ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — TO a landlocked, sun-starved Northerner, Florida's Suncoast has long held an irresistible appeal. All those dazzling white beaches! All those clear blue skies! To a music lover, the area has traditionally offered another attraction: two classical radio stations. Even before leaving the parking lot at Tampa's airport, a visitor could preset buttons on a rental-car radio and enjoy the strains of Mozart, Vivaldi, and Chopin during the 25-mile drive to a vacation retreat.
And so it was during a visit two weeks ago. For the first few days I flipped happily, as always, between WUSF-FM, the public radio station of the University of South Florida, and WXCR-FM, a commercial station. But on Thursday morning, when I tuned in to WXCR, instead of Rachmaninoff, there was rock. And instead of a genteel, soft-spoken host identifying the station as ``Tampa Bay's voice of the arts,'' there was a fast-talking announcer promoting ``Your new home for the greatest oldies - Oldies 92.5!''
I listened in disbelief. I fiddled with the dial, but to no avail. There were no concertos or sonatas or symphonies to be found - only confidently off-key singers twanging away in fractured English about lost loves (``Another Saturday night and I ain't got nobody''), empty pockets (``You know I ain't got no money, honey''), and square parents (``Your mama don't dance and your daddy don't rock 'n' roll'').
Desperate for information, I called the station, which now even had a new phone number - not a good sign.
``We had a very loyal audience,'' a young woman explained, ``but we just didn't have the advertising support we needed. Unfortunately, the bills had to be paid.'' Then she added sadly, ``We didn't even know about this until yesterday afternoon.''
For those of us who believe that a day without Mozart is like a day without sunshine, the demise of a classical music station produces the same sense of loss one feels when a local newspaper folds or a good friend moves away. Yet in a world where money talks louder all the time, it is a sad fact that classical music only whispers. Station owners with dollar signs in their eyes have grumbled publicly about ``market share'' and ``small profit margins'' when they characterize classical music as a ``minority format'' incapable of generating ``attractive bottom lines.''
Just a week before the change at WXCR, residents of Los Angeles experienced a similar loss when the city's 58-year-old classical music station, KFAC, was converted to a rock-and-roll station by its new owners, who shelled out a cool $55 million for the privilege.
Elsewhere, classical stations such as New York's WNCN are trying to hype their musical wares - and up their market shares - by using morning drive-time teams, classical ``hit'' lists, even comedy skits. As if Beethoven and Haydn and Schubert needed sidekicks!
Even if there were not more pressing problems on everybody's social agenda, why should it matter if classical music stations become an endangered species - the panda bears of the airwaves? The music itself is not at risk. Technology has placed cassette tapes in the dashboards of commuters. Compact discs await them at home. One becomes one's own disk jockey.
But there is a loneliness to the universe trapped between headphones, as if each music lover were listening in an isolation booth. A subtle bonding takes place among listeners to a classical music station, and between them and their disk jockeys - more elegantly known as musical hosts. When a station plays one of your favorites, or another listener requests it, you feel the special exultation of a gift - a sharing among members of a family.
The arts began as festivals. Without communal centers - theaters, museums, concert halls, and yes, the invisible concert hall of a radio station - the arts lose their nurturing roots.
As a citizen of the community of music, I have resolved to give more attention, more support to the three classical music stations that still survive in Boston. Let most of the airwaves be taken over by the Rolling Stones - but not all of them. A small band of us must fight for a small band of megacycles - a daily gathering place - where we ain't gonna rock, man, and we certainly ain't gonna roll.