Malcolm Gladwell defines a “tipping point” as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” I’ve also heard it defined as the one snowflake that causes an avalanche. It is when something happens and things are never quite the same again.
Today we have a short film about a format change at commercial classical station WNCN in 1974 that was a radio tipping point. The impact is still being felt today.
Several decades ago there were at least 100 commercial classical radio stations. Today you can count the number of these stations on one hand. Some commercial stations such as WQXR, WCRB, WCLV, KDFC and KING became noncommercial public radio stations. But, many, many other heritage commercial classical stations vanished from the dial. Classical music fans will remember KFAC in Los Angeles, WGMS in Washington, DC and WNCN in New York.
THE END OF WNCN
On November 7, 1974 long-time commercial classical station WNCN changed owners and format. At the time WNCN was competing with then-commercial station WQXR. The new owners – Starr Broadcasting owned by William F. Buckley – were aware of WNCN’s declining and aging audience and decided to change the format to rock n roll when they took over.
Classical music fans were enraged. They formed the WNCN Listener’s Guild and filed a complaint with the FCC that would force the new owners to change the format back to classical. After heated discussion, the FCC declined to get involved saying the marketplace should decide programming, not citizen’s groups or regulators. The FCC has never gotten involved in format flip since then.
It is time for the short film to put things in context. You will hear the final moments of WNCN and the abrupt transition to WQIV, a new rock station that was broadcast in quadraphonic sound (4 channels of audio). It describes the tipping point, the beginning of the era when commercial classical radio almost vanished.
Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_i8S0b9XdM8
COMMERCIAL CLASSICAL STATIONS & THE TIPPING POINT
The FCC’s decision to stay out of program and format changes encouraged the sale of many FM stations because it ended the uncertainty of costly and time consuming legal challenges. But there were other factors.
By the late 1970s FM listening exceeded AM as mainstream music formats like Album Oriented Rock (AOR) and Country zoomed in popularity. This caused FM stations to rise in value. Many older owners sold their stations to a new breed of corporate station owners.
Increasingly sophisticated audience research showed that even though commercial Classical stations had lots of listeners, most of them were outside the 18-34 and 24-55 demographics that advertisers wanted to reach. More and more commercial Classical stations vanished every year.
Around the same time there was also a tipping point for another commercial radio format: So-called “Beautiful Music.” BM is still lampooned by comedians today as “elevator music" -- cheesy instrumental versions of Stairway to Heaven. But, in their heyday, BM stations were highly profitable and reached large numbers of listeners. Like Classical listeners, most of BM’s listeners were older than the desired demographics.
I witnessed this tipping point first-hand when I worked for Transtar and Unistar in the mid to late 1980s. WEAZ a/k/a Easy 101 (now WBEB) in Philadelphia was the most influential BM station. In 1988 WEAZ dumped BM and began airing Transtar’s Format 41, a format designed to reach an audience whose average age was 41. In the following year almost every BM station in the nation flipped to another format.
SIMILARITIES TO NONCOMMERCIAL CLASSICAL TODAY
One vital difference between commercial and noncommercial radio is that most noncoms are mission oriented. This fact alone keeps many of the current noncom Classical music stations on the air.
Classical noncoms are doing well right now. For instance, we reported yesterday that 72% of Classical stations in Nielsen Audio Diary markets increased their number of weekly cumulative listeners from Spring 2015 and Spring 2016.
But noncom Classical station audiences skew very old. Tom Thomas of the State Resource Group (SRG), sponsor of Classical Music Rising (CMR), presented the chart on the right at CMR’s recent meetings in Phoenix. Fact: Noncom Classical radio listeners are quite old.
Given this reality, CMR is making valiant efforts to reach new younger listeners via digital platforms. CMR is also examining new revenue opportunities to offset expiring current members. The key question is whether their efforts will postpone or solve what appears to be an upcoming tipping point of Classical music on public radio.