Last week Houston Public Media (HPM) announced that classical music is leaving the FM dial in the nation’s sixth largest market. HPM announced they are selling Classical 91.7 KUHA after acquiring the license only five years ago.
The reason for the pending sale of KUHA is eerily similar to what drove American Public Media (APM) to sell Miami’s WKCP in July [link]: The stations couldn’t pay the mortgage.
INSIDE THE PURCHASE OF 91.7 FM
In 2010, KUHF, then managed by John Proffitt [now Executive Director of Pacifica – link] purchased KTRU from Rice University for $9.5 million. KUHA signed on with classical music in 2011. According to press reports at the time, Proffitt called the deal a “crown to my career.” Though skeptics thought KUHF paid too much for 91.7, KUHA debuted with considerable fanfare.
To raise the money to buy 91.7 the University of Houston floated bonds. According to audited financial reports on the HPM website, the University set up a repayment schedule for the new KUHA, much like a home mortgage where the interest is paid back first. Under these terms, KUHA was required to pay a minimum of around $400,000 per year to service the debt.
Apparently KUHA was not able operate the station and pay the mortgage at the same time. The University of Houston was on the hook for the bond money, so they decided to cut their losses.
KUHF also announced they will continue classical music on KUHF-HD2 and online once a sale is finalized. For now, KUHA is a lame duck – a sad reminder of what could have been.
A STRATEGY DECISION, NOT A “WE DON’T HAVE THE MONEY” DECISION
KUHF/KUHA General Manager Lisa Shumate tried to put a Happy Face on the defeat:
We are making this change in recognition of the growing popularity, superior broadcast quality and greater efficiency of…HD radio and digital streaming for our classical music programming.
HD Radio, without the benefit of a simulcast on a FM translator, is a trip to Radio Siberia. But, Shumate continued her spin on a Houston arts blog:
Why would you pay for another transmitter and tower when if you take the time you can tell the public how they can get better sound using (HD Radio) at 88.7?
Shumate said the move was "a strategy decision, not a 'we don't have the money' decision."
In my opinion, Shumate’s explanation is disingenuous bullshit.
ARE WE NEARING THE CLASSICAL FORMAT TIPPING POINT?
Classical music on terrestrial radio has been in decline for many years. This trend reflects the advanced average age of classical music fans, declining attendance at concerts and digital upheaval in the recording industries. There are some very successful classical stations – WCRB in Boston and KQAC in Portland come to mind. And new generations of listeners are being served online. So, the lights are still on. But they appear to be dimming for classical music on broadcast radio.
Commercial classical radio reached its tipping point a couple of decades
ago. KKGO in LA switched to country; WTMI in Miami went disco; WGMS in Washington DC changed to a religious format. Other commercial stations such as KING in Seattle, WQXR in New York and WCRB in Boston became noncommercial outlets because it is cheaper to operate a noncom.
Classical is now a part-time format in Detroit, Philly and Atlanta. It is (or will be soon) gone from the FM dial in Houston and Miami. To be continued…