KING-FM lays off three classical-music hosts

The venerable station is hit by a downturn in advertising and a new method of measuring audiences. The fine music will continue, with more of the hosts pre-recording their patter.
The venerable station is hit by a downturn in advertising and a new method of measuring audiences. The fine music will continue, with more of the hosts pre-recording their patter.

In another sign of the tepid economy and of large-scale changes in the radio industry, Seattle'ꀙs classical music station KING FM laid off three staff members this week. Gone are three very familiar presences: midday host Steve Reeder, overnight and fill-in host (and former longtime KING program director) Peter Newman, and evening host Gigi Yellen. Reeder and Newman have been associated with KING for decades, while Yellen was with the station for about six years.

Station manager Jennifer Ridewood said in a phone interview Friday that the three were let go in a cost-cutting move. While not quoting specific KING revenue declines, Ridewood said that radio revenues in the Seattle market in general are down 20 percent. Commercial time on KING-FM is sold by Fisher (owners of KOMO stations), as part of an advertising-network agreement that runs through June 2011. Ridewood said no pressure came from Fisher to make changes to programming, but she said that the two boards ('ꀜBeethoven'ꀝ and 'ꀜClassic Radio, Inc.'ꀝ) that govern KING FM directed her to reduce expenses.

KING FM was founded 61 years ago by the legendary broadcasting pioneer, Dorothy Bullitt. The station is owned by a not-for-profit partnership comprised of the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, and arts granting organization ArtsFund. Proceeds benefit all three groups (in the case of ArtsFund, money flows to a variety of smaller musical organizations). This unique partnership largely responsible for KING FM'ꀙs survival in an age when many big cities have lost classical music stations. Besides the traditional FM signal at 98.1, KING also broadcasts multiple specialized channels on the Internet and via HD. As a nonprofit station, it also conducts membership drives, seeking individual donations.

Many local radio stations are also reeling from the introduction earlier this year by Arbitron of PPM or 'ꀜPeopleMeter'ꀝ technology to measure the listening audience. PeopleMeters are beeper-sized devices carried by a statistical sampling of people in a given market, such as the Seattle area. The devices register actual exposure to particular radio signals (via an inaudible tone), rather than relying on individuals to remember what they listened to and for how long (and then later record this information in a diary, as in the old ratings system).

Ridewood says KING wasn'ꀙt a ratings powerhouse in the diary system (which mainly tracked an audience typically younger that the average KING listener), and that while the PeopleMeters registered a larger audience for KING, the amount of time spent listening dropped. Advertising rates for an individual station are mostly based on the number of listeners and time spent listening that the station can deliver.

So, apart from the loss of some familiar voices on-air, what does all this mean for KING FM? Ridewood says KING is all about great music and that listeners won'ꀙt hear a difference beyond the absence of those let go this week. However, the station has been using a technology called 'ꀜvoicetracking'ꀝ to cover overnight and some weekend periods and will begin using it even more. Voicetracking allows a host (as KING'ꀙs on-air people are called — these Mozart-spinners are NOT called DJs) to pre-record all the announcements for a four-hour show in a fraction of the time. It is likely that the layoffs this week mean that more and more of KING'ꀙs broadcast day will be programmed this way. Ridewood says the drivetime shifts (with Brad Eaton in the morning and Sean MacLean in the afternoon) will remain live; the rest of the schedule apparently is fair game for voicetracking.

Critics of voicetracking say that, at the very least, the technology takes away the spontaneity of traditional live-hosted radio, and inhibits a station from responding to changes in news and weather, for example, that their listeners may be simultaneously experiencing.

When Michael Jackson passed away in June, pop stations using voicetracking technology weren'ꀙt able to shift as quickly to Jackson tribute mode as their live-hosted counterparts. Voicetracking critics seized on this as a benign example of something much worse that could happen during a natural disaster or terror attack — when voicetracked radio stations would fiddle while Rome burned (or at least until a live host could be hustled into the studio).


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