Thursday, July 2, 2009

Happy birthday, Bach: A broadcaster’s finest war story

Presented to the Club by Brad Spear on May 11, 2009

The Roman poet Horace once wrote that poetry should be dulce et utile…”sweet and useful.” My first Monday Evening Club paper…the one dealing with my stroke just over three years ago…was meant to be useful. Tonight’s paper will be sweet…mit Schlag…”with whipped cream”…as the Austrians are inclined to say.

No tough issues tonight, no wrestling with the future of the economy or the give- and-take of politics. Tonight is meant to be an entertainment…a diversion…a divertissement…nothing more.

Gentlemen, for your consideration: Happy Birthday, Bach: A broadcaster’s finest "war story.”

Ah, yes, “war story.” Where did that term ever come from? My mostly male sixth-grade classmates and I were able to avoid the rigors of long division by asking Sergeant Jack Bannon (that’s “Mr. Bannon” to you, young man) to tell us war stories about having spent time in a Nazi POW camp after D-Day.

Nope, this is a different kind of war story…though it’s tangentially involved in the Cold War. And like any profession’s war stories, the best ones are clear illustrations of good fortune….of having been in the right place at the right time, and this tale is no exception.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st 1685 in Eisenach, Germany…a time when Germany was a loosely affiliated collection of electorates or principalities, a vestige of the Holy Roman Empire. Bach was born approximately 50 years after the founding of Harvard College, to put it into an American context.

He died on July 28th 1750, and when he passed away, he was considered by his peers to be a pretty good keyboard player…a passable ensemble player…and, certainly, a prolific father. After all, he squired no fewer than 20 children…though only 10 lived to adulthood.

But a composer? No. His friend and competitor Georg Philippe Telemann, the godfather of his son Carl Philippe Emmanuel Bach…now there was a composer. But Johann Sebastian Bach? No. The poor guy lost out on most of the court composer positions that he applied for.

Ironic, isn’t it? The fella who today is considered to be one of the pillars of classical music…along with the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms…was considered to be a so-so composer in his own day. Ask the average person if he recognizes the name of Telemann, the greatest composer of Bach’s day…and the response will be “Tele-who?”

It wasn’t until over 75 years after Bach passed away that a group of scholars and enthusiasts approached a 20-year-old name Felix Mendelssohn, and encouraged him to conduct an edited version of Bach’s oratorio, the St. Matthew Passion, that the world finally began to appreciate the huge body of work that Bach had compiled in his 65-year lifetime.

An aside: 2009 is the bicentennial of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn, the scion of a wealthy Jewish German banking family, whose parents, for whatever reason, had elected to convert to Christianity before his birth. He was raised a Lutheran. Before he was ten, his grandmother, for a Christmas present, had given him one of three original manuscript copies of the score to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Today, a handwritten score from almost 100 years ago would be a priceless treasure destined for a rare manuscripts department of a university library. But in 1818, it was simply a Christmas present.

Mendelssohn noodled with the music for some ten years, finally creating a much condensed version of the work. And by the time he was 20, he’d already spent seven years studying with the most famous composition professor in Germany… he’d toured Europe, spending weeks and sometimes months in each of the Continent’s cultural capitals….and he had been appointed the music director of the Berlin Singspiel, a chorus and orchestra of some renown.

For some months, while rehearsing other works for performance, Mendelssohn had put the chorus and orchestra through its paces with his own condensed version of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion…purely as an academic exercise. Word of the rehearsals reached a group of Bach enthusiasts, who, in turn, encouraged Mendelssohn to present his edition of the work to the public.

Mendelssohn, a modest man of profound intellect, and someone, who at the age of 20 had a stellar reputation throughout Europe, obliged. On March 11th 1829, he presented the work in Berlin…and it was no less than a huge hit. Who was this fellow Bach?

The rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward now to Boston, Massachusetts in the year 1983…some 298 years after the birth of Bach.

In late 1980, I’d been hired as the new radio manager for the WGBH Educational Foundation…the operator of Channel 2 in Boston…and 89.7 FM, WGBH Radio in Boston. I was 30 at the time…which was hardly unusual. My predecessor had been 34 when he’d left…and his predecessor had been 32 when he’d started as the WGBH Radio manager.

It was a plum assignment…but it was an institution that was in serious financial trouble. In the previous year, my predecessor had run up a $750,000 deficit on a $1.25 million dollar budget…and by the time I’d arrived…some five months into the organization’s fiscal year…we were headed toward additional deficits.

