Why WQXR is better off as a public radio station

In his comment to my last post about the sale of WQXR to WNYC (and in his own blog post here), Sean Reiser makes an important point:

One of the unique things about the QXR was it’s relationship with the Times. The Times owned QXR before the FCC regulations prohibiting newspapers ownership of a radio station were enacted. Because of this relationship, QXR’s newsroom was located in the NY Times building and news gathering resources were shared. In a precursor to newspaper reporters doing podcasts, Times columnists and arts reporters would often appear on the air doing segments.

It’s true. The Times selling WQXR seems a bit like the New Yorker dropping poetry, or GE (née RCA) closing the Rainbow Room. (Which has already happened… how many times?) To cultured veteran New Yorkers, the Times selling WQXR seems more like a partial lobotomy than a heavy heirloom being thrown off a sinking ship.

For much of the history of both, great newspapers owned great radio stations. The Times had WQXR. The Chicago Tribune had (and still has) WGN (yes, “World’s Greatest Newspaper”). The Washington Post had WTOP. (In fact, the Post got back into the radio game with Washington Post Radio, on WTOP’s legacy 50,000-watt signal at 1500 AM. That lasted from 2006-2008.). Trust me, the list is long.

The problem is, both newspapers and radio stations are suffering. Most newspapers are partially (or, in a few cases — such as this one — totally) lobotomized versions of their former selves. Commercial radio’s golden age passed decades ago. WQXR, its beloved classical format, and its staff, have been on life support for years. Most other cities have lost their legacy commercial classical stations (e.g. WFMR in Milwaukee), or lucked out to various degrees when the call letters and formats were saved by moving to lesser signals, sometimes on the market’s outskirts (e.g. WCRB in Boston). In most of the best cases classical formats were saved by moving to noncommercial channels and becomimg public radio stations. In Los Angeles, KUSC took over for KFAC (grabbing the latter’s record library) and KOGO/K-Mozart. In Raleigh, WCPE took over for WUNC and WDBS. In Washington, WETA took over for WGMS. Not all of these moves were pretty, but all of them kept classical music alive on their cities’ FM bands.

In some cases, however, “saved’ is an understatement. KUSC, for example, has a bigger signal footprint and far more to offer, than KFAC and its commercial successors did. In addition to a first-rate signal in Los Angeles, KUSC is carried on full-size stations in Palm Springs, Thousand Oaks, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo — giving it stong coverage of more population than any other station in Los Angeles, including the city’s substantial AM stations. KUSC also runs HD programs on the same channels, has an excellent live stream on the Web, and is highly involved in Southern California’s cultural life.

I bring that up because the substantial advantages of public radio over commercial radio — especially for classical music — are largely ignored amidst all the hand-wringing (thick with completely wrong assumptions) by those who lament the loss  — or threatened loss — of a cultural landmark such as WQXR. So I thought I’d list some of the advantages of public radio in the classical music game.

  1. No commercials. Sure, public radio has its pitches for funding, but those tend to be during fund drives rather than between every music set.
  2. More room for coverage growth. The rules for signals in the noncommercial end of the band (from 88 to 92) are far more flexible than those in the commercial band. And noncommercial signals in the commercial band (such as WQXR’s new one at 105.9) can much more easily be augmented by translators at the fringes of their coverage areas — and beyond. Commercial stations can only use translators within their coverage areas. Noncommercial stations can stick them anywhere in the whole country. If WNYC wants to be aggressive about it, you might end up hearing WQXR in Maine and Montana. (And you can bet it’ll be on the Public Radio Player, meaning you can get it wherever there’s a cell signal.)
  3. Life in a buyer’s market. Noncommercial radio stations are taking advantage of bargain prices for commercial stations. That’s what KUSC did when it bought what’s now KESC on 99.7FM in San Luis Obispo. It’s what KCLU did when it bought 1340AM in Santa Barbara.
  4. Creative and resourceful engineering. While commercial radio continues to cheap out while advertising revenues slump away, noncommercial radio is pioneering all over the place. They’re doing it with HD Radio, with webcasting (including multiple streams for many stations), with boosters and translators, with RDS — to name just a few. This is why I have no doubt that WNYC will expand WQXR’s reach even if they can’t crank up the power on the Empire State Building transmitter.
  5. Direct Listener Involvement. Commercial radio has had a huge disadvantage for the duration: its customers and its consumers are different populations. As businesses, commercial radio stations are primarily accountable to advertisers, not to listeners. Public radio is directly accoutable to its listeners, because those are also its customers. As public stations make greater use of the Web, and of the growing roster of tools available for listener engagement (including tools on the listeners’ side, such as those we are developing at ProjectVRM), this advantage over commercial radio will only grow. This means WQXR’s listeners have more more opportunity to contribute positively to the station’s growth than they ever had when it was a commercial station. (Or if, like WCRB, it lived on as a lesser commercial station.) So, if you’re a loyal WQXR listener, send a few bucks to WNYC. Tell them thanks for saving the station, and tell them what you’d like them to do with the station as well.

I could add more points (and maybe I will later), but that should suffice for now. I need to crash and then get up early for a quick round trip to northern Vermont this morning. Meanwhile, hope that helps.

