MUSIC : Musical America: Now It’s Only an Echo . . .

<i> John Henken is a Times staff writer</i>

Plagued by declining circulation and unable to attract major advertising commitments, Musical America has ceased operation just six years short of its centennial. The nation’s oldest continuously published music magazine’s January/February issue will be its last, barring an unforeseen rescue.

“It was a bottom-line thing,” says publisher James McCallum. “The circulation base was just too small.”

The vicissitudinous career of Musical America began in 1898, though a year later was suspended until 1905. Originally a weekly, it switched to monthly or bimonthly publication in 1929, and in 1970 merged with High Fidelity. Eventually it became part of the Capital Cities/ABC Publishing Companies, and last year ownership passed to Gerry Ritterman, who also publishes Soap Opera Digest.

“Basically, (Ritterman) felt the magazine was doable as a consumer magazine,” McCallum says, “but the magazine has not grown enough to attract the consumer advertisers.”


The statistics are indeed discouraging. The current circulation statement for the most recent issue lists 14,018 mail subscriptions, 927 dealer sales, and 5,700 complimentary copies. The magazine had already virtually disappeared from Los Angeles newsstands.

Increasing those numbers, McCallum notes, requires a long-term investment with an uncertain payoff, particularly in these recessionary times. He says that they have received a number of calls discussing the possibility of selling the magazine, but he is skeptical about the seriousness of the offers.

Not affected is Musical America’s huge and profitable annual directory, which is considered the bible of the classical booking business. The current edition is 784 advertising-laden pages with a $75 cover price.

“The sad thing about it is that (Musical America) is the last commercial general-interest musical magazine,” McCallum says. Its demise follows that of Ovation and arts periodicals such as Connoisseur.


Musical America had already lost its most distinctive feature, the nationwide coverage of live concerts. Ritterman brought in a “new publisher, new editor and . . . a whole new editorial format,” as the ad copy in the 1992 directory boasts. Ironically, editor Charles Passy’s column in the current and final Musical America is titled “The Power of Perseverance.”

Perseverance is something Chris Mohr understands. From Denver he puts out On the Air, which will enter the Los Angeles market with its March issue as the program magazine for classical radio station KKGO.

“The reason we’re surviving is because we’re essentially running a desk-top publishing operation,” Mohr says. “Our philosophy is never spend more than we’re already earning.”

Mohr and his wife, Karen, began On the Air four years ago as the program guide for Denver station KVOD, where they were part-time announcers.

“Two years ago, when Ovation went under it was carrying listings for 20 stations. We just called up those stations. It’s not been an easy market, to say the least.”

Besides KVOD in Denver, On the Air serves stations in Philadelphia, Miami, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Boston, with Los Angeles and Houston joining its coverage in March. It has 7,500 subscribers now and distributes another 1,500 copies over counters.

Currently On the Air is a monochrome monthly, 16 pages wrapped around the local radio program, with a $2.50 cover price. The February issue includes an interview with soprano Sylvia McNair, a piece on Rossini by Mohr, record reviews by Richard Halley and short items.

“Going into the L.A. market means we’re going to be able to expand and upgrade the layout and production,” says Mohr, who promises color for the March issue. “My goal is to get a four-color magazine and have more writers, to give wider editorial variety. If we get to 10,000 subscribers, we can get some national advertising.”


Mohr recognizes that the vast majority of his subscribers want his magazine for the radio listings, not its editorial copy.

“Musical America certainly has us thinking,” he admits, “but it would be presumptuous to imagine that we’re going to fill that void any time soon. Unfortunately, the way to survive in this business at this point is to keep overhead very small.”