Auto Tune the Culture

09/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Eleven-thirty Saturday morning in Tiburon, California. The radios are on throughout the house. We're listening to a live broadcast from London of Beethoven's Fidelio, the 50th Proms concert of the season, with 26 left to go. The world's largest music festival -- thousands of performers, many world premieres, many of the world's great orchestras. Of all the glories the Internet has given us, for me, this is the one I would part with last.

Cultural hegemony is a two-way street. American culture, particularly through our dominance of news, television shows, and Hollywood film, tend to suffocate local culture. In many parts of the world our cultural intrusions are resented. But we can't help it. We hardly notice the local flora and fauna that disappears under our tread.

But if you are even somewhat concerned that you might live your life without hearing the music of this century's Mozart or Stravinsky (or even knowing their name), then you might want to take a moment to find and try listening to the live stream. What are the resources of BBC Radio3? Five orchestras, spread around the nation. A full-time chorus. A young artists program that nurtures dozens of major performers each year. Grants to dozens of composers. An annual budget of more than $60 million, not including the orchestras and chorus budgets which are buried elsewhere in the greater BBC music and audio $330 million budget.

Normally the U.K./PST time shift would get us all the wrong programs at the wrong time, but here in California we are experiencing some of the most fortuitous asynchronicities. One of the U.K.'s most popular program, Sean Rafferty's In Tune, runs during the evening drive time in the U.K. and breakfast time for us. For two hours every weekday great performers and musical figures from the world of classical (and much jazz and world music, too) who are coming to perform in the U.K. drop by the studio for a chat and often give a live performance, too. Many great Americans, too, from Renée Fleming to Kim Criswell are heard talking not just about what they're doing in Europe, but also about the U.S. musical scene as well. If I dared, I would take an hour to shave.

In the era we can call Before Internet, or B.I. when BBC Radio3 could only be heard on shortwave in San Francisco, what was the state of classical music on the radio here? Wretched. Like almost all of the U.S., classical radio was in the final throes of a terrible death. One barely surviving station, then as now, spent most of its time boasting that at some point this coming afternoon you're going to get a wonderful treat: a whole half hour of Classical Music uninterrupted! In the meantime let's hear another very loud jingle for Safeway. The worst, and most unforgivable aspect of the local station, though, is the programming. Late Baroque to mid-classical, consisting mostly of a movement of this work, a snippet of that. I finally figured out who they were programming for: dental patients. It was music to be drilled by. The distracting pain theory at work: listen to this mind-numbingly bland music and the pain from that molar won't seem so bad. Pachabel had found his final resting place in your root canal.

How about the sound quality of BBC over the Web? Are we listening on those tiny tinny speakers in our laptop? Not exactly. I have an external digital to analogue converter which feeds a little Landmark Electronics FM transmitter, creating our own mini-radio station that reaches several hundred yards. On eBay over the years I've bought a number of KLH Model 21 radios, one of the best-sounding radios ever made, and they're all over the house so we can listen wherever we are. If you're in the neighborhood, you too can tune in to Radio Sindell, 100.1 on your FM dial.

When we jump in the car we can tune to Radio Sindell, but by the time we've reached the end of the block, the BBC fades away, returning us to a different civilization. And it's drill baby, drill.