Santa Barbara, California’s eight decades old classical radio signal KDB 93.7 FM is up for auction. The Santa Barbara Foundation, which owns the license, has voted to sell it off. The Foundation’s principals say that the operation has run up big deficits that the non-profit cannot afford.
“Unfortunately, despite the on-air pleas we made during our fundraising drives and in the letters we sent out about financial support being urgent, fewer than a thousand listeners of KDB’s 20,000 weekly listeners became donors over the past four years,” noted KDB general manager Tim Owen in a statement released on Tuesday. “While our advertising sales have been on a gradual increase the past couple of years, taken together the combined donor and ad revenue still wasn’t enough to make KDB financially self-sufficient.”
A spokesperson for the Foundation adds that it is “actively seeking the best new ownership for the station and hopes, but can not guarantee, that the new ownership will maintain a classical music format.”
This is very disappointing news for classical music lovers, including me. But it also raises the question of whether an all-classical radio format is sustainable in any but the largest markets in the United States. KDB is a conservatively programmed classical music station. Like its neighbor to the north, KDFC in San Francisco, the station mostly filters the genre down to a 180 year period that begins with Vivaldi and ends with Ravel. It also marginalizes vocal music and more experimental content.
Yet this cautious approach has failed. It doubtless did not help KDB that KUSC in Los Angeles has a repeater outlet in Santa Barbara, but even in big markets like LA, KUSC seems to be struggling. Last year the Los Angeles Times reported that the public radio signal had lost 63 percent of its listeners since 2009.
Classical radio’s survival problems are not new. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 effectively killed commercial classical radio in most areas of the United States. Public radio has picked up the slack to some extent, but competition from Pandora and other online services is now pretty fierce, and has no doubt drawn away a big chunk of the 35 and older demographic that loves the classics.
Fortunately, even if KDB is sold to a non-classical broadcaster, the Santa Barbara Foundation says the proceeds will go to projects with “a distinct emphasis on classical music.” Perhaps an experiment with a smaller scale Internet only station would be the next step.
Story update: 10/30/2013 11:01 AM PST – I asked Brenda Barnes of KUSC if her organization had any plans for the signal. Her reply: “We might be asked to work with other applicants which we are glad to do but we will not be bidding for the station since we already own one with the same coverage.”