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Classical Gasp

In the bottom-line world, classical radio stations are disappearing to make way for more profitable formats.

December 08, 1996|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

One tries to imagine what it was like on that dark, cold, lonely Christmas Eve out at sea off Cape Cod 90 years ago. Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, there was music! Faint, scratchy, ghostlike--the Largo from Handel's opera "Xerxes" came over the wireless. It had to seem like either a mystical Christmas happening or too much Christmas ale.

Transmitted from Brant Rock, Mass., and received mainly by wireless operators at sea, this was the first broadcast of music over radio waves. But though that sound of Handel at sea could be rightfully interpreted as the birth of broadcasting as we know it, little is being made of this momentous anniversary. And for understandable reasons.

Classical music may have started the biggest cultural revolution ever--namely the broadcasting of culture and entertainment into the home. It may even have once been the pride of American network radio, especially in the days when NBC maintained on its payroll an outstanding symphony orchestra with a conductor of Arturo Toscanini's stature. But classical music radio now is often spoken of in the somber tones of a doctor with the worst news.

"I wish I could find something to brighten the picture," says Robert Goldfarb, a New York-based classical music consultant who was vice president of the former Los Angeles classical music station KFAC. "But it is not commercially viable in the U.S. The old formulas aren't working."

Predicting the death of classical music radio is a pretty common pastime in the music business these days. Given the limited number of stations on the FM bandwidth, mildly profitable commercial classical stations are bought up and turned into much more profitable popular music, talk radio or all-news stations. In the past few years we've seen that happen to KKHI in San Francisco, KRTS in Houston and, just recently, KFSD in San Diego.

Noncommercial radio stations don't have it that much better, since they are generally underwritten by institutions that are hardly indifferent to the high prices of radio real estate.

For instance, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani three years ago suggested selling off WNYC, the noncommercial classical station run out of City Hall, to raise revenues (only the formation of a foundation to underwrite the station has kept it on the air). In San Francisco, public radio affiliate KQED went to an all-talk format in an attempt to attract more listeners. And here in Los Angeles, the recent firings and programming changes at KUSC, the largest classical station in this market and a USC affiliate of National Public Radio, are one more sign of a format in trouble.

The news is perhaps most dire on the commercial side of classical broadcasting. And the San Francisco market is just now providing doomsayers with an almost laboratory-perfect example of why. The Bay Area, with its strong subscriber backing for symphony, opera, new music and early music, has one of the most enthusiastic audiences for classical music in the country. Yet it retains only one full-strength classical station--KDFC-FM, which has been commercially broadcasting classical music since 1948. But two months ago, Evergreen Media Corp. announced that it was buying KDFC along with its smooth-jazz sister station, KKSF-FM, for $115 million.

This is a scenario familiar to Angelenos. In 1989, the same media conglomerate bought Los Angeles' venerable commercial classical station KFAC-FM for $55 million. After the new owners promised that the station would not change its format, KFAC soon enough switched to the more profitable urban beat music.

Media observers insist that the sale of KDFC precludes any possibility of it remaining classical, despite current protestations to the contrary from Evergreen, which operates no other classical station.

"At that price, you can't generate enough money to pay your debt service," says Saul Levine, who owns L.A.'s single commercial classical station, KKGO-FM, and serves as its general manager.

(When KFAC changed formats, it was Levine who bought its library and turned jazz station KKGO into a commercial classical station to replace the one L.A. had lost.)

This is a far cry from when "good" music was also good business. In radio's heyday, in the '20s, '30s and '40s, no one questioned the value of broadcasting traditional orchestral concerts and opera, along with chamber and solo recitals, to the masses. The prestige of the classics attracted the most desirable sponsors, and the programming even fulfilled the public service requirement imposed on broadcasters by the government.

NBC was the most ambitious of all, and on Christmas Day 1937, it launched the NBC Symphony Orchestra, which it established for Toscanini and maintained for 17 years. Through recordings,Toscanini and the NBC Symphony have entered the annals of musical legend; recordings transferred to CD still produce revenue for BMG, the company that now owns RCA, the record wing of NBC.

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