SAN DIEGO — In spite of the local preoccupation with outdoor leisure activities and the city's reputation as a balmy vacationer's paradise, San Diego is one of the best markets for classical music broadcasting in the country.
"There are two classical stations ranked highly according to Arbitron ratings: San Diego is one and Denver is the other," said Kingsley McLaren, program director of KFSD-FM (94.1), the local classical music station.
The native New Zealander's ingratiating bass-baritone has been waking and accompanying local classical-listening morning commuters for two months. McLaren's last post was in Houston.
"We lost our station in Houston to light rock," he said, explaining his exodus from Texas. "Classical broadcasting in Houston is now relegated to a small, 3,000-watt station which cannot be heard in most of the city. But that's their problem," he said with a sigh.
He contrasted the sophistication of San Diego classical listeners with that of their Houston counterparts with an observation about Pachelbel's "Canon in D," that ubiquitous morsel of Baroque background music. "Whenever we played the Pachelbel Canon in Houston, we'd get calls saying, 'Oh, what was that lovely piece?' In San Diego, the callers ask who the performers were."
Programming for a commercial classical station is based on a curious mix of logic, market analyses and quaint maxims that form what could be called the programmers' oral tradition. In the latter category, McLaren quoted "a cliche formula amongst some classical stations: No sopranos before 9 p.m."
If that seems to embody an arcane prejudice, McLaren said, "We receive many requests at the station to limit the amount of vocal music we broadcast, so we must be careful about which vocal music we choose." A good example of vocal music that would offend the fewest listeners might be a Mozart aria in which "the voice is almost part of the orchestra," he said.
McLaren seeks an ever-widening audience for his station without compromising his musical ideals.
"In commercial radio, we are wary of turning listeners off," he said. "If you play too much 20th-Century music, you're too academic. If you play none, you're accused of not having a true commitment to the arts. My whole concept is to try to make classical music as popular as possible by including as wide a mix (of musical styles) as possible."
Lovers of classical music tend to be a fractious lot, according to McLaren. For example, those who appreciate symphonic literature sometimes harbor an intense dislike for opera. "A lot of people have the idea that opera is some screeching soprano, even though the vast majority (of sopranos) don't. Then some members of the classical music audience like only Baroque music," he noted.
"Classical listeners essentially are the fussiest of listeners, which can be a problem in terms of ratings. If they don't like a piece of music they hear on the air, they'll phone a sponsor and tell him about it!"
On the other hand, this level of listener attention helps sell commercial time.
"With classical programming, when the music ends, the audience is listening to hear what the name of the piece is," he said. "So if we snap into the commercial fast enough after that announcement, we still have the listener's ear."
Since McLaren has come to KFSD-FM, he has eliminated chamber music from most of the daytime programming, "not because I don't like chamber music. Essentially, most people are away from their homes at that time of day and are not listening on the best equipment. We need to broadcast music with a higher dynamic level than most chamber music. Otherwise, listeners would have to turn up their car radios to hear it, and would then be blown out of the car by a commercial when it came on."
During the morning and afternoon drive times--6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.--McLaren has lightened up the fare and shortened the commercial intervals.
"These drive times give us a chance to capture cross-over listeners, to pick up people who are listening to another light format and show them that you don't have to be stuffy to be involved in classical music," he said.
Since the commuting time in San Diego is shorter than in most large cities, McLaren is weeding out long works that have been aired during the drive times. He is worried that a commuting listener "might get to work and not learn what the piece was he was listening to during his commute. Ideally, he should hear two different pieces, perhaps expressing two different moods, on his way to work."
Since morning programming at KFSD-FM is laced with financial reports and advertising for national business newspapers, it's hardly surprising that the station's audience is decidedly upscale.