had been quietly expanding my horizons to new pieces and composers. Absent KMZT, the Bay Area became a frequency wasteland again. The other classical station had embarked on a ratings mission to replace Prozac as the region’s favorite drug, jettisoning syndicated concerts and opera broadcasts, banishing any human voice not named Bocelli or selling Mercedes Benzes, and censoring any piece that might last longer than an escalator ride at Neiman Marcus.

Like many music lovers, I compensated with a steady diet of live recordings, but while there are plenty of historical CD issues of broadcasts from Bruno Walter or the Budapest Quartet, there’s scant evidence on CD of what a Hilary Hahn or an Esa-Pekka Salonen is like in concert. The prevailing standards of studio-bound recording perpetuate a myth of cold efficiency. I even started to believe in those delusions of the frailty of today’s classical music scene, which clever, publicity-hungry critics push on the public. Yet the problem was not the musicians but rather that my connection to them had been ripped out of the wall. My youthful obsession with live broadcasts had been completely subsumed by the stacks of discs now ruling my desk, my dashboard, and my life. The spirit of classical music within me began to die. It was a musical midlife crisis.

Pining for the Good Old Days

I cannot reminisce as Heuwell Tircuit did last week in this space about the glories of the 1940s and '50s, when banana splits were 25 cents and Toscanini conducted on the radio. However, my 1970s Middle American childhood was, like his, spent in a cultural backwater blessed by radio riches. Back then, radio meant a steady stream of live broadcasts, introducing me to Klaus Tennstedt, Carlos Kleiber, Rudolf Serkin, and other greats performing in front of an audience, not just in the calculated conditions of a studio. It also meant encountering unfamiliar music every day.

This was before public radio had been democratized to let enlightened and engaged citizens retake the airwaves to argue over automatic steering systems and the virtues of grassfed beef. I grew up 70 miles from the nearest major orchestra but our radio could pull in fine stereo sound from public, mainly classical, radio stations in East Lansing, Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Toledo (none of which programs much classical music nowadays). We heard broadcasts by orchestras from Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Boston, and more. The radio made us feel that classical music was a thriving, daily experience.

Martin Bookspan

Those concert broadcasts provided a thrill that canned music, on radio or CD, simply cannot match. Maybe it was the hushed but palpable expectation of an audience, of a shared experience. Maybe it was the dignified but expectant tones of announcers like the Boston Symphony’s William Pierce, or the chatty excitement of the New York Philharmonic’s Martin Bookspan. Maybe it was simply the thrill of a public event. In classical music, we are often advised that such frills are moot; the music is supposed to be in the score. We all know Mahler’s Sixth is going to end with a bang, we all know that today’s virtuoso performers leave little to chance. But for me, the live experience, even via the radio, has always trumped the perfection of studio recordings. It is axiomatic that good musicians do their best when someone is listening. The corollary is that good listeners are more excited by a real performance.

Blowing a Radio Fanatic’s Mind

So just as buying a vintage Corvette or quitting a job at a law firm to become a beach bum defines a midlife reawakening for other people, for me it was the discovery of Internet radio, on July 7, 2006. I remember the date because it was Mahler’s birthday. In an e-mail, a fellow Mahler fanatic noted casually that he was “right now listening to Roger Norrington’s Mahler Second on SWR.” I knew that no such recording existed and it suddenly dawned on me that he might actually be listening to a concert in progress.

Excitedly, I searched for the Web site of the German radio services (SWR being the Southwest German Radio) and fumbled my way to the streaming audio button. Within minutes there was a concert coming through my laptop. It was simply glorious and fresh — with the ache and zest and thrill of Bruno Walter but with the contemporary virtuosity and revisionism of Norrington and his Stuttgart orchestra. Visions of my youth spent beside the radio suddenly flooded me. Music was somehow alive again. Musicians were rehabilitated to their proper place in the universe — on a stage. The sound was wretched by an audiophile’s standards. (Later I learned that you can bypass much of the internal processing noise of a computer by attaching an external sound card.)

Streaming audio is compressed for convenience, and so it is just bad enough to make you crave CDs when they’re released. But those discs ultimately serve only to provide a baseline sonority. To adaptable — dare I say imaginative? — ears weaned on the compression and distortion of FM radio and then stretched by the sonic murk of Furtwängler, Kreisler, and Sofronitzky, this Mahler-by-wireless was riveting. The Internet is a leveler of political power and media muscle. It has also put contemporary performers back on an equal footing with past greats. The live concerts online show the boldness, spontaneity, and heart of today’s musicians. Somehow audio imperfections focus the ear on the essential contours of performance — on the intelligence and musicianship, not merely on the fattest tone, or cleanest finger work. And lo, the interpretative liveliness that defined a Szigeti or Schnabel still exists in spades. Classical music is far from dead. And classical radio itself? Wow.

