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.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!