A happy beginning to the new WQXR story

Last July I explained Why WQXR is better off as a public radio station. One hundred and twelve comments followed, the last posted in January of this year. Far as I know, that’s a record for this blog.

Background: when WQXR, which had been New York City’s landmark classical music station since the Roosevelt Hoover administration, was sold by the New York Times to WNYC, it went through two huge changes. First, it went up the dial from 96.3 to 105.9, while dropping to about 1/10th the wattage of its old signal. Second, it changed from a commercial station to a noncommercial one. Those opposed to the moves predicted failure on both accounts.

Instead, WQXR is a success. It’s ratings briefly tanked during the transition last October, then bounced back to their old levels:

Since then WQXR has run neck-and-neck with its parent’s main station, WNYC-FM (which has a signal identical to the old WQXR, coming from the same master antenna on the Empire State Building):

(Source for both: Radio-Info.com. Click on the images for details.)

Those three columns are for January, February and March of this year. The February number, 834,400, was reportedly tops in all of public radio. That’s what Elizabeth Jensen wrote in yesterday’s Classical Music’s Comeback, on Public Radio, in the New York Times. She says WQXR is a financial as well as a ratings success, and typical of successful transitions by other classical stations from commercial to noncommercial business models, in some cases with lesser signals as well.

So, all ends well that starts well.

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  1. Richard Mitnick’s avatar


    Thanks for lending your blog as a forum for all of this.

  2. JR’s avatar

    Im not sure I would be so happy

    There is seasonality to the numbers. December of last year was a rating of 2.1, now the rating is 1.8.

    For those classical users in NJ the number is half.

    Given that WNYC no longer broadcasts classical music, not only did the audience not switch to WQXR, the total classical audience has decreased.

  3. Tom’s avatar

    What a minute — “WQXR” has 70,900 more listeners than WNYC? Imagine what the figure would be if WQXR were on 93.9 and WNYC were on 105.9, the junk frequency licensed to Newark. That’s obviously the right thing to do: reverse the spots on the dial and go with a winner. Bring in Dick Sequerra from Stamford and have him make 93.9 classical’s signal state of the art. (That’s what Sequerra did in 1975 for 104.3 when WNCN was “saved.”) Seriously, if WQXR’s audience keeps growing — probably partly at the expense of WNYC — can the suits at WNYC justify keeping WQXR on a former salsa station licensed to Newark?

    Is it my imagination … or has WNYC done something to correct the awful bass heavy equalization on 105.9? The station sounds pretty good, where it’s nt swamped by The River from Hartford (WHCN). Also, the “listen live” feed is quite listenable.

    The programming has settled in, too. The station has stopped playing movements, or snippets from symphonies. There’s more vocal music than on the old WQXR — which is quite fitting for opera-crazed New York. Kudos to WNYC for at least keeping NPR news off the station. (Credit, too, to WGBH for keeping WCRB NPR-free.) If there’s any organization that hates classical music more than WNYC, it’s NPR.

    It’s great to have Elliot Forrest and Annie Bergen on weekends. Steve Sullivan, too, on occasion. Plus Jeff Spurgeon on weekday mornings. Too bad about that dead hand at the switch on weekday evenings, though.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Well Tom, let’s see if any WQXR or WNYC folks are listening in. For what it’s worth, I think the chance that they’ll move QXR to 93.9 is zero.

    I’m not in town to hear the over-the-air signals. From here the streams sound fine.

  5. Tom’s avatar

    I’ll let this rest, Doc. But “all’s well that ends well” smacks of “I told you so.” Things have not ended, of course; but they have not turned out so well for the thousands of disenfranchised listeners — little old ladies on Long Island and northern Westchester who don’t know how to listen online. Of course, the suits at WNYC are not going to move WQXR to 93.9, no matter how few people listen to WNYC FM.

    In the tangled history of classical radio in New York, there was a suggestion, in 1975, that a non-profit could be formed to buy WNYC from the city and turn it into … WNCN. Too bad in retrospect that didn’t happen.

    The suggestion was floated by none other than William F. Buckley, Jr., who owned a share of Starr Broadcasting, which owned WNCN when the station switched to rock music and became WQIV. WNCN was “saved” by two gentlemen: Richard Clurman, of Time-Life, and Jesse Werner, chairman of GAF. Having failed to move in on WNYC, Buckley and Starr sold WNCN to GAF Broadcasting — i.e., Werner. Buckey was on his way to becoming a cultural parahia.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    I remember the Buckley/Starr situation. Except for the celebrities involved, the story wasn’t much different from ones told when dozens of other landmark classical stations across the country were plowed under and paved over — or moved aside to lesser signals. Milwaukee lost WFMR outright. New York, Boston and Cleveland were spared when WQXR, WCRB and WCLV moved to second-tier signals.

    The good and surprising thing is that WQXR is not a failure. Yes, it’s tough for listeners in outlying areas who can’t or won’t go online for their music. But, considering the alternatives, on the whole I think it’s playing out pretty well.

  7. Lewis Shrady’s avatar

    In reply to Tom’s comment, the skewed bass boost on the FM feed is as bad as ever. When I raised this point with Yseult Tyler, the Manager of Listener Services, she told me that their engineers wanted “a fuller sound on a wide array of receivers.” Translation–they are pandering to dabblers with very inferior equipment with little audio response below 200 Hz. I find it distressing that WQXR seemingly wants only to be the biggest, not the best, both technically and programmatically anymore. Why else would they have booted out everyone behind the scenes who knew how everything was done, and why it was done that way.

    The falling ratings numbers for March may indicate that this pandering approach is beginning to wear thin.

  8. book publishers’s avatar

    Given that WNYC no longer broadcasts classical music, not only did the audience not switch to WQXR, the total classical audience has decreased.

  9. Lewis Shrady’s avatar

    WQXR has released some of the results of its spring pledge drive last month, producing something over 4,000 pledges. The April ratings, however show a cumulative listenership of nearly 850,000! This shows a pledge rate of approximately 0.5 per cent! Utterly pitiful. Amounts were not shown, but would presumably total $300-500,000. This will certainly not go far in an operation costing at least well into seven figures annually.

    I am becoming very uneasy about where WQXR is going. The FM feed is dreadful, with grossly skewed bass equalization. Many recordings are 40-50 years old, and, while classic performances, many are sonically inferior. Many summer-pop concert favorites are repeated every few days over and over virtually ad nauseam. A few announcers have regional twang that is completely unacceptable in a market like New York.

    For most of its 65 years under the “New York Times”, WQXR exhibited that paper’s commitment to excellence. Sadly, this does not seem to be true any longer, and the numbers indicate this more starkly every month. PR puffery and empire building seem to be paramount.

    Incidentally, I remember vividly in the early ’90s, WNCN introduced a “greatest classical hits” format in an effort to boost ratings. This did not save it from oblivion.

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