Van Ryzin: Classical radio KMFA switches to more local programming

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015 MyStatesman.com

As it approaches its 50th anniversary, Austin’s classical music radio station KMFA 89.5 opted for a little rebellion of sorts.

The nonprofit station recently went more local.

And that bucks a trend followed by other Texas classical music radio.

Stations in major markets such as San Antonio and Houston have, in the last few years, eliminated nearly all of their local programming and opted instead to broadcast nationally syndicated channels, primarily Classical 24, produced by American Public Media.

KMFA, on the other hand, significantly increased its locally created programming.

Now the station features 22 hours of locally hosted or produced programs on weekdays. And while it kept popular national shows such as “From the Top,” “Concierto” and the live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, KMFA has dropped Classical 24 entirely, even from the convenient overnight slot.

Longtime KMFA host Jeffrey Blair now produces “The Workbench,” which airs nightly from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.

And in quite literal terms, what other Texas radio markets have lost has proved Austin’s gain. Two new talents that have joined KMFA in the last year are content director John Clare, formerly of San Antonio, and music director Chris Johnson, who was a widely regarded host at Houston’s KUHF.

Change, says general manager Ann Wilson, is inevitable for the station that relies on private and corporate donations.

Radio is, after all, in a period of major disruption.

Music listeners now have a multitude of media platforms to choose from. Beyond well-known online streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora, more companies such as Apple, Amazon and Google are getting in on the music-providing market.

What a radio station is in the 21st century is — or needs to be — is an increasingly dynamic situation.

“I think the question really was, ‘How could we reflect the adventuresome interests and curiosity we pride ourselves of in Austin?’ ” says Wilson. “And we pride ourselves here in our local arts organizations, too.”

Toward that last point, KMFA is teaming with La Follia Austin Baroque for “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Music and More.”

Vivaldi’s set of four concertos is the No. 1 Baroque hit for KMFA listeners. And so the Austin Baroque ensemble has invited the station’s hosts to join the program and offer their commentaries and personal reflections.

It’s the type of collaborative event KMFA plans to increase in the future, along with live broadcasts of local concerts.

“We want to be more a part of the entire cultural conversation in Austin,” says Wilson. “And as media we’ve got the means to support and promote local arts groups.”

But perhaps the biggest shift made by the venerable station is musical.

If classical music audiences are often characterized as intractable and unforgiving, Wilson and the staff have braved changing, and updating, what the station plays.

To nonaficionados, some of the changes may seem incremental. For example, the station has upped the amount of music it plays from the Romantic era, a repertoire previously overshadowed by music from Baroque and Classical eras.

But more significantly, music by 20th and 21st century composers is getting more air time than ever at KMFA.

Yes, minimalist master Philip Glass is more in the mix. But so is the music of other living noted composers including John Adams, Arvo Part, Jennifer Higdon and Michael Torke.

And in honor of Black History Month, in addition to music by black and African-American musicians featured across the station’s regular programming, there’s a slew of special programs.

Now, post-Romantic era music comprises 22 percent of the playlist, Wilson says.

And despite some complaints from a few stalwart listeners since the changes took place last year, the response has been positive.

And listeners haven’t stopped listening, either.

Major donors have increased in the past year, Wilson says, as have the number of member households.

And perhaps most encouraging, Nielsen ratings have tracked an increase over the last year in listenership from that coveted and elusive demographic of 18- to 34-year-olds.

Classical music is ever-evolving, not static, Wilson notes. And very much alive in Austin: “We can be live and local.”

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