Czech composer Antonín Dvořák wrote a series of fantastical tone poems in 1896 that are some of my favorite short pieces in the classical canon. One called The Golden Spinning Wheel tells the tale of Dornička, a young woman who receives a marriage proposal from a king. She is on her way to the castle to wed the king when her evil stepmother and stepsister decide to kill her in the forest and send the disguised stepsister in Dornička’s place so that she can have the royal marriage instead. The king unknowingly marries the evil stepsister and remains fooled until a magician bewitches a golden spinning wheel and brings the forest-lorn remains of Dornička back to life. The king learns the truth of Dornička’s short-lived-murder from the now magically animated golden spinning wheel and runs to the forest to reunite with his love.
Words and Photos by Nan Pincus
As the Assistant Music Director of The Classical Station, an independent FM and digital radio network that broadcasts original playlists of classical music 24 hours a day, I get to make a lot of people listen to my favorite music. It’s a wonderful power because like Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel, a piece of classical music at the right time has reviving power, bringing a formerly sedate or disconnected listener back to life. Every day I talk to listeners on the phone who want to know “what was the cello sonata that you played two Thursdays ago? I keep dreaming about it” or say, “my grandmother is sick, but she hums along when you play Swan Lake.” Listeners of classical music transcend all categories, but they are all drawn to the emotional narratives of the music, the immense variety, and the connections of the music to history, literature, and art.
The Classical Station has fought to provide the service of a human-curated, ad-free, classical music radio station to the most people possible. The first transmission was on July 18, 1978 and was Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3, (“the Organ symphony”). Looking back over forty years later, it feels like a fitting first broadcast. Symphony No. 3 is a tremendous piece of music, with an intense articulation for piano, and the sonic grandeur of a pipe organ. It’s a gorgeous piece by a well-known composer, but it’s not a greatest hit. It speaks to music selection that comes from a mix of knowledge and wonder, an understanding of the history, but an overwhelming desire to be moved by an emotional response to the music, and to provide that same pleasure to others. I’ve been humbled to continue this legacy of music programming. I’m always wondering what would be unexpected but welcomed and which performance of a certain piece illuminates its narrative in a unique way.
The Classical Station originally broadcasted using vinyl only, playing off turntables that were secured to the sub-floor to prevent the vibrations from announcers and engineers walking in and out of the control room. Pre-recorded programs and PSAs were recorded on reel-to-reel tape. Back in the 1970s, the broadcast was transmitted using 12,500 watts of power, but that wasn’t enough for the visionaries at The Classical Station. First, we worked on earning permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to broadcast at 33,000 watts, but once that was achieved, we kept looking forward with the dream of becoming a 100,000 watts station, the maximum allowed by law for commercial radio stations, but at far beyond the maximum allowed to non-commercial radio stations.
The Classical Station made the case that our FM frequency’s placement in the non-commercial range and the fact that we were a non-profit educational radio station were not compelling reasons that we couldn’t broadcast at our full capacity providing the joy of classical music to more listeners across a broader geographic range. The FCC didn’t agree, ruling in 1989 that The Classical Station could not increase its signal strength. The Classical Station appealed the decision and the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in the favor of non-commercial radio. Finally, The Classical Station was able to able to increase our power and take off their antenna shield being used to limit our broadcast range, and through our legal victory, extend the same ability to non-commercial radio stations across the country.
Since the 1990s, WCPE has been broadcasting at 100,000 watts, using a broadband antenna atop a 1,200 feet tall radio tower, roughly the same height as the Empire State Building. One of my favorite things about working at The Classical Station has been its engineering history, but really for me, the technology doesn’t mean much without the music. Like many hi-fi enthusiasts, I am fascinated by the evolution of audio technology and the listening experience. Working in classical music radio has shown me that technology at its best is about reaching people, and that classical music has the power to bring people to tears, connecting listeners with their own emotions and experience. Although classical music is defined by history —when it was composed, how the instrument evolved and so on— I’ve learned that classical music is less about world history and more about personal history. Even when it’s not Dvořák, the music acts as the golden spinning wheel, revealing to us important truths that were previously disguised, and reviving a part of us that we thought might have been dead.
About the Author, Nan Pincus
Nan is a graduate of The University of North Carolina and Duke University. She writes about audio culture and analog technology of all kinds. She DJs FM radio, operates ham radio, and got her first job in high school to save up for a belt-drive turntable. She works in classical music and theatre, but she often puts down her work to drop the needle on Scriabin’s Preludes and dream in technicolor.