In my first months there I slashed, burned, and set the place a-right. Whatever my predecessor had put into place had to be dismantled…as the core business, serving as a public radio station in service to Boston and environs, had to be re-invigorated.

By the time 1983 rolled around, the team I’d installed had reinvigorated the core business admirably. Costs were down; revenues were up; and the fundamentals of running a radio station, which had been neglected for some years, were being respected.

Over the years WGBH through its television operations had developed a reputation for innovation. But the radio station had dabbled with new technology and new programming approaches, too…particularly with the creation of a program in the early 1970s called Morning Pro Musica…with a curious character as its host by the name of Robert J. Lurtsema. You may remember him…as his daily, seven day-a-week program was carried locally by stations throughout New England…including WAMC.

As the manager of WGBH, I’d wander around the station from time to time…what is it called? “management by wandering around?” My office was on the second floor, and the radio broadcast facilities and the staff offices were on the first.

In late 1983 (or maybe early 1984) I wandered through the air studio while Lurtsema was presenting his daily program. Much to my surprise, in a chair next to Robert J, sat a bearded fellow of approximately the same age. Lurtsema piped up in his basso best:

“Brad, this is Kurt Masur. He’s got a program idea that might be of interest to you.”

Kurt Masur? The East German conductor and music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra? Yes, I’d heard of him…but had never met him before. The previous spring I’d attended a meeting of the “serious music experts” committee of the European Broadcasting Union in Geneva and had heard a couple of Scandinavian broadcasters joke about how Masur was more of a politician than a musician.

Regardless, Masur had come to Boston several times in recent years as a guest conductor for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He’d had a personal reason for wanting to do so…his Japanese wife had a sister who lived in Carlisle, Massachusetts…a western suburb of Boston adjacent to Concord.

“Yes,” said Masur in a thick German accent,” in March of 1985 we will be presenting a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in celebration of the composer’s 300th birthday.”

During a brief discussion, he offered to arrange with East German Radio…Rundfunk der DDR…a live relay to America. Masur certainly had the political clout to make it happen…after all, the Scandinavians had said so. He advised me to contact a man by the name of Horst Fliegel….who was the head of classical music programming for East German Radio.

Keep in mind that these were the days before e-mail…before faxes…and it was during the day when countries of the Eastern Bloc of Europe were said to be

“behind the Iron Curtain.” I’d spent the previous autumn visiting the capitals of two Eastern Bloc countries…Czechoslovakia and Hungary…hoping to develop program exchange relationships with their state broadcasters. In essence, I was trying to develop an import-export business at WGBH…and both my counterparts at Radio Praha (Prague) and Magyar Radio (Budapest) were eager to participate. On my return to the West, I’d passed through East Berlin, but I’d elected not to approach Rundfunk der DDR. Too close to the Soviets, I’d thought.

To contact Herr Horst Fliegel, I had to use a Telex…a text machine in Boston, connected to another text machine at a telephone number in East Berlin. I crafted a message in simple, straight-forward English and shipped it off.

Several days later, I received a reply in German which basically said, “Sounds interesting. Come to Berlin and we can discuss it.”

Come to East Berlin? Hmm. That would take some work. First I’d need a visa…and then I’d need a plan.

In those days I used to travel to Washington, DC with some regularity. I had business with National Public Radio in DC, and flew down every other month or so. I used my next trip to visit the East German embassy in search of a business visa.

With my telexed invitation in hand, I took a taxi to the East German embassy well into the northwest section of DC. It was a large white structure in the midst of a large wooded lot. After being dropped off by the cab, I entered the front door and followed the signs to the reception room. In a stark white room, half of which was filled with hard plastic chairs, an attendant, behind three-inch-thick bullet-proof Plexiglas, sat behind a counter. I spoke through an opening in the Plexiglas.

“I’m here to apply for a business visa to see Horst Fliegel at Rundfunk der DDR.” I tucked Fliegel’s telexed message through the hole in the Plexiglas.

The attendant reviewed the telex, and told me to have a seat.

An hour later, I had a business visa in hand. I was on my way to East Berlin.

Fast forward three months. I was in West Berlin in a hotel room along the Kurfuertstendamm, West Berlin’s Fifth Avenue. In those days, West Berlin, buried deep within East Germany, was a showcase of materialism…all things glittery and bright…a capitalist irritant beneath the communist skin of East Germany. The wall was over 20 years old…and it was a great cultural callus…at a point where two cultures…the materialism of the capitalist West and the deprivation of the communist East…had rubbed each other incessantly.

