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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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