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Can community radio save classical radio?

The cause of classical radio may be waning for some, but not for Brenda Barnes, President of Classical California, which runs classical public radio stations KUSC-FM in Southern California and KDFC-FM in San Francisco. Writing in Current, Barnes takes exception to non-commercial radio blogger Ken Mills’ warning that classical radio has reached an ominous “tipping point,” in the wake of Houston Public Media dumping its classical station KHUA, which it gobbled up from Rice University five years ago. On top of that a Miami public radio station is also throwing in the towel, classical music-wise.

Cat in violin case.


Is this the beginning of the end? Insert dark Rachmaninov soundtrack here? Say it isn’t so, Brenda Barnes. “I believe that public radio’s classical stations have significant opportunities for continued growth,” she writes, “and deepened connections and value to the individuals and communities they serve.”

Barnes cites statistics showing that since around three years ago, 31 classical radio stations across the country have enjoyed a slowly growing 1.6 percent audience share, plus actual growth in listeners. As for those two troubled radio stations, they borrowed too much money and relied too much on the syndicated service Classical 24, she notes, “making scant use of local hosts and local programming.”

Amen to all that, although those aren’t the only stations frontloading Classical 24. Check out Nashville’s WFCL, streaming over the ghost of that city’s once vibrant Vanderbilt U. student radio station. It’s still pretty heavily dependent on that kind of syndication on the evenings and weekends.

The other problem is that turning the frown upside down on 1.6 percent audience share requires gliding past the fact that the number puts Classical Music at the near bottom of Nielsen’s hierarchy of formats. In 2013 Nielsen gave classical a 1.4 percentage share. In contrast, Country Music enjoyed a 14.8 percent share. Classical sits way down there with “Hot Adult Contemporary” (basically listen to “Drops of Jupiter” 500 times and you’ve got the idea) and “Oldies.”

What’s going to rescue classical music from the Codgers in Heat demographic tier? My own take as a classical music lover is that classical can no longer stand alone as a radio format. It’s got to be mixed in and integrated with other traditions like Jazz, World music, and various song genres. I would hope that this country’s network of locally oriented community radio stations and hybrid public/community stations would take on that task. But for the most part they don’t.

Most community radio stations play hardly any classical music any more. Same for lots of college stations. Some of them have one or two classical music shows, at best. The San Francisco Bay Area has some notable classical music deejays. My friend Sherry Gendelman produces Larry Bensky’s excellent Sunday show on KPFA in Berkeley. There is the incomparable Sarah Cahill on KALW in San Francisco. KUSP in Santa Cruz has some great classical programs, although it’s unclear how long they’re going to last given the station’s troubles.

But I know of no real community based classical radio station in the United States, one that foregrounds local content over the warhorses and syndicated stuff. As for the rest, most have abandoned classical music or shunted it off to the margins of their schedules. This complaint, however, leads me to a research project I’ve been intending to take on for some time: cataloging all community classical radio shows in North America (or at least as many as possible). If you’ve gotten this far in my post, would you mind listing your favorite locally oriented classical radio show in the comments section? This can include shows that play just some classical music. If you add a bunch of hyperlinks, your comment will end up in our moderation queue, but I’ll get it posted as soon as I can. Thanks!

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9 Responses to Can community radio save classical radio?

  1. Jeremy Lansman September 15, 2015 at 10:04 am #

    Not a show, not in the United States, but a Community Radio station that follows your advice of having other genres, Cape Town’s Fine Music Radio seems fit as a fiddle. Rick Goodfellows very personal and commercially licensed station in Anchorage is also worth noting. Rick has stuck with it for decades. Things like that and FMR are a testament to the vision of some very dedicated individuals. By the way, a “community” license in South Africa means your license holder is not for profit and the station must address a community of otherwise unserved people. Such licenses allow advertising including calls to action and price comparison.

    • Fred Krock September 17, 2015 at 4:44 pm #

      Mr. Lansman:

      Something important is that classical music radio frequently was a last resort of a money losing commercial radio station. Following the war in 1946 the FCC issued many new radio station licenses. Frequently the city of license was a suburb of a major market. These stations were unable to compete for listeners with the major market stations. Public broadcasting as we know it today did not exist. KPFA, the origin of Pacifica, was broadcasting using equipment and the license of a failed commercial station in Berkeley. A small group of people had bought it to operate as a listener supported station. It played a lot of classical music.

      Now let’s look at the origin of classical music broadcasting in the San Francisco Bay Area. KSMO was licensed to “The San Mateo Times.” City of license was San Mateo. It had a full time DA-Night license with 1,000 watts on 1550 kHz. It put a listenable daytime signal into most of the Bay Area. Original programming was for the San Mateo area with local news and high school sports. It could not sell any advertising at night because no one would buy it. KSMO played classical music at night because the owners liked it. The FCC required full time operation since it was a full time license. The station was unable to sell advertising for the San Mateo oriented daytime programs, so in 1948 it changed full time to classical music. It had a fair audience and became a break even operation.

