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Classical fades from the dial

As stations move to pop/rock or talk, fans flee to Internet and satellite radio

By Lisa Leigh ParneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 15, 2002



If you bought a radio station in 1955 for $8,000 and someone offered $165 million for it today, would you take it?

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Before you could say Beethoven's Ninth, the owners of the classical station WNIB-FM, in Chicago, last year sold their station to the Bonneville International Corp. of Salt Lake City. The new owners switched off Beethoven and Bach and switched on Doobie Brothers and the Doors. Since then, ratings for the renamed "WDRV – The Drive" have soared.

"If you are an owner who is not committed to this format, it's very hard to walk away from a large-scale offer," says Mario Mazza, vice president of programming at Boston's only commercial classical-music radio station, WCRB.

Across the country, giant corporations like Bonneville are swallowing up classical radio stations and switching to pop or rock formats to win a larger share of ratings and boost profits.

Last week, managers at WNYC (one of two classical stations in New York) announced that the station would trim five hours of its daily classical programming in favor of talk and cultural shows.

In January, to the horror of classical-music lovers, Cox Communications bought Miami's top-rated classical station, WTMI, and switched it to a techno-dance format. "It's not that the stations are performing poorly," Mr. Mazza points out. WTMI was the sixth- highest-rated station in the market (out of 40) and made a nice profit of $6 million. It's just that even more listeners – and higher profits – were possible with a new sound.

"Where commercial radio is concerned, classical music has fallen victim to the profit motive," says Martin Goldsmith, program director of classical music at XM Satellite Radio, based in Washington. "More and more stations are owned by fewer and fewer companies. There are desires among commercial broadcasters to make as much money as they possibly can."

Several decades ago, listeners might find six or seven classical stations in a single city. Now, they're lucky to find one, even in big cities such as Detroit or Philadelphia.

"The business side of classical music is changing significantly," says Tom Bartunek, president and program director at the classical station WQXR in New York. "Radio stations are dropping the format, and record companies are reducing dramatically the product they are creating or repackaging."

Radio programming isn't the only aspect of classical music being affected. Several orchestras, including those in St. Louis and south Florida, are being forced to tighten their belts. The San Jose (Calif.) Symphony suspended operations in October because of a $2 million deficit. And at the Virgin Record Store in Chicago, classical inventory has been cut in half to make room for more popular movie DVDs.

"Part of the crisis of classical music is the crisis of unrealistic expectations," says Mr. Bartunek, whose station attracts 900,000 listeners daily and close to 100,000 who listen online. "In its whole history, [classical] has never been a broadly popular kind of music, and it still isn't. It probably never will be."

But Bartunek and other station managers like Mazza say they strongly believe that there is a demand for classical music – they just need to find more creative ways of keeping current listeners and attracting new ones.

For instance, WQXR relaunched its website (www.wqxr.com) this year. It features concert tips, playlists for every day of the month, and advice on how to build a classical music library. And if there isn't a classical-music station in your city, you can also listen to WQXR and most other classical stations online, from anywhere in the United States.

More and more listeners are turning to the Internet, but they're also discovering recently introduced satellite radio.

XM Satellite Radio offers listeners 70 music channels and 30 news channels, including four classical-music channels, for about $10 a month (after buying the special receiver).

"It's sort of like cable TV, only for radio," says Mr. Goldsmith. "Satellite radio seems to be catching on faster than any other new technological-entertainment innovation of the last 20 years – faster than the CD, the VCR, and the DVD." It's an option now being offered in 2003 automobiles, like the Cadillac Escalade, or it can be custom-installed in any vehicle.

Goldsmith, former host of a daily classical-music show, "Performance Today," on National Public Radio, says he hears from people across the country who are enjoying satellite radio, including a truck driver based in St. Paul, Minn., who describes himself as "not your typical classical listener."

"What a great joy it is to have classical music throughout my long hauls between the Twin Cities, Texas, and New York," he writes.

Mazza, meanwhile, says he believes that most broadcasters don't understand the classical format, and so they don't know how to be successful with it, he says. "The key is strong sales people. "That's even more important with a format that's not as mainstream as a pop format...."

Classical radio, Mazza says, is facing an uphill battle because advertisers are most attracted to the coveted 25- to 54-year-old audience. Classical does well with the over-55 crowd.

If there's one other genre that classical radio can be compared with, it's country music. "Country has done a great job over the last decade into changing that position," Mazza says. "They've got some fresh new talent, and the music is essentially the same, but it's been updated."

"Classical has not been able to change that perception, unfortunately. Consequently, people believe it is one thing, when it is really something else – and something decidedly better than what they think it is."

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