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Can the Internet save classical music? An interview with KUSC’s Brenda Barnes

Brenda Barnes, President of KUSC-FM

Brenda Barnes, President of KUSC-FM

It’s hard to believe, but once upon a time classical radio was ubiquitous. Most cities had at least several popular classical music radio stations, and many had three. I remembering setting my clock alarm to a New York City based classical FM signal back in the late 1970s. One morning I woke up at six AM to Bela Bartok’s dark, dissonant Miraculous Mandarin suite. It’s impossible to even imagine that happening now.

Today stations that specialize in broadcasting any kind of classical fare are a very small portion of the traditional media scene. Most are non-commercial frequencies. According to Arbitron’s 2008 edition of Radio Today, in the Spring of 2007, the nation’s 275 (out of about 14,000 stations) surviving classical licenses broadcast to 11.2 million fans, who accounted for two percent of all radio listening.

More than 65% were my age, 55, or older—”the highest percentage of any format,” Arbitron noted. Most listened at home rather than work, no doubt because in many instances they were retired. Obviously much of this shift is about changing tastes and demographic shifts, but combined with the overall drop in radio listeners and advertising revenue, it hasn’t offered commercial classical stations many good choices.

Some have tried to tough it out like KFUO-FM in St. Louis, which went dark on July 6 after playing the entirety of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Dedicated to streaming an eclectic daily mix of everything from late Renaissance to mid-20th century fare, the station simply could not stay afloat. Its owner sold the license, which switched to a contemporary Christian format.

Others have survived by adopting what amounted to easy listening schedules. This is the story of KDFC-FM in San Francisco, which after a buyout following the relaxation of the government’s broadcast ownership rules, lightened its format.

The move quickly drew the ire of the station’s base. “KDFC regards classical music as Valium,” one furious listener wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle. Station staff didn’t deny it, adopting slogans like “Relax. You feel different here” and “Everyone remain calm.” 75 percent of the station’s listeners now tune in primarily “to unwind, relax, change their mood,” boasted KDFC’s general manager.

But all controversy aside, here’s the good news. Classical music is all over the Internet, especially services like Pandora and Last.FM. In 2009 Arbitron expanded its definition of a radio station to include HD and online streamers, and quickly discovered that there were a lot more classical venues out there than anyone thought. Although the listening share for over-the-air stations continued to decline, the research company now identified 238 Internet based sources for classical music in the United States, just 25 shy of the total number of FM classical signals.

So where does this leave the traditional classical music station? I thought I’d pitch that question to Brenda Barnes, President of proudly classical KUSC-FM in Southern California. Prior to her stint at KUSC, Barnes served on the board of National Public Radio, and has managed various radio stations, most notably WMRA in Virginia and WGUC in Cincinnati.

Despite all the challenges, KUSC’s President is optimistic about classical radio.

Brenda Barnes: The biggest thing that has affected classical music radio was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated ownership of radio. What happened in that transition was that once ownership was deregulated, then there was a feeding frenzy among the Clear Channels and the CBSes and others. That raised the prices of radio frequencies astronomically.

So what happened in all that frenzy is that people who had been operating classical commercial stations through all that long time saw an opportunity that they knew would never come again to sell their station at way above market value. So they sold, and once you buy a big station in a big market for $100 million or $60 million or whatever, you can’t afford to run it as a classical station, because you can’t make enough money back to pay the debt load.

That sort of triggered the end of commercial classical radio. And what’s been happening is a trend toward public radio kind of trying to fill that void. At first what had happened in the public radio world was that as public radio developed in the 1960s and the number of stations increased, the mandate was to offer something that was not available commercially. So in a market like San Francisco or Chicago or New York City where there was a commercial classical station, public stations kind of shifted away from classical music.

But when all this transition happened in the commercial radio world, that left a void, and in some cases, like in Miami, American Public Media, the parent company of Minnesota Public Radio, went in and bought a station and is operating it as a classical station. The Seattle commercial classical station just announced that it’s going to become a public radio station in 2011.

So what we’re seeing is another shift that was caused by that market factor of deregulation.

