Musical voice of a generation is about to fall silent

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 14, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Sshhh: If you listen carefully, you can hear the last melodious lilt of a generation's popular music passing right before your ears.

It's the pop music that predated rock 'n' roll, that cradled America through the Depression and World War II and most of the Ike and Mamie years, and it's about to disappear entirely from Baltimore's radio airwaves.

So long, Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole.

It's been swell, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and Tony Bennett and Fred Astaire and Johnny Mathis.

Farewell, final echoes of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim and Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin and Lerner and Lowe and those other has-beens, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart.

For half a century, more or less, they've been bringing us their elegance, and their grace, on WITH radio (1230 AM), but not for much longer. Break out the old cassettes for your car stereos.

The station's been sold to a Washington company that intends to air programming for children ages 4 to 12.

Understand something: I am not against children, and I am also not against rock 'n' roll. But it's hard to imagine children, in this video age, plugging their ears to radio -- particularly when they're in school all day and asleep early at night.

And it's hard to tolerate the notion of both Baltimore radio bands, AM and FM, without a single station playing pop music that is not a form of rock 'n' roll.

(Yes, yes, I know there are a few gospel stations, and I know there's classical music here and there, and one or two places where you can still find jazz. They, too, struggle for their little niches on airwaves saturated with rock. But, coming soon: No chance to hear Sinatra or Nat Cole or Billie Holiday!)

"We're living in an awkward age," Alan Field, WITH's morning disc jockey, said yesterday in the glummest tones.

He's been a jock for more than three decades now, but landed in radio via a formal education in music composing and playing.

"This is the best music of the 20th century, and we can't just destroy it," he said. "What are we saying, that the music of Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter and Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin is just a fad? I can't believe that.

"When the people who grew up with this music die, I think it'll become public domain, like classical music is now. This stuff can't die out. But what do we do now? There's got to be a certain amount of people who grow up and discover rock 'n' roll has its limits, and they want something more. I mean, I can't get into music where the lead instrument is a drum."

Since the news broke, a few weeks back, that format changes were coming, WITH listeners have been flooding the station with protest letters. Their tone is plaintive. They feel like a generation that's been written off. Must rock 'n' roll be our universal pop musical language?

The question is: Does anyone care?

"I've gotten about 200 letters in the last three weeks," Jim Ward, WITH general manager, said yesterday. "They say, 'You're the last station to play real music.' But there's a sense that no one hears these people."

Ironically, in the most recent Arbitron ratings, released yesterday, WITH increased its market share from 1.8 to 3.0 -- giving it the 12th biggest share in town and the second biggest AM rating.

But the bulk of its listeners are members of the Geritol set -- and advertisers seem to think they've got no money.

"That one," says Alan Field, "I have never understood. I don't think the advertising agencies have grasped that people 50 and over are the ones with spending money. The young listeners are buying diapers and jeans, but the older ones are buying Mercedes."

Advertising, however, is a slightly foreign field. For Field, and for his listeners, it's the music that rouses real passion.

"A lot of people think of this as nostalgia music," he said, "but that's not the point. It happens to be good music, and we can't just let good music die."

Sshhh: If you listen closely, you can almost hear the sound of taps behind him. On Baltimore radio, it's being played for a whole generation's musical taste.

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