KING-FM on track, one year after switch to listener-supported

The first year netted nearly 14,000 members, the classical-music station reports. It expects to be breaking even by 2014.
Crosscut archive image.

One of KING-FM's signature programs in the afternoon rush hour.

The first year netted nearly 14,000 members, the classical-music station reports. It expects to be breaking even by 2014.

It’s been just over a year since Seattle’s classical music radio station KING FM, after six decades as a commercial station, made the switch and adopted the listener-supported model.  By all accounts, a first birthday bash is in order for our community’s youngest pledge drive promoter.

All radio stations, whether commercial or listener-supported, must raise money to stay in business by selling airtime to organizations and businesses.  Commercial stations call these chunks of time “spots,” while non-profit stations call them “underwriting announcements.”  KING FM is on track to bring in about $660,000 from the latter in 2012.  This figure is far below the nearly $2 million that KING FM brought in from spots during its last full year of commercial operations back in 2010, but a listener-supported station has other potential revenue streams that KING FM has begun to exploit.

Unlike commercial stations, public radio broadcasters also solicit individuals for annual  tax-deductible donations.  During KING FM’s first year of non-commercial operations, nearly 14,000 people stepped up to contribute, with average donations of $124 (that tops the industry average by $24).

Such revenue numbers don't pay all of the station's operating expenses, which are estimated to be $2.89 million for 2012. General Manager Jennifer Ridewood says that the station is midway through a five-year plan and is on track to grow revenue from underwriting and membership and break even by 2014 if not sooner.  She says that the current shortfalls are covered by funds raised for that purpose while KING FM was preparing to make the switch.

Ridewood says that KING FM has more listeners.  “They’re are liking what they hear,” she says, reporting that the station’s “Average Weekly Cume” (the total number of unique listeners in a typical week) has grown from 250,000 to 300,000 in the past few months.  In addition, she reports the average listener is now tuned to KING FM 3 hours and 40 minutes a week, up by 20 minutes over the previous six-month period.

Like many radio stations, KING FM is concerned about the age of those ears.  Ridewood says the average KING FM listener is 55 years old, which just so happens to have been the average listener age back when Ridewood first joined KING FM in 1992.  To keep the audience growing, Ridewood says KING FM is working to continue to expand beyond the terrestrial broadcast signal through its online streams (which were among the earliest on the Internet); and through a smartphone app that was introduced last year, and a consistent presence on social media.  The station is also planning to expand its efforts in local education and is weighing formal partnerships with local school districts to supplement curriculum and focus on long-term audience development for classical music.

As far as competition goes, Ridewood has her eye on Pandora and other online radio competitors that people can turn to for classical music, but she feels that KING FM has an advantage.  “They don’t do classical as well as we do it.  Pandora doesn’t have the local feel and the curating of it, those stories behind it, and the passion for the music that comes out from the host.  As long as we stay true to that, we’ll be fine,” Ridewood predicts.

In addition to the growing audience and new revenue streams, Ridewood is aware of a larger shift, one less obvious to listeners.  “I have to say KING FM does feels like a community radio station now.  We’re much more open.  We have much more input from listeners, from arts group and advisory boards, and it feels like a better way to run the station,” she says.

Ridewood also says that she has been pleasantly surprised by how the other listener-supported stations "are supportive of each other.” She says that management at KPLU, KUOW and KEXP “answered any question we asked” during the transition.

Did she trust the other stations to be truthful with advice to yet another pledge drive competitor?  “I did the opposite of what they said,” Ridewood says, laughing.

  

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