Opening the Floodgates

What I have found over the last two years exceeds my childhood fantasies. I haven’t just bought the sports car I always dreamed of, I’ve hired the entire NASCAR circuit for my private amusement every night. Every major group or soloist is playing on the Internet somewhere in the world practically every week. So is every favorite composer, and many you never knew existed. Practically all these offerings of stimulating repertoire and contemporary performers are disseminated through live concerts, thanks mostly to the state-supported European stations, and their constant sharing and recycling through the European Broadcast Union (EBU). Concerts you miss one evening inevitably pop up elsewhere the next, or even a year later. Conductors and soloists make the rounds of various orchestras and venues, making it possible to catch them in different moods and inspiration. One night Gustavo Dudamel might struggle to keep the Czech Philharmonic together in Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony; a month later he might get an inspired performance of the same piece with a less exalted orchestra.
Gustavo Dudamel, among the finds on the Internet

Even in the United States, where classical radio has been besieged for years, the sum total of live music broadcasts is actually astounding. The sum of the fragmented U.S. classical radio scene rivals the best — the BBC Radio 3, the Netherlands Radio 4, and the German regional channels. I’ve listed some of my favorite programming sources below, with links, to exemplify the best of this cornucopia for great live music-making on the Internet. There is much, much more that I’ve barely had time to explore. After a while you realize that listening to radio stations broadcasting online is like taking a sip from Niagara Falls. You will just as easily drown as slake your thirst.

Of course, if you find yourself tuning in to Europe frequently, it helps to have a perversely early schedule, since they’re nine hours ahead of us here on the West Coast. It also greatly helps to obtain software for recording streaming audio on your computer using a timer, so that you can listen at your leisure to overnight and workday offerings. But this isn’t essential. With music coming through all the time, you will quickly fall behind anyway and have no hope of catching up to everything you’ve recorded.

I’ll give you an idea of a typical week. Usually, in the winter, Sunday is a day for American radio stations. WGUC broadcasts the Cincinnati Symphony, WQED broadcasts the Pittsburgh Symphony, and KUSC offers the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Right now the San Francisco Symphony rebroadcasts on KUAT and Milwaukee Symphony concerts on Wisconsin Public Radio are highlights. On Monday, WXXI airs the Rochester Philharmonic, but I tend to prefer the Santa Fe Chamber Music Society on KWAX or St. Paul Chamber Orchestra on Minnesota Public Radio. Tuesday is our own KDFC’s San Francisco Symphony broadcast, and in relatively good streaming sound, too. Wednesday is a good evening for the Cleveland Orchestra on KUAT. (Last week was a complete Haydn Creation that will air again this Thursday night on KWAX. This week it will be a Mahler Seventh that I can hardly wait to hear.) On Thursday I sometimes tune in to the Knoxville Symphony on WUOT or the Atlanta Symphony on Georgia Public Radio. Friday is usually Minnesota Orchestra night and sometimes a Boston Symphony morning too. On Saturday KWAX follows its live opera programming with “Live in Oregon,” with some highlights from the Portland International Piano Competition coming up this weekend.

During winter various top-notch U.S. stations offer “Live at the Concertgebouw!,” which rebroadcasts Netherlands Radio 4 programs, with English commentary. Similarly, the German radio service, Deutsche Welle, repackages concerts for U.S. audiences, and some Vienna Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, and Jerusalem Symphony concerts are rebroadcast on American radio via syndication. You can learn more about these series from distributor/producing stations, WFMT and WCLV. Meanwhile, you can go directly to the New York Philharmonic or Chicago Symphony Web sites to listen to the currently syndicated concerts through their excellent-sounding “audio-on-demand” services. (In the summer the Philharmonic rebroadcasts a mixture of older concerts and recordings, which are not available on the Web site, so you have to catch these elsewhere.)

