The death and rebirth of Classical music radio

How jazz rescued Classical music

5 minute read
WRTI's logo: From Ellington to Ormandy, and back.
WRTI's logo: From Ellington to Ormandy, and back.

Two deaths had to occur before it made sense for jazz to come to the rescue of Philadelphia’s Classical music audience. The first death was the result of evolution; the second death caused the necessity to smooth over a very dicey and controversial situation created by a deregulation bill signed by President Clinton. Without those two deaths we would not be celebrating the 60th anniversary of Philadelphia’s only current Classical music station, WRTI.

Until 1968, RTI stood for the Radio Technical Institute at Temple University, whose goal was to place Temple students into professional radio positions. As a side benefit, the director of Temple’s Radio and Television Division, John B. Roberts wrote in the 1958 WRTI Program Guide:

“You will hear more ‘live’ programs than any Philadelphia station, more drama, more live music, more live discussions, more live features, than any station in the area.”

Ellington and Basie

The death of WRTI-AM and its versatile format came about because of the birth of a magnificent, new FM studio and facility funded by Walter Annenberg in September 1968. Although it had intermingled jazz and classic music before, now WRTI adopted an all-jazz type programming.

During the 1980s WRTI became a network flagship station in the 1980s with a half-dozen repeater stations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. It brought into its studio live local talent as well as great international artists with their bands, like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. In 1989, WRTI relocated its antenna to a higher tower in Roxborough and increased its power from 10 kilowatts to 50, the range of a first-class station.

Then in September 1997, the loyal listeners of WFLN, Philadelphia’s only all-Classical music station, were jolted by that station’s seemingly sudden death. Jill Pasternak, an 11-year host of WFLN, simply read the last station ID, and after a brief pause Max 95.7 WXXM was born, to Sheryl Crow’s song, “A Change Is Gonna Do You Good.”

Deregulation’s side effect

Philadelphia Classical music lovers were devastated. WFLN was the place they habitually turned for Philadelphia Orchestra concerts as well as Saturday afternoon matinees of the Metropolitan Opera. From its inception in 1949, WFLN had built a collection of 3,000 Classical records.

Its embrace of simulcast technology in 1956 impacted powerfully on Philadelphia Orchestra broadcasts and records, winning the Orchestra interernational recognition as far away as Red China. WFLN's audience of 300,000 ranked ninth among Philadelphia’s 43 commercial stations. WFLN had broadcast during the 1980s also for broadcasting live. How could a broadcasting station that had made such a major contribution to the cultural life of the city with such a significant audience base could disappear so suddenly?

At the time we loyal listeners, weren’t given the real reasons for WFLN’s demise. But a little digging now provides the cold political/commercial explanation.

The “Telecommunications Act” of 1996 did away with limitations on the total number of commercial stations a single person or group could own. The law also eased restrictions on how many commercial stations could be owned in a given local market.

‘Honk if you’ve owned WFLN”

This deregulation permitted large media firms to begin pursuing commercial stations more aggressively. Part of the attraction for buyers was the prospect of greater efficiencies (for example, several stations could be run by one traffic manager). Consequently, the demand for (and the value of) commercial licenses rose sharply.

For example, the year after the deregulation law took effect Detroit’s WQRE, which had broadcast classical music since 1960, was sold and resold four times. WNIB in Chicago, which was purchased in 1956 for $8,000 by a Classical music-promoting husband and wife, was sold in 2001 for $16.5 million to Bonneville International Corporation, which changed to classic rock programming. WTMI of Miami and KFSD of San Diego had to give up on their classical music formats for similar profiteering.

WFLN was sold an astonishing five times within 13 months before vanishing altogether under its last owner, Greater Media. A bumper sticker began to appear in Philadelphia: “Honk if you’ve owned WFLN,” it read. As a public relations gesture, Greater Media executive Tom Milewski offered to donate WFLN’s record library as well as its database of listeners and sponsors to Temple, to the PBS affiliate WHYY and to two additional stations. Only Temple’s WRTI expressed interest.

Broadening the base

Classical and jazz audiences saw WRTI make a Solomon-like choice by cutting two musical babies by programming them in half: This once-all-inclusive station now became a Classical station during the day, a jazz station at night.

WRTI’s managers shrewdly perceived, that as a not-for-profit institution, Temple could broaden its funding base by appealing to two audiences. Also, it increased its size significantly with the combination.

Prior to adding classical music, in the summer of 1997, WRTI averaged 6,500 quarter-hour listeners. By 2005, that figure had nearly tripled, to 18,300. At the same time, WRTI’s membership increased from 3,371 in June 1997 to 15,000 members by 2005. A station that was valued at $259,000 in 1997 was worth $1.2 million by 2005.

Bridge to today

Skeptical jazz and Classical audiences began to see the benefits of living together in the same radio station, even if only half of their original programming was possible. The new format exposed students to wider cultural and musical experiences.

Today, of course, 24-hour music streaming on the Internet provides a 21st-Century technological listening resolution for music lovers who prefer 100% Classical or jazz. But WRTI’s unique format provided a bridge to this moment. It also brought together two communities of music lovers who had previously seemed to have no use for each other. Thanks to jazz, Classical music radio has been born again in Philadelphia.

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