With my business visa in hand, I took a cab from the hotel to a famous crossing in the wall, “Checkpoint Charlie.” Leaving what was the American Zone in West Berlin was simple; entering East Berlin was somewhat more complicated. I had to produce papers and have my briefcase searched. But after several inspections by members of the Vopos, the People’s Police, I was waved in.

It was a gray day, and the streetscape before me was grim. The buildings within 100 feet of the east side of the wall had been torn down, and the grounds where they’d stood were covered in rubble. I walked two blocks through what looked like utter devastation to the eastern side’s main boulevard, Unten den Linden…which before World War II had been a famous thoroughfare. I was in search of a cab.

I ended up walking to a nearby hotel and asked the concierge in my halting German for a taxi. The man behind the counter waved me toward a taxi stand outside and said to wait. I waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, a wheezy, beat-up old Wartburg…a decrepit example of East Germany’s auto industry…came along with the roof light atop lit. I climbed in an asked for a ride to Rundfunk der DDR, “Nalepastrasse 18-24, bitte.”

Once there, I walked along polished corridors, up several flights of stairs, into a conference room, before a long table. Five executives were seated on one side, five on another, and at the far end was a smiling, handsome senior executive, who, in halting English, asked me to be seated opposite him at the other end of the table. He introduced himself as “Horst Fliegel.”

After introductions, with the aid of a staff translator, a plan was hatched.

It short, it would utilize television circuitry, of all things, to ship a signal from Leipzig…”behind the Iron Curtain”…back to Boston, where it would be sent via domestic satellite to as many public radio stations nationwide as cared to carry it live.

Why television circuitry? Wasn’t this to be a radio broadcast?

That’s a bit a story unto itself. By the time the early 1980s had rolled around, in the USA, it was almost impossible to get FM-quality audio signals from point to point. In Europe, audio circuits were maintained proudly by national post office systems. But here in the United States, the task had fallen to Ma Bell, an entity that saw more prospective revenue in maintaining long-line video circuits than in the relatively paltry demand for high-fidelity audio connections. America’s three commercial television networks needed to send signals all around the country at all hours of the day. There was no equivalent demand for radio.

To compensate, National Public Radio in the late 1970s designed and constructed a domestic satellite system with eight regional uplinks (one of which was located at WGBH in Boston) and a rapidly growing system of downlinks (every NPR member station did then, and to this day still does, have one). As of 1978, when NPR abandoned its 5 kHz bandwidth AM-quality audio long-lines and switched to 15 kHz FM-quality satellite distribution, a local public radio station airing All Things Considered no longer sounded like the program was being sent from Washington by way of a string and tin-can. Instead, the program’s co-hosts sounded like they were in the studios of the local station.

But when it came to country-to-country connections, radio was still at a loss. Yes, with special regulatory permission, an NPR satellite signal could be received and re-broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s own domestic satellite distribution system, as its primary downlink in Toronto was within the NPR satellite system’s “footprint.”

But sending signals from Europe to America or from America to Japan…or vice versa….required the construction of temporary…and very expensive…high-fidelity circuits by both AT&T and Intelsat, the international agency responsible for operating transatlantic and transpacific satellites since the days of Telstar.

The television situation, however, was quite different. Thanks to regular use, there were television circuits that circled the globe. The state broadcasters of Canada, the UK, Japan, and Europe, and the commercial broadcast networks in the United States used them often enough to ensure that these circuits were always available and that they were well maintained both by AT&T and Intelsat.

Enter the Japanese technology giant Sony.

In the early 1980s Sony was a key player in the field of digital audio. Even though digital audio had a brittle, less rounded sound than that of analog audio, it had the advantage of the absence of the background hiss that was a singular shortcoming of analog audio. A digital audio “encoder” created a computerized code which could be laid onto an audiotape and which later could be read by a digital audio “decoder.” What went onto the tape was what was read by the decoder…nothing more and nothing less. An analog recording, on the other hand, contained background hiss, which grew more prominent as the tape was copied, and then copied again, or in the case of long-range transmission, at each leg of a relay as it was received and re-amplified for re-transmission.