Mining the Archives

In fact, audio-on-demand is the best way to catch a large portion of the Internet radio broadcasts: SymphonyCast, St. Paul Sunday, Performance Today, a large chunk of past Music@Menlo concerts, KRCB’s Chamber Music OnStage series (local artists), and La Jolla Chamber Music Society concerts are all archived online, sometimes for limited periods. Some sound great that way, while others (particularly Performance Today) are best heard from stations like WDAV or KWAX to get better audio. It’s also possible to use audio on demand to keep up with European broadcasts in your spare time. In particular, the BBC Radio 3 archives every program for a week. That includes, for instance, all of this summer’s Proms, with each concert broadcast twice. While the BBC’s archive sound is not as good as their broadcasts, I find it (barely) sufficient and much preferable to trying to keep up with their exhausting schedule.

Netherlands Radio 4 also archives for a week, and this is extremely useful because they offer about five hours of concert broadcasts from around the world every day, not counting their weekly operas. Radio 4’s sound is probably the best streaming audio on the Internet, and their archive sounds very good as well. Two other European stations archive for longer periods. The Swedish P2 keeps shows for a month, and in top-notch audio-on-demand. P2 is also the best-sounding on-demand, one-week archive for the EBU’s syndicated night program (usually billed as “Notturno”), more than half of which is live music-making from various radio archives. This program lays a heavy emphasis on small member-countries like Poland, Bulgaria, Norway, and Slovenia, all of which subscribe to the service. So you get some very interesting repertoire as well as obscure performers and historical concerts, like bygone Juilliard Quartet tours in Yugoslavia.

Each show features a recent full-length concert, rotating through genres such as organ recitals, early music, and standard orchestral fare. Unlike many programs (some rapid-fire, chatty French and Italian hosts being the prime offenders), selections on “Notturno” are usually gracefully and minimally introduced. The downside of this program is that the programming repeats frequently. (For listings of what’s actually played, it’s easy to use the “Euroclassic Notturno” archive on BBC Radio 3.) The Hungarian (Magyar Radio) Bartók channel archives just about everything for three weeks. The sound is not as good as the middling BBC archive standard (whereas the live Hungarian stream is superb), but its broadcasts include splendid concerts with Hungarian performers and composers who never get to the U.S. This coming week, sandwiched in between copious hours of Bayreuth performances, some noteworthy, recent rebroadcasts will lapse in the archive, like a white-hot Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2 with Barnabás Kelemen, and a 1984 recital by violinist Ruggiero Ricci.

Clearly, my former anxiety about losing access to concert broadcasts and fresh repertoire while living in this largely radio-free zone has vanished. What I have also recovered from my youth, unfortunately, is a desire to check the listings ahead of time. I rarely yield to this mad temptation for two obvious reasons. First, there are so many stations. The Internet is most efficiently navigated by people with narrow tastes or with limited need to explore. Second, most of the stations are in languages I can barely decipher. Music may be an international language, but to access it now will require me to learn several new languages, right away. Talk about a midlife crisis!

Favorite Concert Broadcasts and Rebroadcast Sources on the Internet.

