The other day I saw news that longtime WCQS-Asheville Music Director Dick Kowal is planning to retire after three decades presenting classical music on the air. With his departure comes an opening on WCQS’s schedule. To the station’s credit, it is keeping classical music on the air after Dick’s departure, but the content will no longer originate from WCQS – well, not exactly, anyway. You can read more at the link, but the short version is that WCQS will air a new program voiced by Joe Brant, an announcer at WDAV in Charlotte. It’s not a WDAV simulcast, but a standalone program. This situation got me thinking about the unique role independent all-classical stations like WDAV can play in shaping the future of classical music radio.
Classical music services that are part of larger organizations in the largest markets, as well as independent classical music stations in markets of all sizes have managed to keep the majority of their hours local. But at many other stations, one finds an increasing reliance on network programming on station schedules. In several cases, network programming is the only thing available most of the time: New Hampshire Public Radio’s classical music service is entirely network-based. KPAC in San Antonio, a service of Texas Public Radio, is the same, as is the increasingly marginalized classical music service offered by Houston Public Media (Houston once had a flourishing local classical service, but it was gutted several years ago and now resides, fully automated, in the wilderness of HD-2). In Maine, one of the nation’s newest classical music services only offers three hours of locally-hosted music on weekday mornings as well as a weekly show called “Maine Stage.” Iowa Public Radio’s classical music service consists of locally-hosted music weekday afternoons and occasional special local programs, but network programming at all other times. There are many other examples that illustrate varying degrees of programming consolidation, but the broader point is that at any given moment, one can hear the same music introduced by the same people at the same times in many different markets across the country.
I’ve spent several days pouring over program schedules for all-classical services that belong to larger institutions and schedules for independent, standalone stations that do not offer news or other programming. With some exceptions (Colorado Public Radio, for example, whose classical service is nearly entirely locally programmed, as well as WQXR in New York, WCRB in Boston, KBAQ in Phoenix, and some others), the standalone classical stations are far more committed to local content and local talent than classical music services that are part of larger stations. This phenomenon is mystifying to me. After all, it’s a lot harder to maintain an independent all-classical station these days than it is to maintain a classical service as a subsidiary of a larger organization. As a service of Vermont Public Radio (my former employer), VPR Classical had the advantage of being under the same roof as VPR’s news and information channel. That means that expenses incurred by independent classical stations never had to be worried about, because they’re lumped in with everything else: automation software licenses, studio technology (boards, microphones, and other equipment), transmitter licenses and upkeep costs, management, payroll, and accounting, right down to the mundane costs of electricity, heat, hot water, and snow removal. Yet when I was let go from VPR in 2014, it was over a year before my hours on the schedule (in the important afternoon drive daypart) were replaced by a local human.
Let’s compare that situation to that of the station where I got my start in classical radio: KCME in Colorado Springs. KCME is an independent classical station with an annual budget of just over $1 million. From 10 pm to 6 am, it airs network programming, but most of the rest of its schedule is local, even on weekends. Most importantly, it is always local during the highest listening hours of the day, even if that means people have to cover one another’s shifts. It operates several translators in mountain communities west of town, is about to launch a jazz service (by moving one of those translators back into Colorado Springs), and according to its latest Form 990, it has seen its net revenue increase dramatically. It’s a lean, committed operation. And it’s not alone – many of the most successful classical music stations operating today are completely independent. The highest share? According to this article, it’s our friend WDAV in Charlotte. That data is from last summer, though, and while WDAV’s numbers are still some of the strongest in the business, they’ve been overtaken (at least in share) by KQAC in Portland, OR, with numbers in the mid 4% range (almost double what is generally considered to be excellent for the classical format). The most listeners overall? The USC Radio Group, which operates all-classical stations KUSC in Los Angeles and KDFC in San Francisco, and has no other radio content under its umbrella.
This isn’t to say that all-classical services that are part of larger organizations are incapable of drawing large audiences, committing to local programming, and being innovators in the industry. There are some that do these things with the help of open-minded and trusting management. It’s just that in many cases, their parent organizations simply don’t want to. Many people I meet who do classical music for organizations that offer other content feel that the classical format is always a secondary or tertiary strategic goal. “I’d like to do x, but it isn’t considered important in the overall direction of the organization” is a common refrain I hear at conferences. You can have the most talented, committed, visionary staff at a classical radio service, but if the higher-ups don’t see the potential value, you’re going to hit a ceiling really quickly. And that’s when you hit the dreaded logic trap: audience numbers aren’t strong, so investing more resources isn’t deemed to be worth it, which perpetuates the existing problem. It’s a trap that will likely lead to the demise of the classical format at some stations unless station management can be convinced that classical music can be a very viable format.
If stations with multiple formats can’t be convinced that their all-classical (or even their mixed) formats are worth a full investment (and by that I mean a heavy local announcing presence, as well as dedicated digital and marketing staff), perhaps this presents an opportunity for independent classical stations to create partnerships like WDAV has done and generate revenue for themselves. Texas seems to be an obvious place to do this: KMFA in Austin is a highly innovative and engaged local station that could provide Texas content to stations in San Antonio and Houston, two markets that are starved for local classical music. KMFA’s brand is very Austin-centric, though, so I’m not sure its an angle they want to pursue, but the opportunity is there. Or perhaps non-independent classical stations can pool resources to create regional continuity, like the existing partnership that sees NET-Nebraska’s classical music station in Lincoln offering a midday classical music simulcast to KVNO in Omaha in exchange for Omaha’s overnight music being simulcast in Lincoln. Why wouldn’t the Northern New England states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont try to partner somehow with their classical music offerings, so that listeners in Maine could get semi-local content at times other than weekday mornings, New Hampshire could get some semi-local classical content of ANY kind, and maybe Vermonters could enjoy the occasional broadcast of the Portland Symphony or the summer chamber music in Blue Hill? Teamwork makes the dream work! (ugh – but it’s true)
The fact that robust and independent classical stations can thrive in markets of all sizes, even places where you wouldn’t necessarily expect (like Colorado Springs, or Dayton, or the tiny town of Monroe, Connecticut) tells me that station leaders in many places are selling the classical format short. Classical music will never draw the audience numbers enjoyed by many NPR news/talk stations, but that doesn’t mean a fuller investment in classical music services can’t be sustainable for stations if they do it right. And if they don’t, great independent classical stations should try to pick up the slack.
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