Can classical radio draw listeners without 'dumbing down' the music?

KING-FM's Tom Olsen, who retired after decades at the station, reflects on the challenges of being a niche player in a mass-market business.
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Ed Murray, left, and Rodney Tom chat after a pre-session discussion of legislative issues.

KING-FM's Tom Olsen, who retired after decades at the station, reflects on the challenges of being a niche player in a mass-market business.

Tom Olsen wonders if he'ꀙll still have The Dream, now that the longtime music director and on-air host for classical station KING-FM has retired.

What is The Dream, exactly? Apparently, anyone who ever made a living playing music on the radio in the days of vinyl and turntables knows The Dream.

The specifics may vary, but the basic nocturnal narrative goes something like this: While on duty as a DJ, the dreamer is called away momentarily from the studio for a bathroom break, coffee refill, visit to the station'ꀙs music library, or other legitimate interruption. As the DJ steps away, a nice long piece of music plays on the turntable and the strains are heard on unseen speakers throughout the station. Tending to his task, usually in the most remote corner of the building, terror strikes as the DJ hears the needle suddenly and inexplicably reach The End of The Record. The speakers go silent, except for the career-ending sound of diamond-tip stylus skipping over vinyl. And then he wakes up.

Olsen came to KING-FM in 1980, after stumbling into a radio career (and first having The Dream) as a classical music announcer at Seattle'ꀙs KXA.

Roger Wilkins, who was program director of then-classical KXA, mentioned to Olsen that the station was in search of a part-time announcer. Wilkins knew that Olsen, who was educated at the old St. Edwards boarding school and who had studied piano and violin, already loved classical music.

When Olsen told Wilkins, 'ꀜI don'ꀙt know anything about radio,'ꀝ Wilkins was ready with an answer straight out of a B-movie: 'ꀜI can teach you radio. I can'ꀙt teach you classical music.'ꀝ

From studios at the old Arcade Building at Second Avenue and Union Street, KXA AM 770 was one of Seattle'ꀙs oldest stations. It was what'ꀙs known in the radio biz as a 'ꀜdaytimer,'ꀝ with a low-wattage transmitter, and a sunrise-to-sunset-only broadcast schedule. At least that'ꀙs how it was when Olsen started there.

'ꀜI don'ꀙt know how he did it,'ꀝ Olsen says, 'ꀜbut Pat O'ꀙDay bought KXA and got the power bumped up to 50,000 watts and permission to broadcast 24 hours a day, and turned it into an oldies station.'ꀝ

But Olsen was into Really Oldies, so an opening at KING-FM was a natural fit. He was on-air at KING-FM in a variety of shifts for nearly 20 years before being kicked upstairs (and off the mic) to the music director job, where he was responsible for making station playlists. Olsen'ꀙs last day as music director was at the end of May.

According to program director Bryan Lowe, KING-FM has named assistant music director Aaron Stoess to succeed Olsen. 'ꀜFor years now, (Aaron) has already been programming some of KING-FM, sitting right next to Tom, so this has been an easy and wonderful transition. Tom has been with KING-FM for almost half of its history . . . he really has made a difference,'ꀝ Lowe says.

During his time with KING-FM, Olsen witnessed monumental change in radio and in the classical music industry. What he laments most is what he calls a loss of 'ꀜaspirational culture'ꀝ in the world beyond classical music radio.

'ꀜI hate to be one of those people who talks about the dumbing down of the culture,'ꀝ Olsen says, but he worries that the population no longer aspires to the enrichment or self-improvement inherent in more challenging cultural pursuits, including classical music. 'ꀜIt'ꀙs too much work,'ꀝ he says.

'ꀜMy experience as a young person, it was considered bettering yourself to learn about classical music, great literature, great poetry, drama, and art. It was a way to expand your mental horizons. Now it doesn'ꀙt seem to be that way. It'ꀙs just scratching an itch now.'ꀝ

On a practical level, Olsen also wonders who will buy symphony tickets in the future and, of course, who will tune in a station like KING-FM. 'ꀜThe whole world of classical music is diminishing because fewer and fewer people are learning to love it. There'ꀙs very little interest in classical music by the majority of school-age kids and college-age kids,'ꀝ Olsen says.

Changes in listening habits and new audio technologies have contributed to KING-FM'ꀙs financial struggles, and the station will switch from commercial operation to a listener-supported model beginning in July 2011. Along with the usual fiscal finger-pointing during the recent crisis, the station has taken its fair share of criticism for what it plays on-air, which was Olsen'ꀙs bailiwick as music director.

Some complain that the KING-FM playlist favors Mozart too much, repeats selections too often, is not challenging enough for the classical connoisseur, and rarely includes full works. To these critics, Olsen says that KING-FM found room for some longer and more challenging works during the 10 pm to 3 am 'ꀜovernight'ꀝ shift.

Olsen also says that he doesn'ꀙt take the criticism personally. He never tried to please everybody all the time, and instead characterizes KING-FM as a kind of 'ꀜgateway drug'ꀝ for hooking new listeners on classical music.

'ꀜAs a commercial, mass-market media, like any newspaper or TV or radio or whatever, you'ꀙve got to try to please the most people most of the time, and niche broadcasting is shooting yourself in the foot. The people who argue for esoteric, niche programming just don'ꀙt understand what the mass market broadcaster has to do to stay alive.'ꀝ

Also changing are the rules that govern payment of royalties from broadcasters to artists. Olsen says that royalties arrangements are further complicated by Internet streaming, and that they'ꀙre 'ꀜstill in the sausage-making stage.'ꀝ As complicated as the rules may be, they didn'ꀙt concern Tom Olsen. 'ꀜI didn'ꀙt have to worry about it as music director,'ꀝ Olsen says.

Olsen says what he will miss the most about being music director for KING-FM is the opportunity to discover new recordings. Twenty years ago, record labels would send the station as many as 500 LPs and CDs each month. 'ꀜIt was an adventure not knowing what you were going to hear when you put a CD into the CD player. It was like Christmas every day,'ꀝ Olsen says.

Nowadays, the station gets about 100 CDs a month. During the peak years, Olsen says he got pretty good at picking new material, listening to two or three tracks on every CD for as little as 15 seconds each. 'ꀜYou can pretty much separate the wheat from the chaff pretty quickly,'ꀝ Olsen says.

Olsen, 62, says his retirement is unrelated to changes and challenges at KING-FM. He emphatically supports the big shift at the station, saying, 'ꀜI think the listener-supported model will save KING-FM.'ꀝ

And he will stay, in one sense: Olsen'ꀙs voice will still be heard on weekends through 'ꀜvoicetracking'ꀝ technology, or pre-recorded announcer banter, which KING-FM has used during non-peak hours for more than 30 years.

But the old-school broadcaster in Olsen understands that something is lost — perhaps just something intangible — with the increasing automation of this once most-intimate mass medium. 'ꀜThere is that bond. That'ꀙs the magic of radio, that you'ꀙre sharing something with every listener. If you'ꀙre told he isn'ꀙt there, that it'ꀙs just a computer, it takes the pizzazz out of it,'ꀝ Olsen says.

And probably makes for a better night'ꀙs sleep, too.


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