In THE last year, listeners to classical music radio in Los Angeles have noticed something different about segments of the weekday sound of KUSC-FM (91.5) -- evidence of human beings talking to them live between the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms. It's a change from the public station's deliberately generic classical programming that for the last nine years was prerecorded for distribution to more than 50 other outlets across the country with as little trace of Los Angeles or the announcers' personalities as possible.
Now, in afternoon drive-time, host Rich Capparela serves up irreverent observations about Los Angeles and traffic, along with bits of news he has gleaned that day about the classical world -- in addition to selections from the classical canon. In the mornings, another KUSC alumnus returned home: Dennis Bartel shares his quietly ironic views of just about everything alongside the music, indicative of his background as a published author of fiction and nonfiction.
Apparently reflecting public approval of these changes and combined with the demise of its only significant rival, KMZT-FM, KUSC's audience has boomed to an average weekly listenership of 525,800, as measured by the latest Arbitron ratings, pushing it to the No. 1 spot among local public stations, ahead of previous leader KPCC-FM (520,700), KCRW-FM (496,800) and KKJZ-FM (347,500).
KUSC already had the largest audience of any nonprofit classical station in the nation despite a decline in its membership numbers and audience in recent years. Its latest average quarter-hour share of the total radio audience in Los Angeles and Orange counties, a key statistic in radio ratings, more than doubled from the same period a year ago, from a 0.8 to a 1.9.
"What we were getting out of syndication was costing us too much in our ability to program the station locally," says KUSC General Manager Eric DeWeese, who arrived four years ago from WRKF-FM in Baton Rouge, La., to assist KUSC President Brenda Barnes by overseeing the station's day-to-day operations.
The changes have not included altering the station's largely mainstream classical repertoire, which is less adventurous than the classical programming at Cal State Northridge's KCSN-FM (88.5), where the hosts have freedom to play whatever they choose. KCSN's smaller signal only reaches about a third of the L.A. metro area, however, attracting in the recent survey 58,700 listeners per week.
KUSC uses a playlist, but, says DeWeese, "the hosts can modify it and be creative with it. We just have to make sure we don't play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony three times in one week or a string quartet in a minor key in the afternoon."
More freedom and contemporary classical music are expected after July 1, when Gail Eichenthal, now director of arts programming, is scheduled to become program director, coinciding with the end of Classical Public Radio Network, the syndicated service Barnes developed with Colorado Public Radio for distribution by National Public Radio.
Until then, KUSC's midday programming will remain pre-recorded, but that will also change on July 1, when hosts Kimberlea Daggy and Alan Chapman will be live and unscripted. Evening host Jim Svejda, whose undeniably personal and idiosyncratic shows, though prerecorded, have long been the exception to KUSC's anonymous soundprint, will continue to do what he has always done -- as will Duff Murphy, the knowledgeable host of "The Opera Show" on Saturday as well as the live L.A. Opera broadcasts Eichenthal initiated.
KUSC's surge is particularly notable at a time when "news/talk" programming has superseded classical music as the dominant format in public radio nationally, growing by 115% from 1990 to 2005, according to a 2006 report by the National Endowment for the Arts.
"I think it's a very exciting time for the arts in Los Angeles, and I want to believe KUSC is reflecting that," says Eichenthal, who returned to the station in 2006 after more than a decade away at commercial news giant KNX-AM.
Eichenthal says she and Barnes were open with each other about their different points of view regarding the station's direction. It was Eichenthal who suggested to Barnes that she consider bringing Capparela and Bartel back to the station, where both once worked before taking jobs in commercial classical radio -- Capparela at K-Mozart and Bartel at WGMS-FM in Washington, D.C. Both became available when their respective commercial stations threw out classical music.
Barnes didn't hesitate to act on her suggestion. "It was a happy coincidence," Barnes says. "Us taking advantage of two commercial stations changing formats. And there's no doubt in my mind that hiring Dennis and Rich has been a huge step forward."
Barnes said additionally about the changes, "We started CPRN 10 years ago. The world is a different place now. The Internet was not what it is now."
Internet streaming of classical radio has made access to the genre more widely available than ever, offering anyone with a computer the chance to tune in WGBH in Boston, WQXR in New York or, for that matter, purely online services like Classical Music America or SKY.fm.
"We want to stand out on the Web by offering something unique," DeWeese says, "by promoting Southern California's fine arts scene -- the Phil and the opera. Outside of London and New York, you don't see that."
"As local as we can make it," Barnes says.
"I think listeners have noticed a topicality that wasn't here before," Capparela says. "It's a high-wire act, figuring out how to go tweaking expectations of the audience without alienating them. I know I'm speaking to people who are much, much better musicians than I'll ever be and to people who don't know what century Beethoven lived in but know they like the Ninth Symphony."
Bartel, who habitually makes reference to such un-classical names as Tiger Woods and Alfred Hitchcock, also routinely gives the time and temperature in specific places, such as Encino and Carson, adding the unusual detail of each municipality's census-reported median income.
When broadcasting behemoth Bonneville International axed classical music from top-rated WGMS in the nation's capital last year, "I was going to get out of radio," Bartel said recently, sitting in an office at KUSC's 20th-floor bank tower studios on Figueroa Street downtown. "Pure, naked greed." It was the excuse he was looking for to go back to writing full time.
Then KUSC offered him a chance to come back to where it all began for him. The late writer and USC professor Mark Harris once told Bartel, when he was an undergraduate, that his writing career was "doomed" by his good voice.
"He brings with him all that love for the written word, the spoken word," Eichenthal says about Bartel. "I think it's going to be more fun than it's been here. It is remarkable the way things turned out."