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WNYC Is Dropping ‘New Sounds’ After 37 Years. Musicians Are Mourning.


For your expanding “New York isn’t as cool as it used to be” file: WNYC-FM told its staff this week that it would end “New Sounds,” a genre-defying radio program that has played an outsize role in the city’s new music scene for nearly four decades.

“Why would they do that?” Laurie Anderson, the avant-garde composer and musician who was the first artist interviewed on the show when it began back in 1982, said by telephone.

The station said in an email sent to its staff on Thursday that it planned to close the program by the end of the year, along with most of its remaining music programming, as it shifts to more news and talk.

“This is a continuation of the momentum that began when we replaced daytime music on WNYC-FM with news/talk format programs in 2002,” the station said in the email to its staff.

“New Sounds,” which has been hosted since its beginning by John Schaefer, eked out a distinctive place on the dial with programming that was truly eclectic.

It was one of the first, if not the very first, radio program to play Philip Glass’s 1984 opera “Akhnaten,” which is coming to the Metropolitan Opera this season. It featured the Bang on a Can collective in its early days. (“They were barbarians at the gate, and now two are Pulitzer Prize winners,” Mr. Schaefer said in a telephone interview.) It drew Brian Eno and the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to its studio, and on any given night might feature Balinese gamelan music, country, avant-garde jazz or all of the above.

“What I set out to do was to give a home on the radio to music that was, I guess, homeless — that didn’t fit into any of the neatly defined categories back in the days of the record store,” Mr. Schaefer said. “I thought there were lots of people out there like me, who are just curious — and would like something if you just gave them the chance to hear it.”

The show’s disappearance comes as radio is changing dramatically, both nationally — where stations that play classical music and noncommercial genres are being eliminated in many markets — and locally, where public radio stations have been going through significant upheaval.

WNYC has become a powerhouse in recent decades, but in recent years it has been buffeted by the dismissal of some of its biggest stars, the long-serving hosts Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz, amid unspecified allegations of inappropriate behavior, which they have denied. This summer New York Public Radio, WNYC’s parent organization, announced a new leader: Goli Sheikholeslami, who previously led Chicago Public Media, took over from Laura R. Walker, who had led the organization for nearly 24 years.

The station said in its email to staff that it would “sunset the New Sounds brand (the radio program and digital stream)” as well as Soundcheck, another of Mr. Schaefer’s shows, which mixed live performances, artist interviews and talk, and which was moved online in 2014. It said that it would also end its Gig Alerts, its weekly music previews, and its Sunday afternoon show devoted to American standards by the end of the year. Its last remaining program featuring what it calls “playlist music” will be The Saturday Show, the American-songbook successor to Mr. Schwartz’s program, which plays on Saturday nights.

When “New Sounds” started, radio was still one of the few ways to hear new and offbeat music — a monopoly it has lost in recent years to the internet, and to streaming services. The station did not disclose its ratings, but said that other factors also played a role in the decision to end the program.

“The decision to sunset New Sounds wasn’t fueled solely by ratings,” Jennifer Houlihan Roussel, a spokeswoman for New York Public Radio, said in an email. “The WNYC audience is overwhelmingly a news/talk audience, and we are consolidating music to Saturday nights to better serve that listenership.”

Still, some artists were aghast. Julia Wolfe, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, said that a “New Sounds” program about the early days of Bang on a Can, which she helped found, helped them find new listeners at a key moment.

“It was huge, because we were just kids, and we did this crazy thing, and there it was, on the radio,” she recalled in an interview.

“It’s like razing the house you live in — it’s a terrible thing,” she said of the decision. “John’s been the travel guide, and he’s taken us on all these incredible journeys.”

The station said it would work with Mr. Schaefer, who also presents live concert series around the city, to find “a new home for the New Sounds brand,” but it was not clear would that would look like. WQXR, New York Public Radio’s music station, remains committed to classical music, the station said in its email.

On Friday, Mr. Schaefer asked Ms. Anderson, his first guest, if she would also be his last. She agreed.

“I’m a little bit worried about the whole New York arts scene,” Ms. Anderson said. “I remember when John started, his studio was down on Chambers Street, and a lot of artists and musicians lived around there. Now very few do. It’s a lot of empty condos.”

But she was not ready to give up yet. “How about a ‘less news, more music’ campaign?” she wrote in a follow-up email a few minutes after hanging up. “I’d be happy to spearhead it.”


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