Killing Classical 

KUER’s heavy-handed management stirs revolt

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Gene Pack toiled diligently for 40 years to bring classical music to this area’s public radio audience. John Greene, the general manager of the University of Utah’s KUER, gave the dignified radio host just two days notice before he trashed Pack’s show in favor of “talk” programming through National Public Radio.

Greene and university brass, no doubt, understood there would be some protest from listeners. They had earlier unceremoniously sacked the station’s beloved and long-time jazz aficionado Wes Bowen and weathered a short tempest. But what they did not count on was Pack’s audience being broad and deep, taking the demise of classical programming—and Pack—as a bitter pill they are unwilling to swallow.

Greene advised Pack to tape his last two programs, to be broadcast Thursday and Friday, March 15 and 16. But Pack refused, insisting that he owed his listeners the courtesy of hearing this abrupt news directly from him. He continues to work at KUER in other capacities.

Three weeks after the program switch, the revered classical music host was honored by the university’s Communication Department for the many years he had devoted to arts broadcasting. In a short address to the more than 200 present, including news media, Pack lamented the loss. “KUER has used the airwaves in a noble way. We have promoted the arts and humanities and brought great music into people’s homes. Now, people are angered and appalled at their loss … Salt Lake City no longer has its own classical-music station. There is no longer any classical music broadcast to Southern Utah.”

For the past four decades, KUER prided itself on its cultural diversity as Utah’s public radio institution. But recently, the station’s management abruptly shifted philosophies and began using Arbitron ratings that emphasize news and information over classical music and the arts. The reasons for the big switch are unclear. The university station appeared to be in good financial shape, with an annual budget for 2000-01 of $1.6 million ($545,000, listener donations; $398,000, state funds; $375,000, underwriters; $100,000, foundations; $15,000, major donors; with the remainder of about $165,000 coming from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).

Greene explained the switch with ratings numbers, noting that during “the past six years, we had disappointing daytime ratings. We were not delivering a significant amount of service during the daytime hours.”

In an April 15 Salt Lake Tribune op-ed piece, Greene seemed to argue that because Brigham Young University’s public station KBYU offers classical music, Pack’s show wouldn’t be missed. “Despite KUER’s long commitment to classical music … classical listeners have preferred KBYU to KUER by a significant margin,” he wrote.

However, a private Arbitron survey—rated by Scarborough Research for August 1999 through July 2000—indicated in its Rank Report that KUER dominated the Monday-through-Friday time slot of 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. (some 13,175 listeners or 6.8 percent of the population), compared to KBYU followers (7,500 to 8,000 roughly), followed by Salt Lake’s KCPW (showing an audience of just under 5,000). Scarborough’s Target Profile indicated that of the 15,625 classical music listeners, KUER’s audience over age 25 with an annual household income of $75,000 made up about 75 percent more listeners than KBYU. Of particular interest is the fact that people listening to “All News Radio” FM formats represent an insignificant figure in this Target Profile.

The question remains for many in the radio audience: Should KUER concede to KBYU in classical music when KUER carried arguably the best classical programming in the Intermountain West? Greene’s explanation based on ratings to systematically dismantle KUER’s classical music format appears weak and has alienated a large number of its listeners.

The move incensed Utah Symphony Musical Director Keith Lockhart, who laid down his baton in Abravanel Hall just before his final musical selection during a March 23 concert. He announced to the Symphony audience that classical music broadcasting no longer was a part of KUER. In an impassioned speech, the Utah Symphony/Boston Pops maestro pleaded with patrons to write letters and make phone calls to KUER in an attempt to reinstate a 40-year tradition of classical music in Salt Lake City. The audience wildly applauded his suggestion.

Ironically, the Utah Symphony—which two years ago allowed petitions to be gathered in the lobby of Abravanel Hall for the return of their recorded concerts on KUER—refused a similar request several weeks ago to collect petitions for the return of classical-music programming to KUER, said Symphony President Don Andrews. Later, Scott Parker, chairman of the symphony’s board of directors, quoted Andrews as saying “there is some kind of regulation of a county-owned facility that you cannot request petitions in the lobby.”

