The board that oversees 62-year-old classical music station KING-FM has decided to convert the commercially-operated station to “listener-supported” public radio format.
The change will take place July 1 next year, when an ad sales agreement with Fisher Communications expires. At that time, the station will stop airing 60-second commercial “spots” and will switch to 20-second “underwriting announcements” and occasional listener pledge drives, much like those currently heard on local public radio stations KUOW and KPLU (and already heard on KING-FM’s web streams and HD channels). The station won't carry NPR headline news.
As reported earlier by Crosscut, KING-FM has been coping with declining revenues. In September it laid off several staff members. The station also notified its beneficiaries — ArtsFund, Seattle Symphony, and Seattle Opera — that it would not be paying a dividend for the foreseeable future.
Since 1995, KING-FM had split its profits among the three groups as part of a unique ownership arrangement that kept the station in local hands following sale of KING Broadcasting’s other Pacific Northwest radio and TV stations. Up until last year, KING-FM had generated a cumulative total of nearly $7 million for the three groups, but annual dividends had declined since peaking in 1999.
Board president Chris Bayley and station general manager Jennifer Ridewood point to changes in the media landscape and shrinking commercial revenues as reasons for making the switch, as well as the success of classical stations in other parts of the country that have recently adopted the non-commercial model.
The switch requires IRS and FCC approval, and Ridewood says KING-FM has engaged attorneys to assist with both processes. The station has been advised to create a new, educational-mission-driven, not-for-profit entity to avoid possible tax burdens associated with a traditional radio station sale, and the FCC must formally approve the switch to non-commercial operation of the 98.1 FM frequency.
KING-FM has also engaged fundraising consultants and will work to raise $2 million for what they describe as a “Legacy Campaign.” Bayley says, “Two-million dollars will fund operations until the whole system of listener support is running smoothly. We can’t just turn a switch.”
Ridewood says that based on other stations’ experiences, it may take as long as five years (from July 1, 2011) for KING-FM’s listener-supported arrangement to become stable and self-supporting. KING-FM’s current annual budget of $2 million is projected to increase to $3 million, as the station will hire fundraising staff to coordinate corporate underwriting (which will replace the ad sales function currently handled by Fisher Communications) and solicitation of individual donors via web, mail, and on-air pledge drives.
Listeners should notice a big difference come July 1 next year, with more music, fewer interruptions and no more jarring commercials for mattresses. Ridewood says that the station currently plays 11 60-second commercials per hour, and in the new arrangement will instead play only “four or five, 20-second underwriting announcements” during the same period. While current KING-FM advertisers are likely targets for becoming underwriters, the agreement with Fisher prevents KING-FM from directly soliciting those companies until April, 2011.
In addition to underwriting announcements, Ridewood says KING-FM will likely have three on-air pledge drives a year, lasting roughly a week. Pledge drives would include a mixture of music and “asks,” according to Ridewood.
As for the cash contributions once enjoyed by KING-FM’s three beneficiaries, Bayley and Ridewood say that the new non-commercial KING will conduct more outreach and have more airtime available to promote local performances (in the form of free underwriting announcements) and for more local programming, including live broadcasts. Thus, the cash that once directly supported ArtsFund (for distribution to smaller musical organizations), Seattle Symphony, and Seattle Opera is being replaced by promotional benefits with less direct impact.
In spite of this, the board — which includes representatives from each of three beneficiaries — voted unanimously for the switch. “They see that this is the way for the station to survive,” Bayley says. He also says the vote reflects the board’s priority to keep KING-FM viable as a classical music station per the wishes of KING-FM founder Dorothy Bullitt, and Bullitt’s daughters Harriett Bullitt and the late Priscilla “Patsy” Collins. Harriett Bullitt is described by KING-FM as “embracing” the station’s switch to non-commercial.
Beyond keeping KING-FM on the air, Bayley is optimistic about the new non-commercial station’s potential to generate revenue, and says that the station may even start paying dividends again someday. “It could become a cash cow again in the future if we are successful,” Bayley observes.
In the meantime, the new focus on arts education and promoting local arts groups is key to the switch to non-commercial operations, as the station must demonstrate an educational mission in order to secure and maintain not-for-profit status from the IRS. Ridewood explains: “the decrease in arts education in the schools does not help classical formats in the long run, because we need people to grow and learn to love classical music. So our mission will be restructured to think about how we can support education of new audiences.”
Critics of KING-FM programming in recent years say that the station used to have local outreach, promotion of local arts events, and support for local arts education and that it never should have given them up — that a vibrant arts community and vibrant local music groups are good for a classical music station, commercial or non-commercial, because it helps develop an audience for classical music. To this, Ridewood and Bayley say that the commercial revenue focus and the arrangement with Fisher left little airtime for these activities.
Other critics have complained that KING-FM’s programming has been too mainstream, too easy-listening, and not challenging enough. Ridewood replies, “the majority of listeners are very happy with the way program director Bryan Lowe and his team program the station.” But, she says, in the non-commercial format, KING-FM will have, “a little bit more time for focused programming” highlighting particular composers, eras, or other types of classical music that don’t fit into the station’s current programming. Ridewood also says that while the focus will definitely be local, KING-FM may eventually carry some syndicated classical programming produced by NPR or other national networks.
Along with its 98.1 FM “terrestrial” signal, Ridewood says KING-FM will continue to develop its extensive Internet presence as a non-commercial station. She says that KING-FM recently received a grant from the Mellon Foundation to present a seminar for other stations about developing classical music programming for the web.
In addition to approval from the FCC and the IRS, the board and staff of KING-FM must also prove to a more fickle and more exacting body (the station’s 250,000 listeners) that they are up to the challenge of making this switch and that the station is worthy of direct financial support. Bayley says the KING-FM board is “very comfortable and very excited” with the upcoming shift, and that he believes in the station’s ability to pull it off. “We have a talented group of people deeply committed to the arts and to classical music on the radio. And we have a staff that’s demonstrated its ability to cope in a shrinking environment. They’re going to do even better in an expanding environment.”
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