Because Sony was hoping to sell thousands of its new $1,500 digital audio encode/decode unit, given the moniker of “the PCM F-1,” Sony rather wisely chose to avoid manufacturing a considerably more expensive digital recording device. Instead, they designed their first digital unit to produce a video bandwidth signal, which, in turn, could be recorded onto video cassettes in then-ubiquitous video cassette recorders (VCRs). Ergo, with a Sony PCM F-1, any recording studio with a $250 VCR could begin making single track digital audio recordings.

Interestingly enough, because the output of the F-1 was a video bandwidth signal, you could actually see the digitally encoded signal by connecting it to a television screen. The resulting image was that of “square snow,” which would dance about the screen as the audio recording changed volume and pitch.

At WGBH, even though we had experimented with the F-1 for recording purposes, we also used it in a novel application to solve a problem that had bedeviled us for over ten years.

Since the early 1970s, WGBH had produced and broadcast the Friday evening, Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon live performances from Tanglewood. We sent the full-fidelity stereo signal back to Boston by modulating the two 15 kHz subcarrier audio frequencies contained within the signal of a two-way, terrestrial, line-of-sight TV microwave system. It had been built in the early 1960s to ship television signals up and down the Eastern Seaboard. However, between Mt. Tom (which overlooks the Connecticut River) and Boston, one leg of the two-way microwave system traversed the Quabbin Reservoir.

During the summer months, water vapor would rise from the reservoir and would degrade the microwave signal. In WGBH-TV’s master control, the main channel television signal from the terrestrial system, which by the early 1980s simply served as a back-up link connecting WNET in New York City to WGBH in Boston, looked fine. But in reality, the vapors degraded the signal to such a degree that it would interfere with the subcarrier audio from Tanglewood.

On more than one occasion during my first summer at WGBH in 1981, soft passages during live performances from the Koussevitzky Music Shed would be overwhelmed and completely obliterated by a rising tide of hiss.

By 1982, the solution was obvious. Use the microwave system’s rarely used main channel television signal to carry the video bandwidth output of a Sony PCM
F-1. When decoded back in Boston, the signal would be as pristine as when it was encoded. No hiss. No degradation. Problem solved.

In the years between 1983 and the Bach broadcast in 1985, WGBH successfully used the Sony technology internationally to ship live transmissions to Boston from the Musikvereinshall in Vienna for the annual New Year’s Day broadcast by the Vienna Philharmonic and to provide live coverage of performances by the Boston Symphony and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestras at the late-summer Salzburg Music Festival. We even collaborated with an American technological competitor to Sony, the late, lamented dbx Corporation, using its rival “delta” digital encoding system to produce broadcasting’s first single-point-to-multi-point digital broadcast, a live radio performance by L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande from Kresge Auditorium at MIT, sent via the PBS television satellite system to radio stations attached to WQED-TV, Pittsburgh, WXXI-TV, Rochester (NY), WETA-TV, Washington (DC), and KQED-TV, San Francisco.

Fast forward to March 21st 1985. To cover the cost of the video circuits from Leipzig to Boston…the princely sum of $15,000…I’d negotiated a cost-sharing arrangement with several parties. BBC Radio 3 in Britain put $5,000 in the kitty…they’d be able to receive the first leg of the international relay, as they were in the Intelsat “footprint” that covered both London and AT&T’s international downlink in West Virginia. American Public Radio in St. Paul, Minnesota (now known as “Public Radio International”) was willing to put another $5,000 in the pot…and make the broadcast the crown jewel of a day’s worth of programming dedicated to Bach and distributed nationwide. Lastly, I approached the head of classical programming for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Oops: roadblock.

CBC would be interested in carrying the broadcast on their coast-to-coast classical network, but they had no money to dedicate to the connection costs.

I went back to American Public Radio. “Hmmm,” they said. “We could come up with another $5,000, but only if the broadcast carried an underwriting credit for Northern Telecom, the Canadian communications equipment manufacturer…and only if CBC committed to carrying the underwriting credit, too.”

I swallowed hard and called CBC. They had never carried an American-style public radio underwriting credit before. They were totally non-commercial in those days, and as they were supported directly by tax revenues, they had rather rigorous prohibitions against commercial language. But, so long as they were able to carry the broadcast at no cost…they’d be willing to forego their restrictions and would broadcast the Northern Telecom underwriting credit.


We had our connection costs covered…the only significant out-of-pocket cost the broadcast would require. Yes, we were to send our 24-year-old assistant operations director Anita McFadden to Leipzig with a Sony PCM F-1 encoder tucked beneath her arm…but we had a trade-out relationship with Lufthansa, and we could get her from Boston to Frankfurt and then on to Leipzig without a cash outlay.

