January 25, 2011
Last week, as SFCV’s newsletter was being sent out, the sale of KDFC, the Bay Area’s major classical music radio station, was announced. The station was taken on by nonprofit KUSC, which is operated by the University of Southern California. The KDFC signal immediately moved to 90.3 FM, preempting the University of San Francisco’s KUSF station, a move that has caused supporters of the college station to protest vehemently.
Many of us were surprised by the sale, given how wide an audience the station served but, as Station Manager Bill Lueth explained, “profitable” is not always “profitable enough” for a publicly traded corporation like KDFC’s recent owners, Entercom.
“We were the last for-profit classical station in America,” said Lueth, “so the target was on our back a little bit. But Entercom were classical fans and really wanted to make a go of it. They signed on for three years and made it almost four. But with the economy the way it is, when the ratings system changed a couple of years ago, that affected every classical station in America. That’s why WQXR in New York had to go public, WCRV in Boston, WTMI in Miami, King in Seattle — all those stations have been annihilated by the new ratings system, and by the way that business is conducted in modern radio.
“Most revenue is generated by your 25-54 [age demographic] ranker in your market. You don’t get to tell your story. When the ratings system changed, that [demographic number] dropped. KDFC was always a top-ten station in total audience, but the 25-54 became less competitive. And when the economy tanked, advertisers would buy less deep — they would only buy the top five stations in a market.”
According to Lueth, in the old ratings system, respondents would be asked to write down what they listened to every week. In the new system, for a small fee, the respondent would wear a device that would let the ratings agency record automatically what they listened to. “For the whole Bay Area, that was only a few thousand people at a time being measured in a market of six million,” said Lueth. “How many lawyers and doctors and upper management are willing to wear this device every day?”
You can’t prove it, but the potential problem for KDFC is that a good portion of their audience wasn’t measured in the new system.
Although the immediate effect of the frequency change was a drop in power, Lueth said that problem is already well on the way to being solved.
“We’re already filing an upgrade with the FCC on 90.3. We’re going to move the transmitter higher and ‘up’ the power on it. That has to go through FCC approval, but it’s already funded. We also have added a new antenna for the 89.9 signal up in Napa Valley, and that will improve that signal. That’s funded and we’ve already ordered it. Our goal is to win the approval and get it all done by the fall. We also just got approval to be in full search mode, starting right now, for a South Bay signal. We’re ready to go and funded for it — we just need to find someone who wants to unload their station for a price that we think is fair. Now remember, we have, I think, the biggest online classical audience in the country, and I know we have the biggest radio audience online in the Bay Area. So when we lose 102.1, our online audience is just going to pop. There will be a lot of people who tune us in online.”
As Lueth had promised last week when the sale was announced, all of KDFC’s popular hosts will remain with the station, and much of the programming structure will remain. There will be many fewer commercials, of course, and they will mainly be of the local underwriting variety. But Lueth will be able to experiment with formats without looking over his shoulder. “The challenge for us,” he said, “will be to find the balance between those who want a nice, gentle mix and those who want more. We do think there’s opportunities to go a little deeper in the off hours. Yesterday, if Rick were doing a theme on Mozart’s death day, we wouldn’t play the Mozart Requiem on a Wednesday night. But now I might.”
As always, Lueth is gearing his decisions toward what makes better radio. “We’re going to add another full-time announcer really quickly, because now we don’t have to justify every decision with a 50 percent profit margin. Now you just have to make sure that you can pay for it. And now I run the whole thing as the president of KDFC, so that’s an opportunity for me to get involved in the whole big picture, too.”
The new structure changes the way KDFC does business. Most obviously, said Lueth, “We’re more of a partner directly with the community now, rather than a service that plays classical music while we try to make money. Those two things are no longer at odds. We will do funding drives, in some fashion. I’m hoping that I can bring my twisted mind to do it in some more palatable fashion, but I haven’t thought about it yet.”
Meanwhile, the dust has not yet settled from the surprise sale of KUSF. An affiliation of local citizens, called Save KUSF, plans to rally today before the San Francisco Board of Supervisor’s meeting, at 1 p.m. at City Hall. They are trying to block FCC approval of the sale of the station. According to their press release, “With nine languages represented on the air (including programs like ‘Chinese Star Radio’) KUSF has been a cultural oasis and reflection of a diverse listening audience. Programs like these are now in jeopardy and it has not been made clear by USF whether the future of KUSF would include community members as well as serve the student population.”