Sunday, October 19, 2014

A conversation with Tom Sudholt, Program Director of the Radio Arts Foundation

I wrote a post earlier this year that featured an interview with Patrick Neas, long time Program Director of KXTR Radio in Kansas City, the wonderful classical music station that met its demise in 2010. Our friends to the east in St. Louis endured a very similar situation with their long time classical music station, Classic 99 FM, which left the airwaves on July 6, 2010. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Radio Arts Foundation was born, and classical music has returned to the airwaves. Here is their story, taken from their website:

Radio Arts Foundation-Saint Louis was created by people who believe true art and culture must never perish from the airwaves of St. Louis. Champions who responded to the outcry when our community lost its beloved classical station. Through our radio broadcast and this web site, we intend to build a home for the entire fine arts and performing arts community of St. Louis. Tune in to hear Beethoven. Log on to learn about the local arts scene. Listen. Read. Debate. Relish. We are the Sound of Art.
For over 60 years the sounds of classical music wafted through the airwaves of St. Louis, courtesy of Classic 99 FM. But on July 6th, 2010 as the last notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 lingered and disappeared, classical music was effectively silenced and listeners throughout the St. Louis area lost a beloved friend.
RAF-STL is different. Not only do we plan to “bring back Bach,” we’re also devoted to being a community-owned, community-driven asset. With the launch of our new station RAF-STL will become a community asset with an unmatched devotion to growing the arts and cultural community in the St. Louis area by providing:
• Broadcasts of live performances, both in-studio and remotely, from the world’s greatest musicians, including remote broadcasts from Centene Corporation’s acoustical auditorium furnished with a Steinway grand piano
• In-depth, in-studio and remote interviews with performers, conductors and music personalities from around the globe who are charting the path and course of the classical music today
• Diverse, community-driven programming that includes a wide variety of music genres such as orchestral, chamber, jazz, blues, opera, and symphonic music

I was fortunate to meet Tom Sudholt, Program Director for RAF, and have a great conversation with him about RAF and all things classical music.


TH: When did classical music go on the air in St. Louis?

TS: Classic 99 KFUO FM began life as just KFUO FM in 1947. We were one of the earliest, if not the earliest, FM radio stations west of the Mississippi. It was owned and operated by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, whose world HQ was in Kirkwood, Missouri. Their other radio station, KFUO AM, had started way back in 1924. And of course when FM came into being, it was a combination classical music and religious programming, with of course, a definably Lutheran slant to it which meant lots and lots of Johann Sebastian Bach! But certainly other composers as well.  And it became the outlet for classical music in the St. Louis area throughout its history. In the early 1980’s…I believe 1983…it switched from being a listener supported radio station to a commercial, classical radio station. It was then that the moniker “Classic 99” was created for it. We were at 99.1 on the FM dial. And we decided to go commercial with it. We did classical music 24/7. We were an affiliate for the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. When that was not going on we used recorded opera and broadcast that in the same time slot on Saturday afternoons. It lasted 62 years. It fell victim to shifts of power and priorities. A lot of people within the Lutheran Synod ruling hierarchy wanted to focus more exclusively on the propagation of the good news of Jesus Christ, and they felt that broadcasting classical music all the time was a waste of resources. Those particular individuals got into power and they started to look for a way that they could divest themselves of the 99.1 FM frequency and the business of doing classical music. It was kind of a long, drawn out tug-of-war. It really lasted I guess about 4 years or so. And finally it was sold to a group that is known as Joy FM, and it is a contemporary Christian rock station. And they got the frequency…they bought the frequency with a major, major contribution from Albert Pujols, then of the St. Louis Cardinals. And that was it. Classic 99 closed down on July 6 of 2010. And the voice for the arts…and the main media post for classical music for the St. Louis area effectively ended on that day. And there were a number of very prominent individuals in St. Louis who are very, very involved in supporting the arts in this city. They were already members of an advisory board for Classic 99 and with the demise of the radio station, the group, principally headed by Noemi Neidorff, in concert with the program director of Classic 99, Jim Connett, hatched a plan to create a successor radio station for Classic 99, and unlike its predecessor, it would be a not-for-profit organization. A 24/7 outlet for classical music, not only on regular FM broadcasting, but also on HD radio and via streaming on the internet.

TH: I listen to you all frequently via the internet.

TS: None of this would have happened without Noemi and Michael Neidorff.  Michael Neidorff is the Chief Executive Officer of the Centene Corporation.  The Neidorff’s have always been one of the major, if not the major supporters of the arts in this city. And it is because of them, and the hard work of Jim Connett, General Manager, that this station exists. We started operations on April 8 of 2013 and so we've been on the air a little bit over a year. We are also in the process of getting a Development Director. Our broadcasting in terms of traditional FM…we are only operating with a 250 watt transmitter right now. And it’s amazing…it astonishing how far the signal goes for just being a 250 “watter”. Obviously, for the time being, we have to settle with that, which is also why we espouse our broadcasting on HD radio and certainly on the internet. But down the road we will increase power...absolutely. But we wanted a state-of-the-art facility that incorporated the best aspects of what made Classic 99 so distinct. Furthermore we wanted to focus on the fact that we are truly a St. Louis station. The money that is contributed to us is used here in St. Louis…expressly for this purpose of being the mouthpiece for the arts, and being the propagator of classical music on the air.

TH: So you are the Program Director…and everything I hear played on the air is chosen by you?

