The Radio Show is Gone, But Peter Sutheim Stays In Fidelity


Shortly before radio station KPFK's final airing of In Fidelity, we received a message from its host, Peter Sutheim: "April 6th will be the last In Fidelity. KPFK has decided to boot the program out of the nest now that it has finally achieved maturity, having turned 21 last August. Though the vehicle got a bit creaky in the last couple of years, it's been a good ride. Thank you, one and all, for all the support and encouragement and effort you've put in to help, and even to bail me out from time to time!"

On April 6th, the program signed off, but without sufficient tribute to Peter's past, or to the program that, for 21 years, filled the void caused by the lack of an L.A.-wide audio society. We don't have the capability to do that here, but we can certainly pay tribute to the "good ride" granted by Peter Sutheim. With that thought in mind, we provide the following biographical profile of the man we described in previous pages of L.A. Audio File as one of the ten best audio journalists:

Perhaps more than any other individual in the Southland, Peter Sutheim was responsible for cultivating and sustaining recent interest in audio in the Southern California community-largely through the vehicle of In Fidelity. In addition, he coordinates the audio-visual department at Occidental College, engineers Sundays at Four-the free chamber music concerts held weekly at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Leo S. Bing Theater and sponsored by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, and runs a concert recording and audio consultation service called Earworks.

In a 1986 interview with L.A. Audio File, Peter traced his audio roots all the way back to 1952, when he was 12 years old and living on the East Coast:

"It was then that I started at a new school. The school had a very elaborate sound system, with a full-fledged console, two 16-inch turntables, inputs for multiple microphones, and a live feed from the auditorium to every classroom. I don't know exactly what they had in mind, but suddenly I realized that it was nirvana (laugh). I immediately got fascinated with the technology of audio.

"By the time I was in ninth grade, I knew that I wanted to be an audio engineer. Audio was already my hobby. I had very little money and was working mostly with junk, but I used to make pilgrimages to what was called 'radio row' in New York. I went to college thinking I would get an engineering degree, but ended up with a degree in English and music."

Peter's first job after graduating from college was with a commercial FM radio station in Hartford, Connecticut as a classical music disc jockey. "This was before stereo radio became widespread." After the stint with the radio station, Peter moved back to New York, where he was born and raised.

"The first serious job that I had in New York was in 1962 with Fisher Radio Corporation. I learned a great deal about what some European-trained engineers were thinking and doing with vacuum tubes. This was at the time when everyone was saying, "there really isn't any point in designing with vacuum tubes anymore." In fact, I even said that in print at one point-luckily it appeared under a pseudonym.

"After working with Fisher, I got a job with Radio-Electronics magazine as their associate editor. I actually published my first amplifier design in that magazine. I quit Radio-Electronics in 1966. And until I moved to California in 1973, I supported myself almost entirely by freelance writing. In 1973, I was offered a job at KPFK. I was the Operations Director for six years at KPFK."

Peter described how his radio program got off the ground: "I started In Fidelity in the late summer of 1975. The idea actually originated with KPFK's General Manager at the time, Will Lewis, who has since turned up occasionally at KCRW. He talked me into doing the program.

"I was very wary about it, because I had been out of touch with consumer audio for a good many years at that time. There was a great deal I didn't know. In fact, I felt like such a jerk for the first few programs because when I finally got around to doing it, listeners would call up to ask me about components I never heard of. That still happens sometimes, but it happens a little less now than it used to (laughs). This was 1975, and I think a listener had to tell me what the Dahlquist DQ-10 was-which, at that time, was probably the hottest news in loudspeakers."

 
Peter assessed the highlights from his radio program, In Fidelity:

"One of the parts that I always like the best is the listener call-in. What I like especially is when one listener calls up to comment on what another listener has said or to fill in a missing piece of information. To me, that's one of the highlights. I really do like to take phone calls. I also very much like the listener participation programs-that is, when we invite listeners to respond by phone or mail to something we demonstrate on air. A few years back, we compared the sound of four turntables, using the same cartridge. Listeners were clearly able to rank them with much more than chance results. This was true even though the sound was recorded on tape and broadcast over FM radio.

"There were a few interviews that were highlights as well. I remember we had Ivor Tiefenbrum of Linn Products, and he bent a few noses out of shape. I can hardly resist mentioning Richard Heyser as an interview subject. He was one of the great theoretical thinkers in audio in our time, addressing himself with real mathematical rigor to that great yawning gap between "the measurers" and "the listeners." One of the nicest ones was when we had a correspondent who called in from his home in Massachusetts and was able to interact with listeners in L.A. That was great fun to do."

Outside of the radio program, his work at the college, and his work for Sundays at Four, Peter likes to record. "sometimes just out of interest and sometimes for pay." His efforts have resulted in the design or modification of some very fine recording equipment, including a vacuum tube preamplifier of his own design intended for use with a ribbon microphone. The preamplifier was used by the highly-regarded recording company, Sheffield Labs, for recording their recent Passions album.

"Music is very important to me, and I really go after it a lot," says Peter. "I love hearing musicians perform. It's not just a question of the audio experience or the aural experience of live music, I just love to be where musicians are doing what they do. I love that feeling, that ambiance, that spirit. I'm just incredibly grateful to be hooked up with a lot of musicians."

When this publication named Sutheim as one of the ten best audio journalists, we did so on the basis that he takes full advantage of the medium. While audio publications usually take around three months to publish their trade show reports, Sutheim was able to provide instantaneous coverage-real time coverage that even the Internet couldn't match. Audio publications can describe the sonic difference between two media; on In Fidelity, one often heard live demonstrations. While audio publications often extol the virtues of live broadcasts, Sutheim provided it every week. In short, we were fortunate to have him on the airwaves of Los Angeles.

Throughout the years, KPFK moved In Fidelity to all corners of the station's weekly and hourly schedule. No matter when it was aired, its listeners followed. In 1995, however, the station canceled the program-only to bring it back after receiving a number of letters in support of the program. Unfortunately, it returned in an abbreviated 30-minute format, and was not able to provide the full advantage of the medium it once did. In Fidelity never quite recovered from its momentary disappearance.

Whether letters can be persuasive enough to bring back In Fidelity once again remains to be seen. We would be remiss, however, if we didn't ask you to voice your concerns to the station. In doing so, we suggest you keep in mind the station's new focus on bringing in more listeners-i.e., to bring in more financial support from listener sponsors, in the wake of greater cutbacks to public broadcasting. A glance at KPFK's new program schedule (you can view it on the World Wide Web at htttp://www.kpfk.org) reveals a line-up that is starting to resemble the programming for public radio powerhouse KCRW. Letters can be forwarded to Program Director Kathy Lo, KPFK-FM Pacifica Radio, PO Box 8639, Universal City, CA 91608. Let us once again rise to the occasion.

"Kathy Lo's mind is clearly made up, though she expressed herself with great gentleness, said Peter. "Once before (in 1995), a barrage of eloquent and civilized letters did bring In Fidelity back from its six-month limbo. Couldn't hurt (to do it again), but how many people will go to the trouble once again?"

 

 

 


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