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KDFC Goes Public

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.”

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.


Can it be true that Chicago's WFMT -- once the finest classical station in the country and still arguably the one with the broadest programming scope -- is no longer a for-profit station? Its success story is amazing, and as far as I know, it has not converted to a non-profit status.

I was a long-time listener to classical music on FM, but when KDFC became the only outlet, and changed their programming to reach for the biggest audience, I stopped listening to it. At home, I listen to Rhapsody, where I have assembled my own playlists of unusual or unpopular classical composers (along with the chestnuts I still love,) and where I can find just about any kind of classical I want, including vocal, pre-baroque, 21st century etc. If KDFC plans to continue its lowest-common-denominator version of classical programming, I won't be back. In my car, I prefer KCSM. Their jazz programming has the kind of integrity I used to get from classical FM stations, and would love to see revived.

Perhaps now, after each classical piece, there will be a moment of aesthetic pause.

During the for-profit phase, there wasn't a full second of such brevity to allow the listener's ear to adjust, what with a commercial or announcer interruption, especially after a dolce performance of Delius or Fouré.

I believe that the parent company of WFMT and WTTW in Chicago is the nonprofit Window to the World Communications, Inc.

If the programming can match the fabulous variety of KUSC, I'll be listening and i'll be sending my money. On my frequent trips to LA, the only solace of being in that city was listening to the great mix of classical music on KUSC. I for one was not interested in KDFC's programming from "an island of sanity." I want programming that introduces me to new things, plays vocal and choral music, large works, string quartets, etc. etc. As soon as the signal gets improved I'll be really happy!

It will be nice if they play entire pieces, and not just single movements, a nd if they stop considering classical music as background noise at work, an insult to the composer and the performer. I can work with my hands but not with my head while listening to music. And if they could play a broader spectrum of music. When I lived in WV (yes, poor benighted WV) we could hear country, early, mountain, experimental, humorous, organ, and opera programs--and the BBC's old My Music, now playing on KALW. I'd send money...

Thanks for the coverage. Good to get as much of the story as possible

If the "new" KDFC continues with its bubble gum approach to the classics, they won't have me as a listener. There are now several internet radio options (e.g. radioio) where the integrity of complete works is respected and I can expect to hear music I've not yet discovered (yes, some of it written in the 20th and 21st centuries). What they have served up for the most part until now is essentially classically inspired muzak.

From where I live I'm not going to be able to get KDFC any more -- they're talking about improvement of reception in the South Bay and elsewhere but have not mentioned east of the East Bay Hills. 90.3 is a blank spot on my dial right now.
But if KDFC continues as it has been doing in the past, it's no great loss.
"Bubble-gum music," "classical muzak," are pretty fair descriptions of their programming. What kind of a "classical music" station is it that hardly ever plays a whole symphony or any other complete work?
I appreciated the SF Symphony and SF Opera broadcasts, and Nicolas McGegan's Philharmonia program on Sunday nights, but that's about it.
Other than the SF Opera broadcasts, btw, KDFC has seemed to be completely allergic to opera. Typical of this station -- I remember when they managed to schedule a program to "celebrate" Rossini's birthday without a single aria. (Overtures only.)

WFMT Chicago is unique in that it is licensed to broadcast as a commercial station, but it is owned by the not-for-profit Window to the World Communications, which also operates WTTW, the public PBS-TV affiliate.

I lived in the Los Angeles area for years and loved that station. Few classical stations can rival it. So I am overjoyed the by news that it has purchased KDFC--if KUSC wants to maintain its reputation for really good programming, it will make sure that KDFC moves away from that single-movement, lite, non-vocal programming that has defined it for so long. Since moving to the SF Bay Area, I have been consistently puzzled and disheartened by the fact that a city like San Francisco did not have a really good classical station. When I lived in Concord, I enjoyed Capitol Public Radio out of Sacramento (decent classical station), but once I moved to Richmond I couldn't get that any longer. KDFC has much, much room for improvement; let's hope that KUSC helps to guide that. "...Mozart Requiem on a Wednesday night..."? Why the heck not? It's a beautiful piece any time, and it need not be confined to Sunday mornings, for chrissake.

music... or any art should not be for profit because then you get the least-common-denominator least challenging thing that will appeal to the masses-- not truly personal or meaningful art. So this is great news!

You can always listen online to, Dallas' 24/7 classical radio station (yes, Dallas of all places). The station is owned by the City's Office of Cultural Affairs and it is just a regular commercial station.

Internet radio is a great alternative to what passes for classical broadcasting in the US. Start at OperaCast, because the stations on their resource page broadcast all kinds of classical music. My favorites include Bartok Radio and Cesky Rohzlas.

The Internet is a great thing. Instead of streaming KDFC, why not use the opportunity to tap into some absolute gems with honest and provocative classical programming (without coming across as "stuffy"), like the 24-hour classical station WCPE operating out of Raleigh/Durham. The belt out their signal at 100,000 watts (can be heard from Virginia to Georgia). No idea why we can't get the same coverage out here. If you all have ever been up to Mammoth and listened to your radio up there, WCPE is the classical station that has some repeater frequencies in that area.

I second the plea for more choral music and also ask if I will be able to hear the Napa signal in Santa Rosa. I doubt it. That section of the band is already crowded with public radio.

