The dual format: neither fish nor fowl

In my last post about broad trends in classical radio, I started to examine the odd beast known in public radio as the “dual format.” A dual-format station airs both news and classical music on weekdays, with NPR’s morning and afternoon newsmagazines, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, sandwiching a midday block of music.

Many stations in public radio adhere to this format — a little more than half of the 450 stations airing classical are dual-format. Most of them serve small- and medium-sized markets where the smaller number of public-radio listeners makes being “all things to all people” more feasible. But a considerable number of dual-format stations have been cutting back on classical in recent years or dumping it entirely, in part due to the thorny problems posed by airing two different kinds of programming. Research shows that most listeners who enjoy classical avoid news programming and vice versa, which forces a dual-format station to try to serve two different audiences. What’s more, stations have found greater success raising money around news programming than around classical.

Through focus groups, the Public Radio Program Directors Association has learned that people listen to news and classical music for very different reasons. News listeners want to learn, to satisfy their curiosity and to engage with the world. Classical listeners say they tune to the music to be soothed and to achieve a clarity of mind. These listeners are after different experiences. (Read more about the “core values” of the classical format in this 2002 study.)

So it’s not surprising that on average, fewer than a quarter of listeners to a dual-format station enjoy both formats, according to Tom Thomas of public radio’s Station Resource Group. In one study, listeners who did follow both formats ranked news higher in importance.

Many stations have encountered difficulty serving this divided audience, sometimes suffering from low ratings and financial troubles. WETA-FM in Washington, D.C., dumped classical in 2005 after years of carrying the format because many of its listeners tuned away when music kicked in at midday, often to other news stations. (WETA switched back to classical last year, however, when the city’s commercial classical station sought to drop the format.)

WETA and other stations are also following the money. News programming generally attracts a larger audience, which translates into more donations during on-air fund drives and greater sales of underwriting (public radio’s more subdued version of advertising).

It’s also a matter of station identity. The conventional wisdom in radio is to “be one thing to your listeners” — to create a loyal audience by specializing in one kind of programming. And NPR’s newsmagazines are a huge draw for listeners. “If you’re starting every day with an incredibly powerful, award-winning, highly-listened-to news and information program, you’ve already cast the die in a lot of ways in terms of what your identity is,” says SRG’s Thomas. “Once that momentum is in place, the temptation is, ‘Let’s try another news show and see what happens.’” Before you know it, news programs take over the midday schedule, silencing the music. On the other hand, it’s extremely rare for a station to dump a news show in favor of more classical — unless it’s making a switch to all-classical.

Though some dual-format stations are cutting back on classical, others are finding ways to offer even more classical by ending the dual format in favor of new all-classical channels. Vermont Public Radio has been expanding its statewide reach and creating a separate network of classical stations. Colorado Public Radio in Denver also escaped the dual format and created distinct news and classical services. And broadcasters are taking advantage of the multicasting technology enabled by HD Radio and offering all-music channels to the admittedly minute crowd of listeners who own digital receivers. These channels often serve double-duty as Web streams, too.

Though the dual format can present problems, its wide reach throughout public radio suggests that at least some broadcasters have made it work for them — or at least aren’t ready to throw in the towel yet. What do you think? Do you enjoy both music and news? Is the dual format good for the music, or should broadcasters find other ways to present classical? For more reading, check out this article I wrote for Current a few years ago about classical cutbacks, and a companion article about WETA’s decision that year to go all-news.

About Mike Janssen

Mike Janssen Served as Scanning The Dial's original co-authors from Mar, 2008 to Jan, 2010 and is a freelance writer, editor and media educator based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He has written extensively about radio, mostly for Current, the trade newspaper about public broadcasting, where his articles have appeared since 1999. He has also worked in public radio as a reporter at WFDD-FM in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he began his career in journalism and filed pieces for NPR. Mike's work in radio expanded to include outreach and advocacy in 2007, when he worked with the Future of Music Coalition to recruit applicants for noncommercial radio stations. He has since embarked on writing a series of articles about radio hopefuls for FMC's blog.

Mike also writes regularly for Retail Traffic magazine and teaches workshops about writing, podcasting and radio journalism. In his spare time he enjoys vegetarian food, the outdoors, reading, movies and traveling. You can learn more about Mike and find links to more of his writing and reporting at

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