TS: It is…but it’s kind of like conducting an orchestra. I don’t program everything for people. I’m kind of like the conductor in that I convince them to program and do things a certain way. And generally because they are very capable professionals, they follow the lead and program along those lines. I do most of the major inputting to our music files in terms of the material… terms of the recordings that we use. We had only a rather vestigial data base of digitized music from Classic 99. So yours truly, as Program Director, has been pretty much inputting most of the selections that you hear on the air.

TH: What is the source of your are not spinning turntables?

TS: We are digital. We do not use compressed audio. All of our selections are wave audio. We do stress fidelity. If it is a classic recording of something, I always make sure that I use the latest and or best re-mastering. So if you are hearing a classic Reiner recording, or Klemperer recording, it’s the latest re-mastering. Unless they botched it!

TH: Or unless they didn't re-master it. There’s some stuff out there that hasn't been touched.

TS: Right…lots of stuff. But I always want to have represented in our data bases as many approaches to a particular masterpiece as humanly possible, so long as it has something to say. Boredom for me is a mortal sin.

TH: Kiss of death…

TS: The kiss of death. If it doesn't have blood in the notes of some sort…it may not be my own personal preference, but at least it has something to say. You may take issue with the recording of a masterwork by Leopold Stokowski, but you can never say Leopold Stokowski is boring.

TH: Same for film or art….I understand that it may be a great work, but that doesn't necessarily mean I like it.

TS: Great performances…you do not need a PhD in music to instinctively know when you are hearing a great performance. Because ultimately music exists on a gut, visceral level…and our emotions.

TH: Obviously, you get it. I think I get it. But the world in general doesn't seem too as much. Why do so many people NOT get it? Why is this (classical music listenership) such a small cross section of our culture?

TS: Since the days of the 78 rpm, the average time for a popular song has been about 3 minutes. And with the advent of popular music, even though the technology has changed, the length of the music really hasn’t. I mean, if you run into a pop song that’s 6-7 minutes….that’s a relative rarity. You have people who increasingly are glued to visual media, but at the same time, they’re not conditioned to hear longer pieces. Their attention span goes down, and so does their patience. Everything has to be done in quick bite sized…

TH: Sound bites!

TS: Yes, musical sound bites are what musical conditioning has occurred. Even in substantive content, say news for example, 10 second sound bites. If you talk longer than 10 seconds, and you’re being videotaped for a newscast, you’re going to end up on the cutting room floor. Ten seconds is all you get. This militates against the appreciation of longer form classical music. And also having a society that I think is visually stimulated…blockbusters, CGI, and all that stuff.

TH: We expect immediate gratification too.

TS: The thought of filing into the seats of a concert hall and watching musicians perform a piece does not appeal. Now, I personally find that hard to believe because I don’t think there is anything more exciting than filing into a concert seat and watching a symphony orchestra do what it does.

TH: You are preaching to the choir!

TS: To me it’s totally amazing…100+ musicians, each one of them soloistic caliber, but they all fuse together to form a single musical entity with a range and a dynamism that even the very best recording could not hope to approach….much less capture the electricity. But, you know what? Folks that grow up getting their music freeze dried in 4 minute bites….(shakes head….) There’s always been a so called populist element that goes along with the democratic traditions in the United States of America, and I think that sometimes there is with that a suspicion of anything that requires a certain amount of exertion on the part of one’s critical and or mental…or emotional capacities.

TH: If you are getting it right, it’s pushing on your emotional buttons.

TS: Most people want to hear a nice little sob story on American Idle about how this lovely little singer defied the odds and made it big……that’s not a journey to the abyss like say the Mahler 6th Symphony….with the hammer strokes of fate. Classical music can be demanding. It doesn't always have to be. One of the things that I've done throughout my career, and I bring the same approach here…Jim Connett and I are both in agreement here….is recognizing that the music lives. Sure, the composers are dead…we know that…but their music isn't. Their music’s alive. So when you’re announcing it on the radio, and you’re talking about it, make sure you don’t sound as dead as the composers are….because the music lives. And that’s part of the problem I have with a lot of the classical music radio industry…this pomposity, and this “we know what’s better for you” attitude…

TH: Snobbery….

TS: Yes…and lack of joy. You are not going to help classical music survive in this culture if you have that attitude.

TH: There is so much to learn and discover in the classical repertoire. It’s so vast.  I will never know it all and I like that!

TS: I like that too. I’ll never know it all either…and you know what? It’s going to be a sad day if I ever did learn it all! And even the stuff you know…your perception may change. That’s why they are masterpieces.

TS: I know it’s not PC to admit this…our conductor here in St. Louis, David Robinson, loves this guy…but I have a lot of trouble with Olivier Messiaen. I’m trying to tune into the Messiaen wavelength…and I will continue to try. When I was young, I didn't care for Brahms and I didn't care for Sibelius.

TH: Wow!

TS: Wow…my same reaction. Now, they’re damn close to being my favorite composers. Because you know, another thing that makes classical music so wonderful….so deep…so wide…is that people like Beethoven, people like Brahms and Sibelius…there’s absolutely no bullshit in the music. Brahms…not a trace of it.  There isn’t anything about Brahms nor Sibelius nor Beethoven that’s false. It’s always 100 percent for real. And that’s why I like their music, and that’s why it’s great music. And guess what…you don’t have to know a lot about classical music to tune into that.

TH: I totally agree, and I am trying to help people understand that. Just listen to it!

TS: I have been in the classical music radio business in one form or another for 27 years, and during that period I have constantly heard about the impending demise of classical music in this country. And what do you know, it’s almost 30 years later and they’re still talking about it. It’s an awfully lively corpse! It’s just keeps kicking and kicking and kicking…..

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