Expansion of classical radio belies format’s many challenges

By Ben Mook

ATLANTA — Representatives of classical radio stations resolved last week to work toward creating a new organization to represent their format within public radio, a tactic to fight shrinking audiences and build a stronger case for classical radio.

During sessions held Sept. 18 and 19 at the Public Radio Program Directors Association conference in Atlanta, station representatives examined research demonstrating that, while more public licensees are broadcasting classical music, listeners are also turning to digital platforms for classical.

Arbitron’s most recent Public Radio Today study identified 188 noncommercial FM, AM, HD and streaming stations devoted to classical music, an increase from 178 in 2011. An additional 218 stations programmed classical for least 30 percent of their broadcast schedules in 2012.

Much of the growth came from conversions of previously commercial classical stations to noncommercial operations, such as KING-FM in Seattle. Split format stations have also been moving news and classical programming onto separate frequencies. According to Arbitron, during 2011 the number of news-classical stations dropped from 230 to 218, a 5 percent decline.

But audience numbers have declined despite the expansion of classical signals. Some stations whose markets switched to Arbitron’s Portable People Meter methodology saw average–quarter-hour ratings drop by as much as a third.

“On one hand, the format seems to be in ascendancy,” said St. John Flynn, p.d. of Houston Public Media’s classical KUHA-FM. “But on the other hand, in smaller markets we have seen the format despair or be diminished greatly. It might seem at a cursory look that they are thriving in major markets and suffering in smaller.”

Meanwhile, recent focus group research found that classical pubradio listeners are increasingly tuning to digital platforms such as YouTube, Pandora and Spotify.

“They love the music, the blend and the presentation we give them,” said Frank Dominguez, g.m. of WDAV-FM in Davidson, N.C. “. . . But they’re getting classical music from a bunch of other sources. . . . That’s the world we’re dealing with.”

“People who like us love us,” said Benjamin Roe, managing director of classical services at WGBH-FM. “The problem is, we don’t have enough people who like us.”

Focus-group participants also reported that they mostly failed to notice stations’ marketing efforts and, apart from listening to audio streams, mostly ignored the stations’ online presences.

Station reps and other participants in the meeting considered whether a new organization should be formed as a central resource for strengthening the format. The Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio, an existing membership organization focused on classical music, has been in decline for several years as more stations moved to news formats and record labels reduced support to the organization.

Participants in the classical meeting discussed whether they should dissolve AMPPR or use the $10,000 it has in the bank to reboot as a renewed group. “We’re simply no longer fulfilling our mission,” said Flynn, AMPPR president. “And it’s at a time when the format is in flux.”

Attendees debated whether a new organization should have a salaried staff or rely on volunteers. “It’s got to be a full-time organization,” said Steve Robinson, e.v.p. for radio and project development at WFMT-FM in Chicago, who argued for hiring a dedicated staff.

In the end, participants voted in favor of working to create a committee or a coalition that will work out organizational issues. “There’s a lot of interest in a formal structure,” said Tom Thomas, co-c.e.o. of the Station Resource Group. “But we’re at the walking stage, not the running stage.”

Discussions will continue at future meetings, and most attendees signed a formal pledge to keep the momentum going.

Comments, questions, tips? mook@current.org
This article was first published in Current, Sept. 23, 2013

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