I remember the 60's and 70's at KKHI and KDFC - I heard my first Bruckner symphonies, Stravinsky ballets, Szymanowksi choral works there while still in grade school - Bill Hollenbeck spun things like thes after midnight but during the day both stations played complete works. After the demise of KKHI, KDFC clearly took the chopped liver route and I never listened again - though I still admire Diane Nicolini's voice and demeanor. I hope the public KDFC follows the format of KXPR in Sacramento - outstanding programming, never boring, and after 40 years of listening, I occasionally hear a piece I've never heard before. Regardless of the demographics and the proverbial bottom line, KDFC did a great dis-service to music using the cookie cutter approach. I hope they return to presenting music as it was written.

Seems like most folks here have found their preferred venues online for streaming classical music, but for those who are interested, SFCV published a great article about internet radio a couple of years back, with a large number of links to great stations: Jeff Rosenfeld's

My Love Affair With Internet Radio

Most online music services such as Pandora only play single movements as well. As much as I love Pandora, it doesn't do any better than KDFC's (hopefully old) single movement policy. Can't wait to see if that changes.

Great article! Fascinating about that ratings system!

The "behind closed doors" sale of KUSF to Entercom was pretty underhanded for a Christian university. USF obviously doesn't give a darn for a lot of people who for the thirty plus years of KUSF's existence made the station a uniquely San Franciscan broadcast. As much as I love classical music this move is a disgrace and completely money driven.

From where I live I can't get KDFC any more -- the 90.3 is just static. The only "good accident" that did happen was I seem to have found a somewhat poor (but tolerable) version of ESPN Radio. Basically, my only real serious interests are classical music & sports. I play an instrument in three community orchestras and I have a good collection of CD's, but no computer (can't afford the "keep up with the Jones's" money game) at this time. I miss not having any classical music to help me get to sleep; despite the fact that KDFC's "classical muzak" format was not that good, it was better than nothing. And, as some others have implied, it is all driven by (the evil) of big money. (Or, as a music acquaintance of mine once said in anger: nothing matters except for g.. d... cars & g.. d... money.)

Excellent article from behind the radio dial!

A couple of points -

Internet, streaming radio isn't tethering listeners to computers anymore thanks to new technology - there are special 'radios' for this now.

The new KDFC will, I think, eventually, better serve the greater Bay Area with wider programming than the for-profit model. Glad to hear they are looking to hire another new on-air host. Rare opportunity for some lucky and talented job-seeker!

In the meantime, if you need, go on line and try up here in Portland Oregon. After I left the Bay Area 10 years ago, I found an entire world & centuries of music on this wonderful station.

I can only pick up your station in the SF north bay on 89.9 F.M. and it is very weak. Please do something to increase the signal power. I loved KUSC when I lived in SoCal for 40 years, and am looking forward to their style of programing once again.

As a loooonnnng time professional in the radio business, I have a huge problem not only with KDFC's music policy -- "bubblegum classical" is too kind a description -- but with the way the station presents the music. It is amateurish and an insult to the listener. I want to hear the name of the selection, the name of the composer, the name of the performing entity, the name of the conductor (if applicable) and the name(s) of the soloists (if applicable). With KDFC, you're lucky if you get half this information; on orchestral works, they constantly omit the names of the conductor and/or the soloist(s). The capper came last week when they were counting down their Hot 100, winding up with the Beethoven 9th. Not only did the announcer apparently not back-time the selection correctly, since he interrupted the climax of the piece with his back-announcement (!); he gave us Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, but no vocal soloists! (What the heck, they aren't important.) And since Abbado has recorded this work at least twice with the Berlin Phil, which of those recordings was it? This is Announcing 101. I could cite many more examples, but this is the most egregious yet. I am amazed that in a market allegedly this sophisticated, listeners would put up with this stuff without a giant outcry.

I loved the concept of "classical & then some". It was a wonderful mix of thinking outside of the box and it was a concept that got me hooked on KDFC. I am grateful that I can get the station on my laptop because the radio is useless. The lap top has a very "tinny" sound to it but no static. Hope you can strenghten the signals soon. I bought a Bose Wave System because music is sooo important to me. Would like to be able to use it again to listen to KDFC.

In all honesty, I find your programming now is rather ponderous & boring. I would like to hear something more innovative; a more creative mix- vocals, for instance. You often play music from Lord of the Rings(heavenly). How about thinking outside of the box and playing Annie Lennox singing the Academy Award song"Into The West"; beautiful & moving. How about playing Kitka(home town group) from their cassette(don't know if it is on CD)"Voices On The Eastern Wind". First song, just glorious!!!.

Come on!! You've got the talent. Put it together as I know you are so capable of doing.

I've sent in a donation and will do so again. I want to see this station really rock!.

Elizabeth O'Connor

I stopped listening to KDFC when the commercials became intrusive and noisy and the selections indicated a lack-luster, routine programming. I cannot tell you how pleased I am at this recent turn of events. Now, I turn KDFC on the moment I get up in the morning, listen to it all day, and end the day with it. This is the best thing to happen to the BayArea since the Golden Gate Bridge (music-lovers would find this no exaggeration).

We can sometimes hear it at 89.9 in the car, but never in the house.
And I agree with Mr. O'Daniel: several years ago KDFC stopped regularly giving details about the music before playing it, and maybe after, too. Before then, we were even told the date the music was written!

We have been listening to your classical from the beginning and it has kept us sane. on the freeways and on vacations .'We bought a Bose radio for our home to listen to your music and........then you moved the station North. We live in Los Altos and the signal is so week now that we can not get good reception or sometimes none at all. Can we hope that this will change in the near future?????? so far you are the only classical radio station that we have found and we love it.we miss you. DN

Sorry I can't hear my favourite KDFC anymore :-(