Radio Survivor: How does classical radio keep older people like me, and yet draw in a younger audience?

Barnes: In radio terms, the classical music audience is not getting younger. What the demographics say is that classical music audiences have always skewed older—35 plus. There are some stations that actually skew 50 or 60 plus. But overall classical stations skew 35 plus and they always have.

My feeling is that there’s not a lot of evidence to support the idea that people who are 20 now are eventually going to listen to classical music on the radio in the way that I listened when I was 20 (which was 30 years ago). And that’s really because the way we access music is changing because of the Internet, cell phones, other new media options.

For younger people in particular, that’s just the way they access music now. It’s not like they make a transition from CDs to getting an iPod and downloading. They start with the iPod and downloading and services like Pandora and Almost all those services do include classical music. iTunes does. Pandora does.

We’ve done some research with people 30 to 45. They tend to be very moderately or somewhat interested in classical music. We did eight focus groups. All of them said they accessed classical music via new media. They listened to it on Pandora.

It’s not that younger people aren’t listening to classical music. They’re just doing it differently.

Radio Survivor: I hear from radio station managers that “yes, we stream. We’ve got a huge streaming audience. But because of bandwidth costs and performance/copyright royalties, it’s not paying.” Is the economics of online services working for you?

Barnes: I don’t think that the economics of online is working for very many people. Pandora has been in existence for eight years, maybe a little more than that. And it has just started to turn a profit.

There’s a huge amount of venture capital going into new media, because people see that obviously it is not something that is going to go away. It’s a major shift in how we access information. But at the same time making money has proven elusive for most everyone in this space.

Do the economics work out now? No. Do I have confidence that in time that will be sorted out? Yes I do. So we’re all trying to figure out how to be in that space in a way that doesn’t detract at all from our radio business, which is our core business and will be for a number of years. We thinking towards the future, we’re recognizing the trends, but we’re not crippling our core business to do it. And that’s a tough balancing act.

I think that’s where most people are right now in the public radio world. We’re saying this is the future, we do have to head in this direction, but we have to do it in a prudent and financially responsible way.

Radio Survivor: Why do you think it’s going to work out?

Barnes: There are two major advantages that new media has over radio. One is you can get what you want when you want it. Programming on demand. In the new media world, if you want to hear Beethoven right now, you can hear Beethoven right now. You can get exactly what you want when you want it. The other advantage is interactivity.

But at the same time, am I confident in what direction this is going to go? Absolutely not. I’m perfectly happy to admit that I haven’t got a clue how all this is going to turn out. We’re in the midst of a transition. We’re not at the beginning. But we’re sure as heck not at the end.

I’ve been in public radio for 25 years. I know radio inside and out. I pretty much make decisions based on all my knowledge and experience of 25 years. Now I’m in a position in which I’m literally having to learn a new business. It is quite different from the radio business. And the world is so much in transition, that there are no clear right and wrong answers.

So as a manager personally, its both incredibly uncomfortable and incredibly exciting all at the same time. The way I look at my job right now is that I’ve got to be flexible, open to new ideas, knowing that I’m going to experiment, and a lot of experiments are going to fail. And I’m not real fond of failure, so that’s a challenge for me.

If I try to predict now what’s going to happen in five or ten years, I’ll probably be hugely off the mark. So instead of trying to predict it, what I’m trying to do is say: “Our job on the radio side is to try to keep our programming as strong and fresh and interesting as we possible can. And our goal in the new media territory is to experiment.”

Radio Survivor: Tell me about KUSC’s experiments

Barnes: We’re licensed to the University of Southern California. We’ve been in the past year putting together teams of faculty and students to work on helping advance KUSC in the new media space. We’ve probably, I don’t know, in the past year, we probably explored ten to twelve ideas. Most of them have led nowhere. A couple of them, about three of them, have some promise and we’re continuing to work on those. But it’s a grand experiment, and on one hand, for me, on one hand it has been really fun, but it has also been a huge learning curve. So, but again, it’s a good learning curve and the right kind of learning curve.

