Just after general manager Jim de Castro took over KFAC-FM in May, he announced that he was going to find "a hole in the Los Angeles radio market and plug it."
Said one KFAC employee: "Somebody came back and said, 'Well, when he's done, the hole will be classical music.' "
Indeed, come this fall, the small but elite group of Los Angeles classical music radio listeners may soon find a gaping hole where their favorite programming used to be.
When KFAC-FM (92.3) was sold in January to Evergreen Media Corp., a large Dallas-based corporation, industry watchers predicted a change for Los Angeles' oldest (more than 50 years) and only commercial classical station. When a company buys a station for a record $55 million, the reasoning went, it may not be able to retain a format that does not generate the revenue and large number of listeners that other formats do. Three of the four other stations owned by Evergreen are rock stations.
Staffers and industry sources believe that mid-September is when KFAC, one of only about 40 classical radio stations nationwide, may stop playing Schubert and Stravinsky and switch over to Sting and Springsteen. They believe classical radio will change drastically over the next few months with the possible loss of KFAC.
"There will now be fewer choices for classical music," said Clyde Allen, current music director of Ballet of Los Angeles and former music director at KFAC for 14 years. "This is another sign that classical music is becoming a museum. Only a philanthropist or a government agency can guarantee that this kind of programming will stay on the air. If a businessman is faced with profits he can make from classical music or profits he can make in another format, classical music will tend to be the loser. You can make a profit in classical music, but you cannot make the maximum profit."
De Castro has repeatedly denied that KFAC will drop the classical format. He also has said: "We've been making chocolate-chip cookies. If it becomes more financially prudent to make chocolate-fudge cookies, we're going to make chocolate fudge cookies."
And: "We're researching five or six different formats. Classical is one of them. We're testing classical, adult contemporary, classic rock. We don't have a format for it yet. We really don't know what we're going to do."
Ernest Fleischmann, Los Angeles Philharmonic managing director, recently told his affiliates not to consider KFAC for a fund-raising tie-in because its days as a classical station seemed numbered. (Instead, he told fund-raisers to look into a promotional tie-in with KKGO-FM (105.1), which announced last week that it will switch from jazz to a partial classical format starting in January. Classical music lovers will also still be served by KUSC-FM (91.5), USC's public radio station.)
One station employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was told a few weeks ago that management "had not decided what format the station would have, but that classical was not likely to be among the options."
De Castro acknowledged that he has been shopping the station's call letters and music library around--estimated at about 55,000 records and compact discs.
"There is no other collection like this west of Chicago, a collection of over 50 years," said Lance Bowling, owner of Cambria Records and founder of the Society of Preservation of Southern California Musical Heritage.
KKGO General Manager Saul Levine said that De Castro had approached him about buying the library and call letters when he heard that Levine planned to start programming classical music on his station. Levine said the asking price--more than $1 million--was too high.
Jack Siegal, KSRF program director, said that De Castro had also spoken to him about the library and call letters, but would not comment on whether his station would purchase them.
"There are a lot of intricacies involved in the whole delicate issue," De Castro said. "We're checking around to see if anyone is willing to take the classical format. I'm not going to pull the plug and be an uncaring person."
KUSC is also undergoing some programming changes.
Earlier this month, KUSC General Manager Wally Smith replaced music in the mornings with two hours of news, from 6-8 a.m. He said the station has received many calls from listeners who are unhappy with the switch, but he considers the morning news program a way of restoring a news slot that was closed when National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" was dropped from the station. "It brings us back into the balance we had before," he said, which is roughly 15% news-85% classical.
Smith is quick to dispel rumors of further format changes at KUSC, but explains that other kinds of music, besides classical, may be added. "We are still thoroughly committed to classical music as our format," he said. "We may add in other music, as an exploration of ways to expand the way we hear classical music."
He stressed the importance, not just to KUSC but to all classical music organizations, of finding and developing new audiences. "I don't want to pretend that we aren't going to try new things, because I think that is one of the things that non-commercial radio has to do," Smith said. These new directions will be integrated into the classical programming.
"We will not be doing a four-hour block of rhythm and blues," he said.
KFAC's airing last week of a press conference by the Rolling Stones announcing their U.S. concert tour added fuel to the speculation that it would soon become an album-rock station. Just minutes after the press conference, the station received about 50 phone calls from irate listeners. Since then, complaint letters have also streamed in.
"There are 90 letters on my desk saying, 'Don't change the format,' " De Castro said. "These are wonderful people, but it's not going to have any effect."
De Castro, who came to KFAC after heading WLUP-FM, a top-rated album-rock station in Chicago, explained that he decided to broadcast the press conference--which was also heard on KLSX-FM and KLOS-FM--"for fun."
"I was kidding around with it," De Castro said. "It caused all sorts of speculation and really stirred up the community. . . . We can do whatever what we want."
"We're very unhappy," said Amelia Haygood, founder and president of Delos International Inc, a Los Angeles recording company that specializes in classical music. "I could put it this way--they are a library for the ears in this area. The burning of the (Los Angeles Public) library was a terrible thing. With this, I'm having the same feelings."
"It has to be a business decision and I'm not surprised that he would take that stance," said Bob Goldfarb, vice president of programming and operations at KFAC. "I don't think there are any villains here. I think these are people doing their jobs, sizing up the constraints and opportunities and making logical decisions. . . . Radio stations are not always able to keep things as they are, in spite of the fact that there are some people who like it that way."
Classical stations traditionally make far less money than other formats, such as Top 40 or adult contemporary rock stations. The revenue generated by another format could help Evergreen pay off the debt incurred when it bought KFAC for such a high price.
"Most advertising is done on mass appeal and so you've got to go where the dollars are," said John Dobel, Western regional manager of Birch Scarborough Research. "When you look at who's listening to radio at any given time, only 3% of the population listens to classical music (on a regular basis). It's an elite 3% . . . but 40% of the population listens to rock."
Although KFAC's audience tends to be wealthy and well-educated and is a prized demographic group for advertisers, Dobel said, the station has simply too few listeners to make it a big money maker.
During the last quarter, according to Birch's ratings service, KFAC garnered an average 1.6 share of the audience, which translates to about 24,500 listeners per 15-minute sampling period. KUSC had an even lower rating--only about 18,300 people. Therefore, only a total of 42,800 people listen to classical music on the radio at any one time.
In contrast, about 625,300 people listen to rock stations in Los Angeles at a given time, based on Birch's ratings.
"The amount of money a station earns is based directly on the size of the audience which affects the rates charged," KFAC's Goldfarb said. "If an audience is small, however demographically desirable, it just cannot command rates like $1,000 a minute like some stations." KFAC, in contrast, charges "a few hundred" an hour for its commercials, he said.
Evergreen President Scott Ginsburg has repeatedly said that he did not plan to change the station's format. In May, Ginsburg said: "I don't know of any changes right now. And I think it's particularly important to note that there has been no determination at all to change the format to a rock station."
Ginsburg, who was out of the country as this report was being prepared, asked his staff to refer all calls about KFAC to De Castro.
Though they said they were assured that the station would remain classical, many KFAC employees said that they believe a change was in the works from the moment the sale was closed.
Finding work may not be easy for many of KFAC's staff. "It's a lot easier for contemporary deejays to get jobs than it is for classical," said an official of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. "It's going to be tough unless somebody else picks up the format."
Still, he sympathized with the situation in which the new owners are placed.
"I feel bad for (De Castro) because he's been put in a situation where the power base in L.A. listens to KFAC, but you can't make any money programming that kind of music," he said. "I see both sides of it and I don't see anybody coming out a winner."
Felicia Paik and John Henken contributed to this article.