Just after general manager Jim de Castro took over KFAC-FM in May, he announced that he was going to find "a hole in the Los Angeles radio market and plug it."
Said one KFAC employee: "Somebody came back and said, 'Well, when he's done, the hole will be classical music.' "
Indeed, come this fall, the small but elite group of Los Angeles classical music radio listeners may soon find a gaping hole where their favorite programming used to be.
When KFAC-FM (92.3) was sold in January to Evergreen Media Corp., a large Dallas-based corporation, industry watchers predicted a change for Los Angeles' oldest (more than 50 years) and only commercial classical station. When a company buys a station for a record $55 million, the reasoning went, it may not be able to retain a format that does not generate the revenue and large number of listeners that other formats do. Three of the four other stations owned by Evergreen are rock stations.
Staffers and industry sources believe that mid-September is when KFAC, one of only about 40 classical radio stations nationwide, may stop playing Schubert and Stravinsky and switch over to Sting and Springsteen. They believe classical radio will change drastically over the next few months with the possible loss of KFAC.
"There will now be fewer choices for classical music," said Clyde Allen, current music director of Ballet of Los Angeles and former music director at KFAC for 14 years. "This is another sign that classical music is becoming a museum. Only a philanthropist or a government agency can guarantee that this kind of programming will stay on the air. If a businessman is faced with profits he can make from classical music or profits he can make in another format, classical music will tend to be the loser. You can make a profit in classical music, but you cannot make the maximum profit."
De Castro has repeatedly denied that KFAC will drop the classical format. He also has said: "We've been making chocolate-chip cookies. If it becomes more financially prudent to make chocolate-fudge cookies, we're going to make chocolate fudge cookies."
And: "We're researching five or six different formats. Classical is one of them. We're testing classical, adult contemporary, classic rock. We don't have a format for it yet. We really don't know what we're going to do."
Ernest Fleischmann, Los Angeles Philharmonic managing director, recently told his affiliates not to consider KFAC for a fund-raising tie-in because its days as a classical station seemed numbered. (Instead, he told fund-raisers to look into a promotional tie-in with KKGO-FM (105.1), which announced last week that it will switch from jazz to a partial classical format starting in January. Classical music lovers will also still be served by KUSC-FM (91.5), USC's public radio station.)
One station employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was told a few weeks ago that management "had not decided what format the station would have, but that classical was not likely to be among the options."
De Castro acknowledged that he has been shopping the station's call letters and music library around--estimated at about 55,000 records and compact discs.
"There is no other collection like this west of Chicago, a collection of over 50 years," said Lance Bowling, owner of Cambria Records and founder of the Society of Preservation of Southern California Musical Heritage.
KKGO General Manager Saul Levine said that De Castro had approached him about buying the library and call letters when he heard that Levine planned to start programming classical music on his station. Levine said the asking price--more than $1 million--was too high.
Jack Siegal, KSRF program director, said that De Castro had also spoken to him about the library and call letters, but would not comment on whether his station would purchase them.
"There are a lot of intricacies involved in the whole delicate issue," De Castro said. "We're checking around to see if anyone is willing to take the classical format. I'm not going to pull the plug and be an uncaring person."
KUSC is also undergoing some programming changes.
Earlier this month, KUSC General Manager Wally Smith replaced music in the mornings with two hours of news, from 6-8 a.m. He said the station has received many calls from listeners who are unhappy with the switch, but he considers the morning news program a way of restoring a news slot that was closed when National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" was dropped from the station. "It brings us back into the balance we had before," he said, which is roughly 15% news-85% classical.
Smith is quick to dispel rumors of further format changes at KUSC, but explains that other kinds of music, besides classical, may be added. "We are still thoroughly committed to classical music as our format," he said. "We may add in other music, as an exploration of ways to expand the way we hear classical music."