Less than two weeks ago, Bob Bishop, Program Director at classical KHFM in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, was called into his new boss’s office and asked to turn in his keys on the spot. General Manager Sarah Colmark told Bishop that the station was going to be reorganized and he was being laid off.A week later, longtime morning host and former Program Director Kip Allen resigned on the air, announcing (with no fanfare) that it was his last day at the station. So many listeners called the studio after his announcement that Colmark told the announcers not to answer the phone, and she came in every hour or so, listened to the machine, and erased the messages.
Management lost no time removing any mentions of Bishop and Allen from the station website.
Ironically, on September 12th NM Governor Bill Richardson will be awarding KHFM the highly coveted Governor’s Award for service to the community. The film to be shown at the award ceremony features Bob Bishop and Kip Allen. Bishop just finished building a new studio setup for the station, and he was recently honored as Employee of the Year. Then he was fired.
Allen has been at KHFM for more than two decades. For most of those years he was the Program Director. Always a gentle voice during morning drive time, Allen was famous for his birdsongs at 6 and 7 every weekday morning.
Promotions Director Lindy Gold was also laid off. Longtime part-timer Adrienne Davis resigned. The 29-year-old Colmark now oversees the Programming, Promotions, and Sales departments at KHFM. The weekly cume (listenership) for KFHM is below 50,000.
Colmark did not return my calls, but of course this space is open to her if she wants to respond. According to staff members, she has a degree in Piano Performance but not much radio experience. She IS the daughter of the station’s owner, however. Her father, Tony Brandon owns American General Media, KHFM’s parent company. Colmark’s husband Charles is keeping it in the family by serving as one of the chief announcers on the station after the departures of Allen and Bishop, who were morning and afternoon drivetime hosts. Colmark had been doing fill-in and some mid-days.
According to one employee, who for obvious reasons doesn’t want to be quoted on the record, Colmark is planning to take the station in the direction of KDFC in San Francisco. Except for the San Francisco Symphony, that station is well known in the biz as classical lite.
KHFM is a commercial station. Its ratings are down dramatically in the latest quarterly book from Arbitron. From a high between a 4.0 and 5.0 market share a few years ago, they are now down to a 1.9 market share (though it’s much higher in Santa Fe). That could affect sales considerably, but it’s a legacy station so a good sales team should be able to keep revenues steady. KDFC has a 3.9 to 4.0 share in a much bigger market.
Two Changes of Ownership
KHFM celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2004. But as with many commercial classical stations, the last several years have been extremely rocky.
For most of its existence, KHFM was a mom and pop station, held together with chewing gum and baling wire by legendary engineer Mike Langner. Majority owner Peter Besheer decided to sell the station in 1996 when deregulation made it possible for radio groups to own large blocks of stations and station values went way up. Citadel Communications paid more than $5 million for a station that was probably worth $150,000 in actual assets.
Citadel’s chief interest in the station was its terrific tower on top of Sandia Mountain. In 2001 the company appropriated the tower for a rock station, moved KHFM to a lower frequency in the Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos, and leased the whole classical kit and kaboodle to American General Media, who built a studio for KHFM in what was a storage closet. Moving the tower to northern New Mexico cut out a third of the Albuquerque audience but improved the signal in Santa Fe.
The strength of the station – BAR NONE – has always been its intensely loyal service to the arts community. All arts organizations have received promotion and airtime, whether or not they can afford to buy advertising. Now, according to one KFHM insider, arts organizations can only get on the mid-day interview show Corner Table if they buy a certain amount of advertising.
We call that PAYOLA, and it hovers between unethical and illegal.
The story is not finished yet. Watch this space for more. And in the interest of full disclosure, KHFM is the station where I trained. I left in 2000, but my family has been in NM since the 1850s, so I have deep roots there and a vested interest in the community.
UPDATE: I got a call back from Sarah Colmark, who made this statement:
I’m a member of the family that owns General Media.
We are totally committed to keeping the classical music format on the radio, and we are totally committed to supporting the arts in New Mexico. As we have had a lot of changes, we are committed to moving forward. My husband and I both have music degrees, and we are committed to keeping classical music alive in this community.
I asked her what her plans were for the station, and she responded,
At this point I’m not really ready to discuss that.
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