|Listeners & viewers|
The changing economics of small audiences II
Giving classical music a better chance of success on commercial radio
Adapted from Current, Feb. 3, 1997
By Steve Behrens
Worried about the future of classical music on the radio? Look to Tulsa for one way to make a go of it. For the next few years, it may prove to be a successful formula for bringing niche-audience programming to commercial radio in moderate-size markets.
The package combines (1) the cost savings of a packaged satellite feed plus (2) the economies of operating multiple stations in a market--"multicasting"--as now permitted under loosened FCC rules.
The combination could work just as well for public radio stations, but in Tulsa, it's a commercial operator that is turning a profit. This is happening in the same Oklahoma city where the public radio station, KWGS-FM, dropped its classical format in 1992 and the commercial classical music station KCMA ("Keep Classical Music Alive") gave up the ghost in 1994.
Tulsa is one of nine cities so far--the largest are San Diego and Milwaukee--that have outlets for the two-year-old Classic FM service syndicated by Sony Corp.'s SW Networks.
Bringing in the programming over the satellite made it affordable for Shamrock Communications to switch a poor-performing oldies station to classical music, says Rick Cohn, g.m. of Shamrock's two Tulsa stations.
KCFM began airing Sony's Classic FM last April, and the station became profitable in November, Cohn says. "We were pleasantly surprised." But it's early to say whether it will continue to meet audience growth expectations.
Shamrock was persuaded to chose Mozart & the Gang, Cohn says, by a market survey last year that indicated the classics would be just as successful as a soft adult contemporary format--one of the largest targets then available in Tulsa.
In October, KCFM's owners gave the format a vote of confidence, buying the frequency that the station had been using under a leased management agreement.
A similar formula may bring back classical music to public radio in Tulsa. KWGS, which switched to a format based on NPR News five years ago, is seeking a second frequency for a new classical outlet, says General Manager Frank Christel.
Like KCFM, the public radio station would benefit from the shared overhead of multicasting, plus the cost savings of canned programming--Minnesota Public Radio's Classical 24 service.
When the public station had its mixed classical/news/jazz format, it could only afford to use students as announcers, which was not satisfactory, Christel recalls. Now, with a satellite-fed package, he won't need to hire announcers, student or otherwise. He figures that KWGS can bring back a classical service without adding any staff at all. "Multiple stations are the key to it."
"You gotta be kidding"
Programming experts say that the economics of networking and multicasting create the potential for many more commercial radio stations to adopt classical formats, and possibly other niche formats that heretofore worked only in public radio.
A well-run classical music station can draw a middle-ranking audience share in a market, says Robert Unmacht, editor of the M Street Journal, a radio trade publication, but few commercial broadcasters go classical because the industry maintains "a hefty bias" against the format. The industry also had a bias against country music, however, and that certainly has changed.
"It's not an industry that goes out looking for new things they can do," says Unmacht. "They look for things that are easy to do. Sony will have a lot of selling to do."
Tony Rudel agrees. The selling is his job, as v.p. of classical programming at SW Networks in New York City. He's a former programming v.p. at New York's commercial classical WQXR-FM and son of opera conductor Julius Rudel.
Selling Classic FM is "an education process," he says. "Commercial broadcasters for a long time have been scared by the word, 'classical.' If you're a broadcaster who's come out of rock radio, you hear something that's alien to what you're used to."
When he first met with the Scranton, Pa., owners of the Cohn's Tulsa stations, their initial reaction to the classical music option was "you gotta be kidding me," Rudel recalls.
Sony, of course, has a unique additional reason to promote classical music, as owner of a major classical recording label, formerly Columbia Records. "Synergy with records is a consideration," Rudel acknowledges.
Though Classic FM's growth in its first two years has been slow, Rudel contends it is "on target," with a 10th affiliate yet to be announced.
In theory, formats like classical could grow quickly, now that so many stations are managed centrally by chain owners, says Michael Arnold, program director at public radio station WWNO in New Orleans. "Previously, you had to sell one station at a time." Companies can now own as many as eight stations in a market (with up to five of them being FM), and are managing them as groups.
