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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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