Seattle's classical station KING-FM tosses the profit motive

Expect more music each hour, an expanded playlist, and more live and local broadcasts from a wider ranger of performances. But ratings still matter to ensure "a broad and diverse audience."

Expect more music each hour, an expanded playlist, and more live and local broadcasts from a wider ranger of performances. But ratings still matter to ensure "a broad and diverse audience."

If you think Seattle’s classical radio station KING-FM sounds a little different this morning, thine ears do not deceive. After 63 years of commercial broadcasting, the station made the switch as of 12:01 a.m. Monday (May 2) and is now, officially, “listener supported.”

This monumental shift, brought about by a fiscal crisis first revealed nearly two years ago, came just after midnight with only minimal fanfare: a pre-recorded announcement followed by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

Gone are the slick, jingle-filled (and often jarring) 60-second commercials.  In their place are the more sedate “underwriting announcements” — those 20-second, gently exhortatory, mildly commercial fixtures that have become familiar to public radio listeners everywhere.

Program director Bryan Lowe says that without commercial spots, KING-FM can now play longer pieces without interruption, and that the station will now play a minimum of six to seven more minutes of music each hour, and often much more than that.

Lowe says that the biggest change that KING-FM listeners will notice is more music.  “We’re not removing anything from the schedule, but we are adding specialty and longer form programs,” Lowe says. “The most important thing is that we’re going from 40 live and local broadcasts each year to 60 live and local broadcasts a year, which is at least one per week,” he says. Lowe says that along with the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, and Pacific Northwest Ballet, KING-FM will also broadcast performances by groups like Seattle Pro Musica and Seattle Baroque.

Other new programs include year-round opera broadcasts on Saturday nights, with Seattle Opera director Speight Jenkins hosting at least once a month; an “International Concert Hall” broadcast at 2 p.m. on Saturdays featuring orchestral and chamber music from around the world; and a syndicated program at 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays called “The Score,” which features symphonic movie music.

Lowe says that familiar KING-FM hosts Brad Eaton, Maxine Frost, and Sean MacLean will continue to broadcast live each weekday in their respective morning, midda,y and afternoon shifts. He also says that the station won’t offer any news or traffic reports, since most listeners can easily get that information online. “But we are going to expand our playlist a bit, no doubt about it,” Lowe says, “with more vocal music and more choral music.”

Declining ratings when the “PPM” audience measurement system was deployed in Seattle in 2009 contributed to KING-FM’s troubles, and have brought about other shifts in the local radio market. Since listener numbers and translate directly into commercial advertising rates, the pressure is off KING-FM as it begins to rely on contributors rather than advertisers. But Lowe says he’ll still look at ratings to make sure KING-FM is reaching an audience. “We still want to pay attention to cultivating a broad and diverse audience.  It’s critical to our survival and to the survival of classical music in the Northwest,” Lowe says.

In preparing for the shift to listener-supported operations, KING-FM has raised about $1 million of a $2 million campaign. Late last week, the station announced a $250,000 challenge grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is now looking to secure $750,000 from KING-FM listeners to reach its goal.

To that end, that other sedate, gently exhortatory fixture of public radio — the on-air pledge drive — comes later this month.


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