T tunes out live music

By Derek Hawkins

Seated on a milk crate on the outbound platform in South Station, Kesnel Personnel, a street performer from Randolph, fingerpicked Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major” on his acoustic guitar.

He smiled as Nathaniel Waller of Melrose dropped a handful of change into his open guitar case and watched, along with several other commuters.

“I love hearing the live music in the subways,” Waller said above the volume of the classical guitar. He then motioned to a loudspeaker in the ceiling above him, which played Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away” at an ambient volume. “But this-this is discouraging to the musicians. They shouldn’t be spending money on this.”

Waller was referring to T-Radio, a new pilot radio program the MBTA launched last week. Designed by Pyramid Radio, Inc., T-Radio will broadcast news, entertainment, safety announcements, commercials and pop music through intercoms in South Station, North Station and Airport Station until the end of its trial period.

Daniel Grabauskas, general manager of the MBTA, lauded the program as a “great opportunity to provide the customer with up-to-date information in an engaging and entertaining format,” in a press release last Wednesday.

But in the week since T-Radio’s inception, public reaction -in local media and on the streets – has been negative.

Among the first and most vocal opponents of the program were the musicians and artists who perform in the subways, often referred to as “buskers.”

“If this program succeeds it will basically spell the end of my ability to perform in the subways,” busker Tim Riordan posted last week on the blog for Neighbors For Neighbors, a community organizing group based in Jamaica Plain. “I can’t imagine much of anything worse. Please contact the MBTA immediately and tell them you hate the idea of T-Radio.”

Philip Beach, who played an amplified harmonica in the Park Street Station on a recent weekday, echoed Riordan’s concerns.

“We weren’t even told of this,” said Beach, who said his wife, Nikki, often accompanies him. “We pay for licenses to do this, but they don’t care. This is supposed to be a cultural city, but we’re about to be drowned out.”

The MBTA public affairs office did not return multiple phone calls for comment. According to a press release, the MBTA will take public comments through its website and will conduct surveys to gauge rider feedback of the program.

Some city activists, local media and T commuters have been quick to support subway buskers since the installation of T-Radio.

Stephen Baird, executive director of Community Arts Advocates (CAA), a Jamaica Plain-based nonprofit, called T-Radio “an affront to Boston’s cultural heritage.”

“There is a historical aspect to this, especially in a town known for its jazz and other music,” he said. “The artists are part of the cultural fabric of the community. It’s important that they have the subways as a place to experiment and make income.”

Baird, a musician and T commuter, said T-Radio is the latest in a line of conflicts between buskers and the MBTA, dating back several decades.

In November 1989, the MBTA began playing Christmas music through the intercoms. Within a month, under pressure from Baird and the Subway Artists Guild, then Governor Michael Dukakis ordered the music shut off.

In 1993, the MBTA installed about 400 televisions in its stations, hoping to generate revenue from advertisements. Again, Baird and other musicians publically opposed the program, which was discontinued the same year.

Tuesday night, Baird met with several buskers to decide how CAA will negotiate with Pyramid Radio, Inc., and the MBTA to address artists’ opposition to T-Radio.

“I don’t perform in the subways, so I need to hear from those who do,” he said. “From here, it’s all about building consensus.”