KING FM makes the switch (in 2011)

KING FM has finally decided to make the switch. And it only took six decades.

In a press release yesterday, Seattle’s classical radio station announced they would become a listener-supported station effective July 2011. Since 1948, when the station was founded by Dorothy Stimson Bullitt, it has used a commercial broadcasting model.

The switch to a listener-supported model isn’t surprising. Many commercial radio stations and especially commercial classical stations have struggled in recent years. Stations can point to a variety of reasons for their difficulty, but the one-two punch of a faltering economy and new audience measurement methodologies crippled the remaining commercial classical stations across the country.  The biggest victim of the changing reality for commercial classical radio was WQXR which was absorbed by WNYC late last year.

KING has struggled for some time, but the difficulties came to the forefront when the People Meter rating system was adopted, and KING’s audience “disappeared,” as Crosscut reported.  The difficulties continued through last year and culminated with the lay off of a number of on-air personalities including Gigi Yellen (who is an occasional contributor to this blog.)

While the long-term consequences of KING’s changing business model will develop over the coming months and years, there are obvious reasons to think the change could lead to a classical radio renaissance in Seattle when the switch finally occurs.

For decades, KING has been a gold standard in classical broadcasting.  KING provided me a healthy dose of discovery when I first moved to Seattle. I could often count on being able to turn the radio on and hear a new piece of music or learn something from the intelligent and informed on-air hosts.  But in today’s diverse media universe and the ubiquity of music fueled by digital media players, iPhones, the Internet, and satellite radio the KING sound became homogenized. On any given day you can count on a steady stream of pleasant classical period music in the morning, inoffensive baroque music at lunch, and romantic staples in the evening.

Over time KING became a back up listening choice for me. If I couldn’t decide on a CD to take with me in the car before heading out for the day, had heard enough Morning Edition, and didn’t feel in the mood to listen to KEXP, I could count on KING to fill the silences in my car, but not much else.

With the switch to a listener-supported model, I hope KING’s predictable  programming becomes a thing of the past. Instead of programming for the casual listener, KING can turn its attention to its devoted community of committed listeners. The station can begin to renew an emphasis on local programming. I hope it will mean the return of pieces longer than ten minutes during peak listening hours. Why should people have to tune in at 9 pm to hear the Sibelius Violin Concerto? And, it should mean on-air personalities are given more latitude in how they develop their programs. The new business model gives the station a rare opportunity to adjust programming to create a truly unique classical music listening experience.

The switch also gives the station a chance to reboot its digital and online presence. KING was at one point an early adopter of streaming audio. Now just about every radio station streams online.  If KING hopes to cultivate a new generation of listeners, a better online presence is a must (how about an iPhone application for starters?)  A Mellon Foundation grant will help.  KEXP offers a model that KING would be wise to consider emulating. KEXP seems to have successfully integrated online programming that contextualizes broadcast programming. Daily downloads, pod casts, downloadable studio performances, and other content enhances the listening experience.

With the switch happening 2011 there is plenty of time to work out the business details, give radio personalities more programming autonomy, and enhance the station’s web presence.  The long lead time will also let listeners ease into the new KING-FM.  Let’s hope the switch is worth the wait.


One thought on “KING FM makes the switch (in 2011)

  1. I recently made some comments at crosscut regarding the switch to listener-supported radio. I don’t wish to belabor what I said at that site, but while Seattle will experience substantial mprovement with the switch, do not necessarily expect a challenging and exciting musical experience all the time with a listener-supported format. Our own KQAC in Portland can still be rather bland. Our experience down here in Portland has been one of increasing budgets and lengthy and aggressive pledge drives. KING is already at a 2 million dollar budget and headed perhaps to 3 million. Don’t underestimate the difficulties of raising that kind of money from business underwriting and listeners. My understanding is that only 10 percent of the 100,000 plus listeners here in Portland contribute. That number has stayed pretty constant. Granted, KING has a larger audience and perhaps more money, but expect that the vast majority of listeners will try to get something for nothing. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about our station is that the hosts still are not particularly creative in music selections (still lots of war horses and easy listening). The need for quasi-commmercials and donation dollars still limits the length and type of music that is played, especially during the daytime. Sorry if I sound a bit down beat, but this is the reality down here in Portland. Despite all this, listener supported classical radio is still the way to go. I just would caution Seattle listeners about expecting too much.

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