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  1. Lewis Shrady’s avatar

    In this, my last comment for 2009, I am very concerned about reports from several WQXR bloggers that their contributions for the station have gone to WNYC’s general fund. Though apparently perfectly legal, this must be highly disturbing. (For years now, I have contributed specifically to MPR’s “Pipedreams” organ survey program, and MPR is happy to have that.) Even Doc himself has discovered that the WQXR webstreams have come up posted as WNYC instead.

    This points up much of what has gone very wrong with WQXR being completely submerged by WNYC. Much of this makes sense if WNYC is regarded as less of a public-broadcast outlet and more as a troubled overly-ambitious colonial empire. WQXR’s listeners now have an acute case of “Distant-province syndrome” common to other empires of the past, where the central government doesn’t understand local customs and problems. Restoring WQXR’s autonomy, with its own studios and management, must be the highest priority for 2010. Imagine if the old WQXR had been an integral part of the newspaper operation of the “Times”!

  2. Tom’s avatar

    Happy New Year, Lewis, Richard, and Doc. Lewis, you are a great gadfly — never more needed than now. Comparing WQXR to a conquered province. I love that … and think you are right.

    Richard, despite being a self-confessed cheerleader, you are a great gadfly, too. I just can’t get over that WNYC was key to taking classical music off 96.3 AND 93.9 … and most other music off 93.9. It’s nice you have such enthusiasm for new music, but I think Beethoven, Brahams, and Mozart were way more talented and listenable. Does anyone listen to Milton Babbitt now?

    What was it that a certain famous pianist told me the other night (I won’t drop names). Oh, yes, with most piano music there are too many notes. With Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn there are not. Not with Bartok either.

    My real beef with classical music radio stations, orchestras, etc. has been the lack of interest in alternative long-dead composers, including composers who composed too many notes. Zdenek Fibich, anyone? How about the symphonies of Alexander Glazunov? You never hear them in concert halls, either. Ferdinand Raff? Ernest Chausson? I won’t go on. But at one time WNCN played Ferdinand Raff. And, if I am not mistaken, Lloyd Moss of WQXR had a soft spot for Fibich. You know, they could just play the Naxos catalog.

    Lewis raises a serious point. Can one contribute to WQXR without having the money tapped off by WNYC? For that matter, can one contribute to WCRB without having the funds go directly into WGBH coffers? When I contribute to WSHU, as I do, I know where the money goes: classical music radio that I can receive in my car.

    My son, a Manhattan attorney who does work for the City of New York, sezz the city wuzz robbed. 93.9 is a commercial license after all. They shouldda just sold it to Univision.

  3. Richard Mitnick’s avatar

    Tom, first, Happy New Year.

    Yes, money contributed to WQXR can be earmarked. Mine is earmarked for Q2.

    You sound like a serious listener. Another PubRadio station about which I am passionate is WPRB, Princeton, NJ, public now for several years. Classical music week days from 6-6:30AM-11:00AM. Especially you might like Marvin Rosen’s “Classical Discoveries ” Wednesday early morning to 8:30AM. Marvin programs “with an emphasis on the very old and the very new” . He also has “Classical Discoveries Goes Avantgarde on Wednesday from 11:00AM-1:00PM. If you like Jazz, Dan Buskirk on Monday at 11;00AM and Will Constantine on Thursday at 11:00AM are terrific.

  4. robert maslansky md’s avatar

    Now retired, I value MY WQXR more than ever. In the past walking to work at six am I listened, my pace quickened. My legs worked better and were not fatigued. But that was the only time I could listen uninterrupted, From 65th and Madison to Bellevue Hospital at 27th and First

    Now I can listen all day (and all night if I choose) and with earphones the old lady can sleep and have her pleasant dreams.

    We were at the Orpheus Concert when the switch was thrown changing the dial setting (they’re not dials anymore, are they) to 105.9. We were worried that this will be different, very different . . . and bad.

    It hasn’t been. We worried that the Saturday afternoon Met would go bye bye. It hasn’t. We do miss some of the cleverly crafted commercials, ie the one for Legal Seafood. We do miss some of the awfully good announcers. Candice Agree (sp?) & the young man (I’m presuming so) who filled in whenever he was asked it seems. He had a mellifluous Italianate name.

    But, so it goes.

  5. Richard Mitnick’s avatar

    Well, Dr. Maslansky, I am delighted that your response to the “New Q” is a positive one. I hope that you continue to enjoy WQXR.

    I am not even really much of a 105.9 listener. I am an old WNYC music listener and so these days a Q2 listener. But I do check in to 105.9 quite often at home and at work (both on the lovely 128kbit web stream) and in the car. I think that there is a grand new intelligence to the programming.

    The good Doc Searle has done a wonderful service by giving us this thread to express our opinions.

    I would ask, if you are able, go into the “blogs”, comment pages really, at the WQXR web site and make your feelings known.

