Edward Rosten and I have been having an interesting dialog in the comment section of my last post, which was mostly about WNYC buying WQXR from the New York Times (which has owned it forever) for $11.5 million — and moving QXR’s classical programming up New York’s FM dial from 96.3 to 105.9, where the maximum transmission wattage is far less than allowed on the old frequency.
There has been much hand-wringing and prognosticating over the whole thing. What Would You Do With the New WQXR? is a post on the NYTimes site that is followed by a great many comments. Says Edward, “Post #58, I can assure you, is representative of ‘input’ from people who’ve given ANY thought to how the proposed changes will play out. (‘Power to the people’ has yielded to ‘power to the 24/7 classical music station, whatever its name!’)”
So here’s a summary of my own thinking about why this was a good move by WNYC.
- $11.5 million is a bargain for any FM signal radiating from the center of Manhattan, even in these depressed economic times.
- There will be a 24/7 classical station in New York called WQXR. It will continue to play much, if not most, of the music its current audience likes. It will also employ some of the same people and air some of the same programs. Doing even a subset of this is to buck the tide that is drowning classical stations everywhere in the U.S.
- The signal on 105.9 will pack less punch than the old one on 96.3. The new one is 610 watts while the old one was 6000 watts, from the same antenna on the Empire State Building. The difference, however, is smaller than the wattage would indicate. On FM, height matters more than wattage, and those are the same. And signal strength increases as the square root of the wattage. This means that the new signal will be about a third the power of the old one, rather than one tenth. Either way, it’s still plenty of signal for the boroughs, southern Westchester, Jersey counties bordering the Hudson, and Nassau County. Not bad, considering.
- WQXR will now be a noncommercial station owned by the top public station in the top metro market in the country. There are many upsides here that are not available to commercial stations — least of all one owned by a struggling newspaper. These include…
- No commercials, beyond the usual noncommercial radio pitches for listener support. For an example of an alternative outcome — having a legacy station and its call letters shunted to a secondary signal while remaining commercial — check out WCRB, Boston’s equivalent of WQXR. The Wikipedia entrty provides copious (and depressing) background. What they don’t say is that WCRB plays lots of commercials, in spite of a commercial free sections of its schedule. (I’d suggest checking out WCRB’s live stream, but they’ve discontinued it.)
- The opportunity for listeners to support the station directly, and involve themselves in the station’s missions. In the past one could support WQXR only by buying a car or a mattress from an advertiser. Now you can put some money where your ears are.
- WQXR can use translators to enlarge its signal, and bring it to places outside its local coverage area. Translators are low power stations radiating the same audio on a different channel from the original signal. WQXR currently has translators on 96.7 in Asbury Park and 103.7 in Poughkeepsie. Now here’s the cool deal: While commercial stations can only use translators to fill in holes in their home coverage areas, noncommercial stations can put translators anywhere they please. Of course, these have to be on unoccupied channels, and most channels are occupied in most places. There are two ways WNYC can go here. One is to buy up, swap or otherwise deal for existing translators. (There is lots of horse-trading going on in any case between public broadcasters and religious ones. The latter have been much more resourceful about maximizing coverage and spreading translators everywhere.) The other is to find open spots where translators can be wedged in. Anywhere in the country.
- The Internet is a wide-open frontier. I listen to WNYC’s classical stream (also carried on the air over the station’s HD service on FM) here in Santa Barbara. I also listen to many other stations (including a dozen or more classical ones) here as well. I use either my iPhone or our home Sonos system. Those are my radios, and they sound fine. There are no limits to the number of Internet channels WNYC/WQXR can choose to put out there. For models of station/stream proliferation (and brand extension) see what KCRW and Minnesota Public Radio do. This multi-million-dollar move by WNYC serves notice that it plans to be one of the country’s public super-stations.
I could go on, but you get the point. The opportunities for WQXR as a WNYC property are far wider than the New York Times would dream of contemplating. I advise loyal listeners of both stations to get behind the effort with cash and helpful input, rather than complaints about signal differences and what WNYC might do with WQXR. Hey, WQXR will be a public station soon. That should give you more influence than ever before.