Where classical radio is holding steady—and where it’s waning

My co-author Marty and I have been brainstorming loads of ideas for Scanning The Dial, posts that will look up close at classical radio and focus on programs, hosts, strategies, technologies, innovators. But before zeroing in on details, let’s pause and get our bearings in this sonic landscape.

First off, a key question: how widespread is classical music on radio today? And how has that changed in recent years?

To make sense of the answer, let’s break it down a few different ways, first between commercial and public stations. The nonprofit public stations that hang out at the lower end of your radio dial are home to most of the classical music on the air today. Yet a small number of commercial stations remain devoted to the format as well.

According to Public Radio Capital, a nonprofit that advises public radio stations on expanding their operations, 175 stations in the U.S. fill most of their airtime today with classical music. Of the stations, 150 of them are noncommercial.

Perhaps due in part to my dim view of commercial radio, I was surprised to learn that the number of commercial classical stations has changed little over the past five years. In the fall of 2002, 29 commercial stations aired classical, out of 204 classical stations overall. By the fall of 2006, the number of classical outlets dropped to 180. Yet, just as in 2002, 29 were commercial. Today there are 25. So most of the outlets dumping classical in recent years have been public stations.

Despite that decline, classical music remains “the most prevalent musical form in public radio,” says Tom Thomas, co-c.e.o. of the Station Resource Group, a public-radio think tank of sorts. And thanks to several changes in major markets, “nationally, it’s quite likely that there’s more listening to classical music on public radio today than there was three years ago,” Thomas says.

According to Thomas, roughly 60 percent of the public radio system’s 975 stations air at least some classical music. (Some of those stations are part of the same network and air identical or nearly identical programming.) Of those 450 or so stations, 110 devote the lion’s share of their schedules to classical, 250 are at least one-third classical, and 50 or so offer less than that.

The number of classical stations in the country’s top 50 Arbitron markets has remained fairly steady in recent years, Thomas says. Forty-two of these markets have stations that air classical: 22 have all-classical stations, and 20 have stations airing news and classical.

So where is classical’s volume fading? Most of the churn has been in smaller cities, Arbitron markets 50-100, where more stations have been cutting back on classical in favor of news programming. In some cases, it’s because broadcasters are finding that news and classical, longtime bedfellows on public stations, are a less than ideal mix, and news has the edge. In an upcoming post, I’ll look at this sometimes troublesome “dual format” of news and classical, and other factors that prompt programmers to turn down the music and ratchet up the talk.

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 mikejanssen.net.

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