Radio expands on two coasts

New York: WNYC acquires Times’ classical WQXR

Published in Current, July 20, 2009
By Karen Everhart

A three-way transaction will secure a full-time place for classical music on public radio in New York City, bringing the New York Times’ venerable WQXR under the ownership of WNYC.

In the agreement announced July 14, WNYC will pay $11.5 million of the total $45 million purchase price to the financially needy newspaper.

Spanish-language broadcaster Univision will pay  $33.5 million and come away with WQXR’s frequency, 96.3 MHz, for its reggaeton station, WCAA.

Univision’s weaker signal, at 105.9 MHz, will go to public radio’s new WQXR classical service. The sale also transfers WQXR’s music library and website to WNYC, as well as transmission equipment for Univision’s 105.9.

And WNYC will gain new airtime for news on its FM station, moving much of its music programming to a new pubradio channel using the famed WQXR call letters.

The new frequency, with a license that limits the transmitter to about 600 watts’ power compared with 6,000 on the old channel, will reach about 86 percent of the population now covered by WQXR, according to WNYC. Both signals are transmitted from the top of the Empire State Building, with the new WQXR reaching 30 miles and the old signal about 12 miles farther, according to the Times.

Pending FCC approval, the transaction is expected to close before year’s end, but the parties have agreed to swap channels in October.

As rumors circulated that the Times would sell WQXR — almost certainly to a buyer that would drop its classical music format — WNYC President Laura Walker approached Times executives about her station’s interest in preserving a full-time classical outlet for the city.

“It became clear that we couldn’t afford the 96.3 frequency,” Walker said. The Times put the three-way sale together with two objectives in mind, she continued. “They were trying to get as much money as they could for the station and also to preserve classical music, which is a legacy and tradition of theirs.”

Classical pianist Emanuel Ax, who co-chairs a WNYC capital campaign that went public with last week’s sale announcement, described WNYC’s purchase as “the sonic equivalent of saving Carnegie Hall from the wrecker’s ball by preserving WQXR as our sole all-classical music station.”

“I know that all of my colleagues will rejoice in this wonderful and meaningful use of the airwaves, and I urge all of New York to embrace and support WNYC’s leap of faith,” Ax said.

Ax was one of the music-lovers upset when WNYC cut back its daytime hours of music to make room for news several years ago.

With ambitions to expand its news service and continue its classical music service, WNYC tried and failed to acquire the city school board’s WNYE-FM in 2000 (Current, May 31, 2005).

The Times, which has run WQXR for 65 of its 73 years, joins a slow parade of commercial radio owners who have given up on the classical format, often leaving public radio stations to broadcast the music. In 2007, both WETA in Washington, D.C., and KUSC in Los Angeles became sole providers of classical music programming in their cities and enjoyed substantial audience gains. Miami lost its major classical station in 2002 and the Minnesota-based American Public Media Group stepped in to start a new one in 2007.

“It’s a big win for WNYC as an organization because they’ll be serving many more people now,” said veteran classical programmer Arthur Cohen, president of Public Radio Program Directors Association. Cohen, a onetime WNYC v.p., estimated that WNYC already shares roughly 25 percent of WQXR’s audience, so the public radio station could gain the vast majority of WQXR’s listeners.

The pubradio station will also benefit from WQXR’s deep ties to the city’s cultural community, Cohen said. “This is the station of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, and you could go all the way down the line to other cultural organizations. They are smart about programming their music, are very connected and have a to-die-for classical community.”

WQXR now has a weekly cume of 830,000 listeners, according to Walker, and WNYC hopes to bring all of them to the public radio service on 105.9. Even with the weaker signal, “we are confident that the vast majority can listen to 105.9.” 

WNYC’s Campaign to Preserve Classical Music in New York City aims to raise $15 million to buy and operate WQXR. The Jerome L. Greene Foundation, which contributed $6 million to WNYC’s recently-concluded $62.9 million campaign for its new headquarters and program investments, provided a $5 million challenge grant for the new campaign.                                              

Comments, tips, questions? karen (at)current.org
Web page posted Aug. 25, 2009
Copyright 2009 by Current LLC

MEANWHILE,
ON THE LEFT COAST

Pubradio is also expanding in Los Angeles, with a target audience but no FM channel so far, July 2009.

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