Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music

KDFC is the largest classical station in America. The station has a weekly CUME rating of 560,000 – which means that at some point in any given week 560,000 people tune in. In the San Francisco area, the station ranks first among all music stations. KDFC is, of course, a commercial station, but even so, these numbers are astonishing.

Like Mario Mazza at WCRB, programming director Bill Lueth is frank about the economic pressures that weigh upon a commercial classical station in a large market. Lueth estimates that their spot on the dial, 102.1 FM, is probably worth $75 million dollars. Bonneville International Corporation expects KDFC to “earn its keep” just like any of their other stations. If KDFC comes in at 20th in the Arbitron ratings, certainly not unusual for a classical station, the parent company will change the format, leaving Lueth and his colleagues looking for work.

Economic reality was the motivating factor behind major adjustments to the programming and delivery at KDFC two and a half years ago, when Bonneville bought the station. KDFC established their target audience: listeners aged 35 to 54. And they asked them what they wanted to hear, in auditorium tests, phone interviews, and focus groups. Changes have included the elimination of interviews, and all syndicated programming, with the exception of San Francisco Symphony Concerts, which the station co-produces. Specialty programming has disappeared, but then again, so has pre-taped “automated” programming. The result: twice as many listeners.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to find many pieces agreeable to five hundred thousand people. KDFC has a playlist of around two thousand titles, which is large for a station with its Arbitron ratings, but very small compared to that of an “old-fashioned” public radio station. Not many of the pieces on this playlist were written during the last hundred years; Lueth admitted that they aim for “Bach to Dvorak.” Contemporary music is relegated almost entirely to two concert series: the San Francisco Symphony, and “Bay Area Concert Hall,” which features various California artists. Fortunately, there are several conductors noted for their advocacy of new music whose groups perform on this latter series.

Bill Lueth was most gracious in explaining the motivation behind what I consider to be KDFC’s misrepresentation of classical music. I can understand the financial pressures that influence their programming choices, and yet as a musician I can’t help feeling depressed that over five hundred thousand people each week tune in to classical music that is expressly designed to keep them calm. Trust me, if you like new music and you are watching your blood pressure, I would steer clear of this station.

From Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music
by Jennifer Undercofler
© 2000 NewMusicBox