European Stations

  • is not a radio station per se, but a free video-on-demand service for a limited time. It hosts the Verbier Festival (great pianists and chamber music, in addition to the young, exciting orchestra), Aspen Music Festival, and Aix-en-Provence through September.
  • Swedish Radio P2 is one of the best, with strong lieder and choral programming, and it also draws from other services. Klassisk förmiddag, P2 Live Opera, P2 Live Nu!, and P2 Live Klassisk have live programming. Like almost every European station, they have Saturday opera too. Archives are listed by show.
  • Magyar Radio Bartók includes a three-week archive with mediocre sound, but has excellent streaming audio for current programs. The 11 p.m. new music show often has interesting Hungarian repertoire. Live concerts are sprinkled throughout the day. See here for schedule and archive listings.
  • Netherlands Radio 4 has great programming and sound throughout the day. Live highlights include Middagconcert and Avondconcert — two to three hours drawn from concerts around the world, every day, with a healthy dose of chamber music, opera, and lieder in addition to standard orchestral offerings and occasional avant-garde pieces. And if you somehow can’t get enough of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on Radio 4, head over to the orchestra’s Web site, where they restream their recent concerts 24/7. You can start a page for archive listing.
  • BBC Radio 3 is the gold standard and is perpetually recycled throughout the world. BBC highlights include the Lunchtime Concerts (Live from Wigmore Hall), with first-rank chamber ensembles, pianists, and singers. "Afternoons on 3" tends to recycle concerts from around the U.K. and the world, but with varied repertoire; and "Performance on 3" is the evening concert show. "Hear and Now" has contemporary music, sometimes live Saturday evenings. Keep an eye out for "New Generation" artists recitals as well. See here for an index of shows.
  • Czech Radio Vltava has performances from the Czech Radio Symphony and Prague Symphony almost daily, often featuring obscure Czech composers new and old, plus occasional Czech Philharmonic broadcasts as part of their evening concerts. See the streaming audio portal and the schedule page.
  • ABC — the Australian one — offers early afternoon and evening shows that draw from live concerts around the world with, naturally, a healthy dose of excellent Australian performers.
  • Italian Radio (RAI) 3 has a great weekend historical survey show (Esercizi di memoria) with about five hours of archival radio broadcasts. It also has two or three concert-based shows daily, sometimes recycled from other countries but mostly based on Italian concerts. However, the sound is relatively low quality. See here for live music listings.
  • Radio France Musique is strong in every repertoire category, with a morning and evening concert every day. These broadcasts are among the best places to hear young pianists, chamber ensembles, lieder, new music, and baroque opera, not to mention good standard orchestral concerts. See here for program listings.
  • Klara, a Belgian station, mostly recycles from other networks, but their afternoon show “Ludwig” (“Concert” on Saturdays) is a good way to catch up on missed opportunities. See the program listing and the Windows Media Radio Player.
  • Ö1 of Austria has the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera and Salzburg Festivals. These concerts figure frequently in the show "Apropos Klassik." See here for the program listing.
  • Bayerischer Rundfunk BR 4 (Bavarian Radio). Of the German networks, Bavarian Radio stands out for its consistently fine programming and decent sound. The broadcasting day begins with a midmorning show and moves on to an afternoon concert, evening concert, and late evening new music and/or choral offering. Occasional concert gems crop up in the German overnight show as well.
  • Polskie Radio Dwójka features little-known Polish repertoire daily early in the morning on the show “Fantazja polska”; otherwise some concerts are from Poland and others recycled from elsewhere. See the program listing and streaming audio.

U.S. Stations

  • WCLV Cleveland Orchestra on Saturday and Sunday, plus some special concerts on Fridays. They also have concerts from the local Conservatory.
  • WFMT. In addition to great programming, they syndicate most of the best live concert series in the U.S.
  • WXXI. Reasonably good streaming sound and the usual syndicated concert series, plus the Rochester Philharmonic.
  • WUOT. Good sound and the usual syndicated concert series, plus the Knoxville and Nashville symphonies.
  • WKAR. Although they are no longer a classical station, they still broadcast the Detroit Symphony part of the year.
  • KWAX. Consistently the best-sounding U.S. station, with a full docket of syndicated concert series, plus their own “Live in Oregon” show.
  • KUAT Operated out of the University of Arizona, it is a good-sounding station with a full offering of syndicated concerts.
  • Wisconsin Public Radio doesn't feature much music, but they do originate the Milwaukee Symphony series.
  • Minnesota Public Radio has the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and they originate St. Paul Sunday. Good streaming quality.
  • Georgia Public Radio. In season, the Atlanta Symphony broadcasts emanate from here.
  • WGBH. A great station with only sporadic musical offerings, but they do have chamber concerts in their studios, available for podcast in decent sound, and some Boston Symphony concerts in relatively poor sound. For the BSO, which currently isn’t syndicated, WCRB is one of the better-sounding options.
  • KDFC. Indispensible for the San Francisco Symphony series on Tuesdays, but these are syndicated by WCLV to many stations later.
  • KUSC. Good sound and the Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts are two reasons to follow their audio stream.
  • KRCB. A convenient destination for West Coast listeners of Performance Today at 9 a.m. They also have a small archive of North Bay chamber concerts from their Sunday series.
  • KALW. Occasional Performing Arts Specials, plus Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
  • See here for the Berkeley Symphony broadcast schedule.
  • American Public Media. This is not a radio station, but a source and archive for widely syndicated shows like SymphonyCast, St. Paul Sunday, and Performance Today.

Some Other Standout Internet Radio Sources

Broadcasts based on recordings may miss the special qualities of live performances, but some shows have particularly stimulating programming nonetheless. Three favorites are a good starting point:
  • Music from Other Minds.
  • Classical Discoveries on WPRB. On Wednesdays Marvin Rosen explores neglected 20th-century composers and obscure early music and Baroque pieces. On Fridays he looks at the avant-garde.
  • Haydn House. Pierre Paquin, a seasoned Boston audio engineer, privately remasters out-of-print recordings and streams them 24/7 — all of one composer, of course.