This seems peculiar, in light of an April 19 memo from the county administrators of Abravanel Hall that stated “this is an issue … to be decided by the client; if another one of our clients wanted to put out petitions, that would be OK—it’s up to the client.”

Nonetheless, by the end of April the letters and phone calls KUER received in favor of reinstating classical music exceeded 600, compared to 50 against it. Further, the University’s Daily Utah Chronicle published its own poll, asking readers if “KUER’s decision to eliminate classical music [was] a good one.” Of the 237 respondents, 104 (44 percent) believed that “KUER betrayed the arts and its priorities are suspicious.” Only 56 (24 percent) individuals stated that “the news and information offered in its place is more valuable.”

It now appears that more sinister forces are at work in the guise of NPR. What used to be a grassroots network devoted to alternative radio broadcasting has devolved into a commercial, mainstream enterprise that threatens the extinction of its once-diverse programming. For the most part, NPR now is the FM equivalent of “Talk Radio” and KUER is following suit, competing directly with KCPW for the same audience with the same programming.

NPR’s Alan Stone explained that there are 269 stations affiliated with NPR and each station manager “holds final responsibility as to choices they make regarding programs offered.”

Although Greene and the decision makers at the University of Utah, notably President Bernie Machen and Vice President for University Relations Fred Esplin, anticipated the local protests would wither and die, the issue remains heated. Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, a patron of the arts, voiced his concern over the demise of KUER’s classical music format, through an aide, to a newly formed Salt Lake City arts-advocacy group. State legislators, including Reps. Richard Siddoway and David Ure, as well as Sen. Gene Davis, have voiced concerns over the switch. On the national level, magazines such as The New Republic have questioned whether NPR has forgotten its roots.

It was no accident that people recognized how unique KUER was, Greene conceded. “However,” he said, “it was not a uniqueness from a public-service format. A little bit of jazz, a little bit of classical and a little bit of news was increasingly difficult to maintain when people can go to one station and get what they need.”

One individual who didn’t get what he needed was University Law Professor Edwin Firmage, who recently donated $500 as a challenge grant for the station’s Fall 2000 fund-raiser. He then threw in another $60 because it was for Pack’s program. “I am angry about that challenge grant because if [KUER management] knew this was coming, they should have told the listeners so [KUER] didn’t ride in with Gene Pack in his last go-around and then unhorse him. I did call Fred Esplin and left a message on his voice mail suggesting ways to use Gene in a meaningful way, like having a whole evening of classical music once a week, patterned after the [Metropolitan Opera] broadcast that KBYU does, but not limited to opera. It could be anything Gene considered classical in a broad sense [within] a two- or three-hour evening [time frame].”

But the station manager explained the difficulties of broadcasting such a program. “KUER should help listeners understand the industry and why and how people listen. If we did a three-hour musical program buried somewhere in our schedule, the people that might potentially like it might never find it. And the people who were expecting to listen to whatever was on either side of that program would be angry that this three-hour thing was stuck in the middle,” Greene said. “A little specialty program, conceptually, is a nice idea, but I don’t know many ideas that would work.”

Esplin deemed Firmage’s suggestion “unfeasible” and explained that he and Greene had met with KUER’s advisory board as well as the university’s board of directors. All came to the conclusion that the complete changeover to NPR was necessary for the station’s survival. Esplin said he “agonized over the situation. However, I can still listen to classical music on KBYU, which I am doing right now.”

Small wonder that Esplin, a member of the Utah Arts Council, is considered a traitor among some in the arts community. “I’m not very well-liked right now,” he admitted. “But it will pass.”

Several university public-radio stations—mostly on the Eastern Seaboard—have completely converted to NPR. In 1996, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, under the auspices of Walter Harrison, then-vice president for University Affairs, discarded its classical-music broadcasting on WUOM FM and acquiesced to the dominance of NPR programming, thus silencing the campus station’s independent voice. At the time, Machen was provost and chief executive vice president of the Ann Arbor campus and supported the decision, says Harrison, who is now president of the University of Hartford in Connecticut. Interestingly, KUER under Machen’s leadership has followed suit. Machen declined to comment, opting to have Esplin handle all KUER-related topics. However, Greene revealed that he received a two-sentence e-mail from Machen “in which he expressed his sympathy, telling me to ‘hang in there.’”

