POSTED April 25, 2010 on http://www.nytimes.com — by Elizabeth Jensen
In the last decade, public radio stations could not get rid of classical music fast enough, as station after station abandoned the format for news and talk, alienating classical fans. Just 19 commercial classical stations remain on the air nationwide, by one count, down from about 50 in the early 1990s. But as ad-supported programmers also decide that the classical format is no longer practical, the music has started to find a new savior. And, to the surprise of many, it is public broadcasting.
In New York, WNYC did not win fans in the classical world when, in April 2002, it dropped music from its day hours on the FM station, substituting public affairs talk shows.
So there was some trepidation among classical radio listeners when WNYC bought the commercial classical station WQXR from The New York Times Company last year.
Despite moving to the frequency 105.9 FM, a weaker signal on the dial, WQXR, under its new owners, has thrived. In January 2009, under its previous owners, the station was reaching an average weekly audience of 706,700 listeners; by February 2010, that number had jumped to 834,400, according to Arbitron figures supplied by the station.
That is enough to make it the top Arbitron-rated station in all of public radio, WNYC officials said.
WQXR had a successful one-day fund-raiser in December, raising $328,429 from 3,026 pledges. The goal of its first full pledge drive in February was about $750,000 from members; instead it took in $1.3 million, said Laura R. Walker, president and chief executive of WNYC Public Radio, the parent of the three stations. That came from nearly 10,000 people, 57 percent of whom had never given to WNYC before.
They gave an average gift of $132, higher than the average $112 that listeners gave to WNYC AM and FM in the same period. Those two news and talk stations, by way of comparison, raised $1.96 million combined.
The surprising result, she said, “shows we will be able to build a sustainable model here that is a diversified revenue base.”
Similar successes have occurred nationwide. In Boston, public broadcaster WGBH-FM had long offered news, talk and classical music. Last fall, it bought the commercial classical station WCRB-FM from Nassau Broadcasting Partners of New Jersey and moved its classical programming there. On March 18, the station set a WGBH Radio record for a single day of on-air fund-raising, raising $102,001 from 1,190 supporters, Jeanne Hopkins, a spokeswoman, said.
Marc Hand, a managing director of Public Radio Capital, a Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit that helps public stations forge financing deals, said that a decade ago many public stations alternated between classical and news and talk during the day, frustrating both sets of listeners. As stations expand to dedicated formats, he said, both audiences are happier and listen more.
Classical audiences have an average age of 63, Mr. Hand said. “In the commercial model, that’s not at all an attractive demographic for advertisers,” he said, but for a public broadcaster, “it’s a great demographic for membership,” a passionate group with disposable income and a disposition to contribute.
WETA-FM, a news and classical music station in Washington, had eliminated classical music in 2005. Two years later, in February 2007, when the commercial classical station in town, WGMA, owned by Bonneville Holding Company, dropped the format, WETA switched to all-classical.
In the first three months, the audience more than doubled, said Dan DeVany, WETA’s vice president for radio and the general manager of WETA-FM. Fund-raising has grown 2 percent to 5 percent in recent pledge drives, though underwriting has dropped a bit, he said, possibly because the audience “trends older, there’s no question.”
Nonetheless, he sees the natural fit of classical music on public radio. “One of the benefits with public radio from a business standpoint is the multiple streams of revenue not available to commercial stations,” he said, citing grants, underwriting and contributions from listeners.
The falling price for radio stations has also helped. It is the flip side of a trend a decade ago, in the wake of the 1996 legislation removing limits on ownership of radio stations, when station valuations soared and some commercial classical station owners cashed out. New owners switched to more lucrative rock formats.
Station prices have been plunging more recently, Mr. Hand said. WGBH, he said, was able to buy WCRB for $14 million, which several years ago was valued at more than $50 million. Public Radio Capital helped put that deal together.
“Because there is no financing available for commercial station acquisitions, the commercial world will sell if the cash is there to buy it,” he said. Public stations can assemble the money with help from grants from nonprofit organizations, he said.
WNYC has raised $10.2 million of the $15 million it needs to help pay for WQXR. That includes a new grant of $700,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which will be announced this week, the station said.
More deals are expected. KING-FM of Seattle announced last month that it planned to convert from an ad-supported classical station to listener-supported, a process that is expected to take about a year.