Tony Sanders, managing editor of Radio Business Report, says, "One of the main benefits to this new round of industry consolidation is that it will allow group owners to experiment with some of their smaller stations, since they'll have the diversity of revenue streams to take more of a gamble."
Operators increasingly are consolidating operations in a single building, Sanders says, but they're wise not to try merging sales staffs. In Tulsa, Cohn has kept separate sales staffs for his classical and alternative rock stations, since he's found zero overlap among their advertisers.
But that diversity can actually work in favor of niche formats, comments Craig Oliver, president of public radio's Radio Research Consortium.
"If you're Infinity Broadcasting, a big group owner, and you go into a market and buy five radio stations, your goal is to control a demographic," says Oliver. The owner wants to draw a big share of that particular age group so that it can compete for ad sales with the local newspaper. "You do it buy owning five stations or more, each targeting a portion of the demo you're going after." Four frequencies might carry variations on rock music and the fifth, classical music.
A multicaster might also consider giving a channel over to news, especially if it already has news resources as Westinghouse/CBS does, though operating costs are high. Oliver believes the new entries wouldn't necessarily threaten public radio. When Westinghouse tried news/talk on KPIX in San Francisco, it had a different appeal than KQED-FM and little effect on the public station, Oliver says.
Opening those iron doors
While networking and multicasting may be key to the economic success of niche formats, Sony is also betting that presentation can make Classic FM a hit.
Even some of today's strongest classical stations are handicapping themselves with an elitist presentation and draw "embarrassing" shares of the audience, says Rudel. In Chicago, he says, "WFMT does not sound like a radio station; it sounds like something that was around 50 years ago."
Rudel sees a chance to attract some of the album-oriented-rock (AOR) audience in the 34-50 age group. "They're still listening to '60s and '70s rock, but they're looking for variety. Smooth jazz became an option; why can't classical become an option?" His answer is to have the familiar AOR disc jockeys serve up the classics.
A marketing brochure for the service promises: "No starchy-sounding musicologists on the air for Classic FM U.S.; our air staff knows that their job is to let the music entertain their listeners."
Christel, at the public station in Tulsa, says Sony's on-air sound is "absolutely excellent," though "it tends a little too much toward the light, bright and buoyant." And its local commercials blare as if produced for use on a rock outlet.
Cohn, who subscribes to the Sony service in Tulsa, says classical music would be aired more widely if broadcasters were "treating it like a real radio station" with an accessible, contemporary presentation like Sony's.
Classic FM pulls out movements from a symphony and plays them like pop songs, says Cohn. "Since I'm not educated in classical music, I enjoy the music very much without knowing what I'm missing. ... I can listen to a piece on the way to work and get it all in."
"There are no longer the iron doors that say you shouldn't start listening if you're not already knowledgeable about the format," he says. "We're not here to educate as much as we are to entertain."
Niche networks like Classic FM now have an opportunity to grow in terrestrial broadcasting, but over the longer term, they may find more openings in other national delivery media, including satellite digital audio broadcasting (DAB), telephone or cable hookups, or even possible hybrids like Internet/cellular radio.
The satellite-fed national jukeboxes will be at a disadvantage if they lack local content, Unmacht predicts. But that doesn't condemn satellite broadcasting to failure. Eventually, he suspects, even local broadcasters may use satellites to reach listeners.
As in television, subscription-supported services may have the greatest revenue potential to support costly niche services that compete with public broadcasting.
"We don't know whether [satellite DAB] will be a commercially supported or subscriber-supported animal," says Broadcast Engineering/Radio Editor Skip Pizzi. "Depending on which way it goes, it could have more quality service if it's subscription-oriented--and thereby have more of an effect on public radio." Most of the applicants for satellite DAB licenses propose subscription services, Pizzi says.
Bringing in the programming by satellite made it affordable for the Tulsa station to switch a lagging oldies station to classical music.
Related story: The economics of TV are
changing, too, but it's not clear whether they'll change enough
to favor cable networks as a way of serving the small audiences
that are now served by public TV.
Current Briefing on the audiences of public broadcasting.
Web page created April 5, 1997