Humanity is Not an Algorithm: What We Lose with WNYC’s Cancellation of New Sounds

Late last week, the news broke that WNYC, New York City’s flagship NPR station, was cancelling all of music journalist John Schaefer’s programming, including “New Sounds” and “Soundcheck.” In the ongoing shift to become an all-news format, WNYC also announced its intent to discontinue the majority of its music programming by the end of this year. As the memo to the staff put it, “This is a continuation of the momentum that began when we replaced daytime music on WNYC-FM with news/talk format programs in 2002.”

On the airwaves since 1982, “New Sounds” bills itself as “New York Public Radio’s home for the musically curious,” telling us to “free your listening from the limits of genre and algorithm.” Avant garde giant Laurie Anderson was the show’s very first guest. Here was a space on the radio where tuning in could take you to Olafur Arnalds’ otherworldly field recordings of his native Iceland that he transformed into glistening electro-acoustic singles on the album Island Songs. It was a place for Pulitzer Prize winner and Bang On a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe’s Fire In My Mouth, a multimedia orchestral work that compiles archival information collected about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. Premiered by New York Philharmonic earlier this year, Fire in My Mouth is a musical exploration of this tragedy for full orchestra, women’s choir and unusual instrumentation that includes 100 pairs of scissors.

Jaap van Zweden conducts New York Philharmonic in world premiere of Julia Wolfe's Fire in My Mouth at David Geffen Hall

Jaap van Zweden conducts New York Philharmonic in world premiere of Julia Wolfe’s Fire in My Mouth at David Geffen Hall–Photo by Chris Lee

Through “New Sounds,” bold and idiosyncratic music was accessible to anyone with a car stereo or a $10 radio via “America’s most listened-to public radio station.”

The cancellation of John Schaefer’s programming for WNYC is a staggering loss for us all, but not a surprise. In a world where algorithms, click-throughs, and streaming plays reign supreme, who has time for genre-defying music not easily commodified when we have the corporate data overlords to come up with every sort of sub-sub metric to codify us all? Here’s the thing that all the metrics miss, though: humanity is not an algorithm.

From The National’s Bryce Dessner, the New Yorker’s Alex Ross, or composer Judd Greenstein, my multiplicitous music community is mourning. (Judd Greenstein is also co-artistic director for genre-fluid record label New Amsterdam, where I serve as the Director of Publicity.)

Unlike many in my community, I wasn’t lucky enough to grow up discovering music through “New Sounds.” I was deep in fly-over country, raised in the Arkansas Ozarks and Madison, Wisconsin in the 1980s and 90s—when you couldn’t stream the radio on the internet.

Yet, I was born into a musical family. My mom was a music and education double major in college. She played her senior bass recital nine months pregnant with me. I clumsily hammered out  “Chopsticks” on a harpsichord because my grandparents were early music scholars. Both Cyndi Lauper and Joni Mitchell were staples on the record player, and my father loved furious Bach organ fugues just as much as a delicate wooden flute solo or the progressive rock anthems of Chicago. In high school, Bjork took my heart, and in college, Nina Simone. The sounds I was most drawn to were the ones that didn’t easily fit in. Because of my sound-rich upbringing, I found my way to these soundscapes, both as a voracious listener and musician, and later, music journalist. These were sounds I eventually had the opportunity to bring to listeners in Arkansas on a local NPR station.

I’d moved back to my hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas after spending my late 20s in New York City, where I moonlighted as a music journalist and made rent by working low level office jobs in the book publishing world, but eventually decided barely scraping by wasn’t cutting it. In 2011, I landed what seemed like a career of a lifetime: music director and host of a daily classical music program called Of Note at the local NPR station. No strings attached. I had authority to program what I wanted. I could interview whomever I wanted. The parameters: a one hour show from 11 to noon following the nationally syndicated Performance Today, with special efforts to highlight the local classical community. I stretched the limit of the term “classical” by programming the early music sounds of Hildegard von Bingen alongside Voces8’s version of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” or a bit of Max Richter’s Vivaldi Recomposed.

I was sole host, sole producer, and the engineer when there was an in-studio performance with the likes of Simone Dinnerstein or perhaps a basset horn trio. I edited and promoted everything by myself, too. And then I ended up running the social media platforms for the entire station (not just my show). And then, the pivot-to-news trend hit me personally. The station manager was looking at Nielsen ratings and following public radio trends that stated mixed formatting (switching from news to music to talk) lost listeners, and that stations should move away from a mixed format into a news-talk one. I was told that Performance Today would be cancelled and Of Note would move to an evening slot—a time slot that saw listenership plummet—so as to offer news all day and music through the night.

Before I decided to abandon my program and leave the station entirely, I was asked if I would consider fulfilling development duties. If I didn’t see signs that my time as a daily host was running its course before, I surely did then.

If this trend sounds familiar, it’s because the pivot to news is the excuse WNYC is using to cancel programming that’s been on their airwaves for 37 years.

The current streaming culture we find ourselves in marks music and wide open spaces of exploration into nothing more than a commodity, and because of this, we’re increasingly driven away from music’s way of connecting us all, that deep resonating force that helps us experience and process the weird wonder that is life.

Young People's Chorus of NYC Conductor and Artistic Director Francisco J. Núñez with John Schaefer

Young People’s Chorus of NYC Conductor and Artistic Director Francisco J. Núñez with John Schaefer–Photo by Stephanie Berger

Sounds that defy genre and embrace hybridization don’t perform well when tags are the central players in curation. How does an algorithm find any sort of connection that would play Gorecki’s 2nd symphony alongside a jazz-infused Bill Frisell piece for string quartet commissioned by Brooklyn Rider and a harp concerto written by Jennifer Higdon for Yolanda Kondonasis? There’s no way an algorithm could link a set like that. A human has to make those connections, and also provide context through discussing details of the recording or interviewing the composer or performer, actively bringing the listener into a conversation. Streaming culture may provide endless hours of music upon music upon music, but only personally-curated radio shows like John Schaefer’s allow for conversations to happen.

An algorithm can’t give musicians and composers their big first break, either. When I talk to composers, so many of them attribute the support “New Sounds” gave them early in their careers as integral. These exchanges were signal boosts that gave them the confidence to continue bravely into experimental sound worlds.

If music is the deep resonating force that connects us all, I don’t want its complexity entirely absorbed by the automaton algorithm. This is a sad day for us all.