The saga of Seattle’s classical music station KING FM took an unexpected twist Thursday when officials announced that the upcoming switch from commercial operation to “listener-supported” will happen two months early. For the first time since it was founded by Dorothy Stimson Bullitt in 1948, KING FM will be commercial-free as of just after midnight on Monday, May 2. It's not entirely clear why the switch is happening ahead of schedule.
Troubles at KING FM first came to light nearly two years ago, when it was revealed that revenues were down sharply and the station no longer had the income stream to pay cash dividends to the local arts organizations — Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, and smaller musical groups — it had supported since 1995. Changing listener demographics, tectonic shifts in the radio industry, and the rise of the Internet were all blamed for the struggles.
The station’s board and management decided in early 2010 to shift KING FM to a listener-supported model, swapping commercial advertisements for jingle-free underwriting announcements (and pledge drives), a la local NPR affiliates KPLU and KUOW, and music stations KEXP and KBCS. They also launched a quiet fundraising drive to build up an operating reserve to cover the transition, and began hiring fundraising and other staff.
Earlier this year, KING FM general manager Jennifer Ridewood said in an interview that the listener-supported version of the station would feature more music, more local performances, and an expanded education mission. Ridewood also said that the “listener-supported” part of the switch does indeed mean just that: on-air pledge drives (along with corporate underwriting). Corporate underwriting will be handled by a firm called Market Enginuity, which already provides similar services to KPLU.
Choice of July 1, 2011 as the original date for the swap had been driven by an agreement KING FM had with Fisher Broadcasting (owners of KOMO radio and TV, among other properties) that was set to expire then. Under the terms of the agreement (various iterations of which have been in place since 2002), Fisher paid KING FM a monthly fee, and then Fisher sold ad time on the station and kept the revenue. For reasons that remain unclear, Fisher agreed to move up the date.
In a press release, KING FM said, “preliminary fundraising has gone well, and effective staff preparation allow for the move to occur sooner.” It also may be that Fisher foresaw difficulty selling time for a station that was publicly winding down commercial operations, and could not sell longer-term contracts. Fisher probably also saw the earlier date as a means of cutting losses by not having to pay KING FM the monthly fee.