      In 1952 “The San Mateo Times” needed money to buy a new color printing press, so it sold the radio station for $72,000 to a new owner. He increased power to 10 kW, moved the city of license to San Francisco, changed the call letters to KEAR, and bought a San Francisco FM station. Later the FM station was sold to Family Stations where the KEAR call letters are in use today.

      The classical music format continued through all these changes. Then the AM station was sold in 1956 and it became KOBY, the first Top 40 station in the Bay Area.

      After several format and ownership changes, it changed format to classical music with call letters KKHI. This was a desperation move by the owner who had failed in trying to compete with KSFO for listeners. To reduce trafficking in station licenses the FCC required station owners to keep a license for three years before selling it. The owner could not sell the station. He worked out a deal with the unions involved to allow the station to go combo with a classical music format. The unions took a deal to allow some members to keep their jobs rather than station going off the air with everyone out of work. The station became barely profitable and survived with a classical music format. It was sold to Buckley-Jaeger Broadcasting in 1965. The classical music format continued until shortly after KKHI was sold to Westinghouse Broadcasting in1994.

      KDFC began as a commercial FM station in San Francisco. It was a commercial failure. A man named Ed Davis bought out his two former partners and transmitted musicast. It competed with Muzak to supply background music for businesses. KDFC transmitted a 15 kHz tone while broadcasting announcements. This tone caused musicast receivers to mute so subscribers heard only music. SCA was developed that allowed an FM station to transmit two different programs simultaneously. The FCC outlawed musicast operation on FM main channels so KDFC moved background music to an SCA on KDFC. Then Davis began transmitting classical music on his main channel. He recorded all the programs and eventually began recycling the tapes.

      KIBE in Palo Alto was another post war suburban daytime only station operating on 1220 kHz. It also was a commercial failure although it was connected to “The Palo Alto Times.”
      Ed Davis was able to buy it for practically nothing and began re-transmitting KDFC classical music programs

      At one time almost all larger radio markets had commercial classical music format stations. Some were like KIXL in Dallas that broadcast beautiful music during the day and classical at night. However after FCC limits on number of licenses that could be held by one company were repealed, bidding wars began for radio stations. Even though many commercial classical music stations were moderately profitable, like KKHI, owners sold them because of the absurd money offered for the licenses.

      Well, here is more about classical music radio than you ever wanted to know. If you would like to know more please ask .I spent many years working in stations that played classical music.

      Fred Krock

  2. Listener September 15, 2015 at 12:13 pm #

    Carnegie Hall Live produced by WQXR in New York City is both a local live broadcast and then a syndicated series later in the year.

  3. I'll Give Up My FM Radio When You Pry It From My Cold Dead Hands September 15, 2015 at 1:21 pm #

    Non-commercial community station WOMR-FM in Provincetown, Massachusetts — broadcasting to all of Cape Cod — airs classical music programmed by local volunteer DJs every Monday and Tuesday 1-4pm. They also air a syndicated opera show on Saturdays 2-6pm. The rest of the schedule is a mix of roots music, folk, jazz, locally-produced public affairs, the Democracy Now feed, underground rock, etc.

  4. Nathan Moore September 17, 2015 at 10:28 am #

    WTJU in Charlottesville, VA is the Universtiy of Virginia’s community radio station. (I’m the manager.) We’re a multi-format music station, but classical music is a big part of the mix, airing weekdays 5-9am and 6-8pm, as well as several classical and opera programs on Sundays. These are all produced in-house with volunteer hosts from our community.

  5. another listener September 17, 2015 at 1:13 pm #

    I occasionally listen to classical music on KNAU in Flagstaff AZ. You can add that to your list.

  6. TZ September 17, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

    Have a look at All Classical Portland. This is a prime example of what can be done with a classical format station when you have the right people on board. People that truly understand the format. All content is locally produced, with the exception of special weekend broadcasts of the Met, and Composer`s Datebook, which of course lasts a couple minutes each week. 90% of funding comes directly from listeners.

  7. Bj Mora September 19, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

    on a side note, and at the risk of self promotion, is anyone else using classical as part of their of their overall music mix? Our station is 60/40 Chrsitian preaching/ music, with the music including hymns, psalms, some CCM, Americana, and classical.

  8. Eric Jon Magnuson September 19, 2015 at 11:27 pm #

    Among commercial stations, I think you can make a good case for Winnipeg’s CKCL (Classic 107). It’s not the only such station in Canada, but it may have the biggest community focus. That said, it probably wouldn’t have this format if it weren’t for the conditions on its license.

    See, e.g.,

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