Citing declining ad revenues and changes in the industry, classical KING-FM (98.1) announced Tuesday that starting next year it will become a listener-supported public radio station.
Classical KING-FM (98.1) announced Tuesday that, starting next year, it will do what other major classical music stations across the country have done in recent years — switch to a listener-supported model.
Leaders of Seattle’s only all-classical music station said declining ad revenue, changes in the industry and the economy led to their decision to switch from the commercial-advertising model that has supported the station for decades.
The changeover is slated for July 2011.
“The media world has been in turmoil,” said Christopher Bayley, board president. He said he believes the shift to a public radio station will help preserve “a civic legacy. It’s not just a radio station. It’s part of the community.”
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The change will allow more airtime for music and for announcers to give background information about the pieces, because there will be fewer commercial interruptions, said KING-FM General Manager Jennifer Ridewood.
The station is still working out how many pledge drives it will hold per year and how long they’ll be.
Under a listener-supported system, KING-FM would need at least 25,000 members who each donate an average $100 per year to sustain a $2.5 million annual budget.
A confluence of events led to KING-FM’s decision.
Arbitron, the company that measures radio listenership, switched from its old method — having people keep a diary of what they listened to — to an electronic tracking system called Portable People Meters (PPM). Worn like pagers, PPMs monitor the actual radio frequencies people are exposed to.
The new system showed KING-FM’s share of the local audience was smaller and older than it had been before, with the average age of listeners about 60, Ridewood said. All of that made it harder to sell ads.
Ads are currently sold by Fisher Radio Seattle. But that agreement — which expires in June 2011 — hadn’t been making enough money for either Fisher or KING-FM. So both sides decided not to renew the contract.
KING-FM was founded in 1948 by King Broadcasting founder Dorothy Stimson Bullitt. In 1995, her two daughters donated the station to a nonprofit organization owned by the Seattle Opera, the Seattle Symphony and what is now ArtsFund, in the hope of keeping classical-music radio alive in Seattle.
Over the years, KING-FM has paid nearly $7 million in dividends to those three organizations. But dividends have declined since reaching a peak in 1999 and this year, for the first time, the station is projecting zero dividends.
It is not in dire straits, though it has had to cut staff and lower costs, said Ridewood.
KING-FM’s change to a public-radio model requires approval by the Federal Communications Commission and the Internal Revenue Service.
And the station is taking the next year to raise $2 million to offset an expected drop in revenue as it shifts to the new model. Layoffs are not planned and, indeed, the station will be looking to add new staff with expertise in public-radio membership and fundraising.
Several other stations around the country — including in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Miami — have made similar transitions.
WQXR in New York City did so last year, saying the public-radio model offers a more sustainable and diverse means of support, between members and major donors who are passionate about classical music to corporate sponsors and foundation grants.
So far, that station’s audience, numbers of members and dollars raised has exceeded expectations, said Laura Walker, WQXR chief executive and president.
“Our overwhelming conclusion is a classical-music station is best as listener-supported,” Walker said. “In large markets, it’s definitely a trend.”
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org