I think that the outside perspective, the people who aren’t hampered or ingrained in the radio business, are going to come up with a different set of ideas than we would.

Radio Survivor: Can you give me an example of an idea that’s worked and an idea that hasn’t worked, in terms of new media?

Barnes: We don’t really have an example of one that has worked at this point. We only have examples of things we’re still exploring.

Radio Survivor: You’ve had no slam dunk success?

Barnes: No. We haven’t. I actually expected that. What I said going into it is that for the first couple or possibly even three years, the goal is to generate as many ideas as possible, knowing that if we’re lucky, a handful will have promise. But the ones that have promise probably aren’t going to be evident to us right away. We’re going to have to continue to work on them, develop them, etcetera etcetera. So my feeling was, after two to three years we should have some ideas that should be successful. But I wasn’t expecting that right off the bat.

We had a team working on a concept of trying to link a dance performance to a piece of classical music. So what they wanted to do was go out there and have a dancer do some kind of reasonably short little routines where there’s a beginning and standard end position—so that these dance modules could be constructed together in an infinite number of ways. And the idea was that with these different dance performances you could connect them in different ways for pieces of music to create a different experience.

So we worked on that for more than a year, and at a certain point, I said to myself, “So somebody comes to this website, and they do it once, and they do it twice, and maybe they do it three times, but does this really take us anywhere? Is this something people are going to come back and do?” And I said no. So we actually stopped that project.

It was interesting. Nobody else was doing it. But ultimately I couldn’t see a future for it.

Radio Survivor: The thing that I miss online is deejays and classical music hosts. The online world doesn’t seem to be producing people like KUSC’s Jim Svejda. It’s not even producing radio. It’s more like juke box.

Barnes: I think you are right. One of the things that people who love music want to do is discover new things, discover new information, discover new recordings. And I don’t think that there is a good way to do that online. And that’s sort of the focus of our efforts; that is to say, what we want to be involved in is music discovery. We don’t want to sell music as a commodity. It’s not what we do. It’s not our mission. It’s not what we’re about.

So the whole focus of our online work is in this music discovery territory, where you can learn things that you don’t already know. You can’t through any kind of current online method get the kind of musical experience that you get listening to Jim Svejda, who has been studying the classical repertoire for decades, and knows pretty much everything there is to know about everything, and brings incredible insight to his work.

Radio Survivor: How is it going at KUSC?

Barnes: It’s actually going really well. We have been really fortunate that even in the midst of this economy, our membership donations have held steady. I think that part of the reason for that is that when times are tough, and you are dealing with stress of any kind, classical music is a way to remove yourself from the stress. So we have found that for people who have been having hard times—someone in their family was laid off, they’re still actually giving to KUSC, just a smaller amount, maybe.

So we’ve gotten smaller donations than we did before the economy tanked, but most of our people have remained as supporters of KUSC. We’ve had new members come into the mix as well.

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2 Responses to Can the Internet save classical music? An interview with KUSC’s Brenda Barnes

  1. John J Hills September 18, 2011 at 10:25 pm #

    Good evening Ms Barnes. I just read the impressive article in today’s SF Chronicle by Ben Fong-Torres about you and the work you are doing on the KUSF transfer.

    I appreciate all your efforts to expand KFDC’s coverage in the Bay Area. I remain hopeful that the we “Beyond-the-Caldecott” types will also get coverage thanks to your work and the efforts of others up here. I am a monthly contributer to KDFC (albeit embarrassingly small but all I can spare as an Octo on a small fixed retirement income) even though I can’t get the station. I just want to record my voice as a supporter.

    I’m glad you keep charging ahead. There is still some minor opposition, but you are pursuing the larger good. The

    commonweal – our culture – needs classical music. I’m sure that if there is really an interest at USF to get another station, it would be demonstrated by financial supporters.

    Best wishes and thanks again.

    John Hills

  2. peggy Geelhaar May 6, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

    How can I find out what was playing on KUSC radio today, May 6th, at 12:08 pm? It was a piano piece. Chopin?

    Thank you

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