On the day before the broadcast, McFadden was at the Leipzig Gewandhaus with our digital encoder; we had scheduled a test of the transmission circuits. The television signal…dancing square snow and all…would travel from Leipzig across the border to Intelsat’s European uplink at Raistang in West Germany. BBC Radio 3, as I mentioned earlier, would take down the Intelsat signal in London for their purposes, and AT&T would receive the signal in West Virginia. They would then place the signal on their video long-lines, first to a relay station in Pittsburgh, then to a station in New York City, and then to the main New England Telephone technical offices on Franklin Street in Boston. Finally, it would travel on a specially ordered local video circuit the final three miles from Franklin Street in downtown Boston to the WGBH radio studios at 125 Western Avenue in Allston. The video signal would then be plugged into the PCM F-1 decoder in one of the WGBH Radio studios, would be converted to analog audio, and then would be transmitted via WGBH’s satellite uplink over the NPR satellite system to the CBC in Toronto and the 180 public radio stations across America electing to carry the live broadcast.

Exactly twenty-four hours before the broadcast, the test commenced. In a matter of moments, we had a clear, crisp audio signal in Boston coming all the way from behind East Germany. The sound decoded at WGBH exactly matched the sound encoded in Leipzig. The technology was going to work quite handily.

Thursday, March 21st, 1985, Bach’s 300th birthday was the second day of spring that year, and it was the new season’s second balmy, glorious day. Somehow spring had arrived early in New England, but no one on the staff at WGBH had a moment to notice.

The Leipzig broadcast was to be the “crown jewel” of a day of live performances of music by Bach, which the station’s program director and promotion department had dubbed “Bach around the Clock.” Robert J. Lurtsema and his staff had left for New Haven, Connecticut the afternoon before. Morning pro musica from 7 am to noon that morning would originate from Batell Chapel at Yale University and would feature around a live performance by Yale’s organist Charles Krigbaum of 33 newly discovered Bach organ preludes.

The afternoon program, MusicAmerica, at least until the Leipzig broadcast at 2 pm, would consist of an in-studio performance by the Boston-based a capella ensemble, the Wintersauce Chorale. They were to sing a series of Bach-based pieces made famous in the early 1960s by the Swingle Singers. After NPR’s All Things Considered at 5, which most certainly would include a feature story on Bach’s 300th birthday, Boston listeners would hear a rare, live edition of Chamberworks at 6:30 pm, with Boston-based musicians playing an all-Bach program. And the day would end with Eric Jackson, the host of Eric in the Evening, presenting a survey from 8 pm to midnight on how elements of Bach’s approach to music still pop up today in contemporary jazz performances.

The day, as a whole, went swimmingly well, so much so, in fact, that it earned the station a special George Foster Peabody Award that year, recognizing WGBH Radio’s industry leadership in innovative programming and the use of new technology. Yes, all went swimmingly…except for the Leipzig broadcast.

I arrived in the radio control room that would be used to decode the digital signal and to control WGBH’s satellite uplink at 1:30 pm, a half hour before the broadcast. The room was being staffed by our youngest radio engineer, a cocky, red-headed 23-year-old named Ray Fallon. Ray was a member of the family who operated Boston’s major ambulance service, but he had decided somewhere along the line to forego going into the family business, and had decided instead to pursue a career in broadcast engineering. He’d only been with WGBH for a little more than a year, and in recent months he had been responsible for operating WGBH’s satellite unlink, the last stage of getting the live Leipzig broadcast to 180 public radio stations nationwide and to all of the Canadian FM stations in the CBC’s coast-to-coast network. Ray had a quick smile, an even quicker temper, but would prove to be one cool customer under pressure. Only problem: I found him in a cold sweat.

“We don’t have a signal,” said Ray.

Tick-tick-tick-tick. Twenty-nine minutes to airtime.

No signal? What on earth were we going to do? We called Anita McFadden at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Yes, they were sending a signal. Maybe we should check the Intelsat uplink at Raisting in West Germany.
Tick-tick-tick-tick. Twenty-three minutes to airtime.

Raisting said it had a signal. We elected to check with BBC Radio 3 in London.
Tick-tick-tick-tick. Eighteen minutes to airtime.

Yes, the BBC had a signal; it was coming directly off the transatlantic satellite. At least the Brits would be hearing the broadcast.

Tick-tick-tick-tick. Ten minutes to airtime.