  6. Lewis Shrady’s avatar

    It is now three months since the changeover to 105.9, and the numbers are intriguing. Arbitron reports that WQXR has returned to a 1.8 share for December, the same as three months earlier. (The enormous dip in between is not surprising under the circumstances.) What is really interesting is that WSHU has doubled its audience in the same period from 0.2 to 0.4 share. How much of this increase is from listeners beyond WQXR’s reduced range and how much from disgruntled former loyalists is a matter for speculation. The real question is what happens during the next 3-6 months.

    It is quite apparent that WNYC did itself no favors by doing things on the cheap. By far the wisest course would have been the outright purchase of the Interstate Broadcasting Company–the actual entity that owned WQXR– by WNYC from the “Times”. By keeping everything intact, this would have re-assured listeners and blunted the storm of protest from listeners who could not receive the new FM signal. Instead WNYC purchased only the assets–record library, new transmitter and salvageable studio equipment. (This assets-only tactic, widely vilified and highly controversial, is often a favorite tool to abrogate existing contracts and dismiss staff wholesale.) A totally unified operation was deemed much cheaper than two autonomous ones.

    As a result, WQXR changed more in one day than in the previous 25 years–a pace that would have dumfounded even the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd in 1918! The ethos is tilting more and more to classical dabblers than serious listeners. Certain lighter pop favorites are repeated over and over. For instance Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” is a sublimely beautiful work, but 15 times in barely three months? Truly grossly excessive. Other lighter fare has been similarly overused. The old WQXR had a general rule that a work would be programmed only once in any calendar month, with some exceptions for overnight. The previous production staff knew what it was doing! Now whether contributions will cover WNYC’s swollen budget with three outlets remains to be seen. Other blogs strongly indicate many serious listeners are going over the hill to out-of-town classical webstreams. WSHU’s gain is certainly not the only one!

    Doc, here’s a morsel for thought. Most modern FM receivers with PLL varactor-diode tuning have bottom ranges to 87.7 and even 87.5MHz to be compatible with European use. Analog TV6 is now, of course, defunct. How about moving WQXR to 87.7 with ERP of 5 kW?

  7. Richard Mitnick’s avatar

    Oh, come on Lewis, be an optimist. I was not a WQXR listener. I was a WNYC music listener, favoring the more eclectic offerings which became the standard over the past year. Even I am happier with what I hear. I am now basically a Q2 listener, as I was a wnyc2 listener. I do check in at 105.9 at home, at work (on the lovely new 128kbit web stream), and in the car just to hear what is happening. I also read the playlists.

    I think that the music programming is better, more intelligent, even some risk taking with New Music at the edges.

    A friend who likes basically chamber music and traditional Classical music, whom abhorred what I like and also abhorred what had happened to the old WQXR is also delighted with what he now hears. He has quadrupled his WQXR listening. He even sent in money, with the explicit instruction that he is not joining and should in no way be solicited.

    So, have faith that the future is bright.

    Take a look at what is happening in Boston, with WGBH taking over WCRB. Those people are getting mostly Classical 24, pure pabulum for the classicaly feeble-minded. BTW, a fair chunk of WSHU Classical programming is also Classical 24.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Lewis, there is a station already on 87.7. Its WNYZ-LP. Technically it’s a low-power TV station. It runs meaningless video and meaningful audio.

    For what it’s worth, and as far as I know, the FCC has thus far shown little interest in making 87.7 or 87.9 available in places where Channel 6 audio has gone away after the digital transition. Here in Boston a pirate operates on 87.7, with a remarkably professional-sounding station. I has attracted zero interest from the FCC, or from any of the newspapers. I even got a call from a reporter at the Boston Globe after I ran this blog post. I thought it was an interesting story. But, apparently, the Globe didn’t. Ah, well.

  9. Lynne Warfel’s avatar

    I really have appreciated keeping up with your discussions on radio and the trials tribulations that have faced teh media since I joined it in the early 1980s at KFAC in Los Angeles.

    For what it’s worth as a classical announcer having past experience at some of the stations previously discussed, specifically KFAC and KUSC in LA in the 1980s, (and as an East Coast native), I felt I wanted to weigh in with the fact that we at Classical 24 are not at all on a “hard drive”, not do we “top and tail”.

    All of us are indeed here, live, 24/7 and the music is being played from CDs in our very hands….just like in the good old days!

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Lynne, thanks for weighing in.

    Is there any customization for different stations in different markets?

    And, while we’re at it, how many stations are you serving right now?

    Thanks again!

  11. Richard Mitnick’s avatar

    The best way to see what is happening with any Classical 24 program and one’s favorite station is to go to the Classical 24 web site, see who is actually on, and then go to one’s favorite station carring Classical 24 and see if that is who is listed in the stations program guide.

    And, quite frankly, as long as Ms Warfe brings up KUSC, to which I used to belong, I don’t believe that it matters one whit if the host is “live” or pre-recorded. What does matter is that in all but one location, the programming is not live, but “plausibly live”, and there is no local content.

    KUSC, along with Colorado Public Radio owned Classical Public Radio Network, now, thankfully deceased. In this case, the programming might well have been quite live. One could click between PubRadio stations from Alabama to Alaska and hear exactly the same program.

    It was actually a Classical music critic located in L.A. who called such radio programming “musical wallpaper”.

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