AT&T’s international downlink in West Virginia had a signal.

Tick-tick-tick-tick. Seven minutes to airtime.

The relay station in Pittsburgh had a signal. Better try New York.

Tick-tick-tick-tick. Five minutes to airtime.

Yes, New York had a signal and they were sending it to Franklin Street in Boston.
Tick-tick-tick-tick. Three minutes to airtime.

Oh, yeah. We’ve got a signal here on Franklin Street. But we don’t have any way of getting it to you.

What about the local circuit we used yesterday in the test?

That was just a test? Sorry, pal, that circuit has been reallocated.

Ray and I just looked at each other.

At that very moment, in walked WGBH Radio’s senior engineer Bill Busiek, the WGBH employee of longest standing, who had served as the audio engineer for the live Boston Symphony Orchestra broadcasts since 1951.

“There’s a standing circuit between Franklin Street and TV master control,” said Bill. “Tell them to patch into it.”

Ray barked the order over the phone, and the New England Telephone technician complied.
Tick-tick-tick-tick. One minute to airtime…but now we had to get the signal from WGBH-TV’s Master Control to the radio control room…some 75 feet down WGBH’s first floor hallway.

Two TV engineers quickly raided the equipment locker, and came up with a 100 foot length of coaxial cable. They hurriedly patched it into TV Master Control and unspooled the cable down the hall to the radio studio.

Tick-tick-tick-tick. Ten seconds to airtime.

Ray Fallon plugged the end of the coaxial cable into the Sony PCM F-1 decoder. We had a signal.

The satellite uplink fired up, the decoder did its job, and the broadcast began. Ray Fallon, Bill Busiek, and I breathed our first deep breath in many, many minutes. We’d done it.

Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Chorus and Orchestra belted out Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for the next three hours. It was a magnificent tribute to a musician whose music had only begun to be appreciated seventy-five years after he’d died.

For the remainder of the broadcast, I sat in my office listening to the work as if I were hearing it for the very first time.

The performance was so moving that at its end, seven minutes before 5 pm EST, the audience rose as one to its feet and let out a shout. Then came a cascade of applause, a veritable Niagara that continued and continued and continued. It was clear our East German broadcast colleagues weren’t going to cut short the adulation of the audience. By 4:59 pm, we had had hastily ordered up another quarter hour of domestic satellite time. The 5:00 pm start time for All Things Considered had passed, and the audience was still applauding. Not until 5:05 pm EST did the applause lessen; only then did the Rundfunk der DDR announcer begin his multi-language program close. By 5:07 the broadcast had ended, and stations across America, after complying with FCC regulations by identifying themselves, joined All Things Considered “already in progress.”

By 5:10 pm my office phone rang. It was no less than one of my most powerful peers, the founder and president of Minnesota Public Radio, Bill Kling (who in those days also served as the president of American Public Radio). He proceeded to read me the proverbial riot act.

“Why on earth did you run over into the start of All Things Considered?” screamed Kling. “Couldn’t you have just cut off the broadcast and close it out from your studios?”

I slumped in my chair. I had no good answer.

About ten days later the April 8, 1985 edition of The New Yorker arrived at my house in the mail. As is my usual habit, I turned first to “The Talk of the Town.” A huge grin crossed my face. The opening item, titled “Notes and Comment” in those days, read:

“Last Thursday afternoon, I listened on my local public-radio to Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” in a satellite-relay live digital broadcast from the Neue Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig, the city where Bach is buried…It was pretty moving. At the conclusion, good old J.S.B. received a ten-minute ovation: It went on and on and on and on. For some reason, I didn’t turn off the radio or change stations. I kept listening to the fuzzy, sustained clapping, which sounded a lot like static, and which mesmerized me the way the minimalist music of today is supposed to. It was quite gratifying to listen to this applause…I think Bach would have been (or maybe even was) pleased by the outpouring of love and appreciation that was heard around the world and across all borders that day.”

Happy birthday, Bach, I thought to myself. Happy birthday.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


  1. I was in the architecture studio where I was studying... we listened to 10 minutes of applause via CBC Radio... not one person said 'shut that noise off'... in fact, most of us would not have been able to speak.

  2. Brad,

    Thank you for including me in your story and also trusting me as the transmission engineer for that broadcast. I was 24 years old at the time and that was one of the most terrifying 30 minutes of my broadcast career. It definitely was a team effort that pulled us through to a successful broadcast.

    - Ray Fallon