Several prominent members of the University Music Department, including Professor Morris Rosenzweig and Professor Henry Wolking, felt strongly enough about the format change to meet with Esplin and Greene on March 29. But their concerns were not assuaged. Rosenzweig remains puzzled and disappointed. “KUER has rendered itself useless, pointless and functionless with regard to its role as University of Utah’s public-radio station. They have lethally sublimated their role as provider of classical music to KBYU … Why is the state funneling more than $398,000 a year in personnel and other costs to a radio station that provides something that is already provided by KCPW?”

Rosenzweig noted that KUER eliminated classical music “under the cover of dark. These arrangements were made far in advance. There was a faculty committee, generated by John Greene, that approved it, with no one represented from the Music Department … How is it appropriate that KBYU be the holder of playing classical music in this state? It reflects poorly on the Music Department of the University of Utah. It reflects poorly on many of the cultural organizations that used KUER as a way of sending out their message.”

It is of interest, too, that of the 17 members of NPR’s national board of directors, five are non-radio representatives, while the remaining 12 are general managers of NPR affiliate stations. None receive monetary compensation for NPR board duties. Greene is one of the 12 who sit on the national board—a fact that some consider a conflict of interest.

NPR does offer some classical music. Unfortunately, the few classical programs that NPR provides are limited in substance. Despite its 1999 Peabody Award, Performance Today lacks the quality and diversity of Pack’s program, which, in the words of Utah Arts Council Director Bonnie H. Stephens, made Utah listeners “stretch their knowledge of classical music.”

Another argument may be raised that NPR is minimizing classical music and its “elitist” impact on the masses. Rosenzweig theorizes that “classical music is elitist and that is why it is still around. There’s been a small and informed population protecting it—NPR is against classical music for a number of reasons. One is that it is harder to push. Another is a case of censorship—the whole business of eliminating classical music, which is in the way of NPR. KUER provided local programming, whereas NPR wants its canned goods to be distributed.”

Like NPR, KUER’s management was doing everything in its power to dispense with classical music for more than a decade through poor and inconsistent programming. When meeting with Esplin and Greene, Wolking forwarded a hypothetical situation where a large foundation contributed $50 million to KUER and asked what the station would do differently. “Esplin made no effort to conceal the fact that the station would do nothing different because KUER was working for the public. If the station did receive a huge increase in funding, it would not be automatic that classical music would return to KUER,” Wolking said. However, Esplin vaguely suggested to Music Department representatives the remote possibility of starting an all-classical subsidiary station in the future.

Wolking believes that Pack sustained the quality of KUER, and now much is lost. “The programming of classical music is essential for an academic culture where people think. Gene’s knowledge is so extensive that Maurice Abravanel used to consult with him for new works and composers. Gene was very fair and always played local composers. Unless you are doing pop music, there simply is no way now for people in the musical arts to get exposure in Utah.”

Not all public-radio stations have succeeded in their Faustian pact with NPR. In December 2000, the management of Maine Public Radio completely converted to NPR, removing all the listeners’ favorite programs, including their beloved Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. After three months of undiminished protest, the administration of Maine Public Radio finally got the message. The Bangor Daily News reported that “the initial process for listening to public comments was taken with ‘the tenor of arrogance.’ Many people got the sense that in the minds of [Maine Public Radio] officials, studies [were] better than listeners’ thoughts.” Maine Public Radio President Robert Gardiner said that though the station expected resistance to change, it “became obvious that we had to fix [the] problem.” As a result, the Metropolitan Opera was returned, along with other favorite music programs, while two hours of daytime talk radio were cut in half, appeasing the howls of protest from the station’s devoted listeners.

KUER is not yet following Maine Public Radio’s example, nor is it promoting the return of listeners’ donations. However, Greene said the station accommodated the 14 members who requested their donations toward the station’s new transmitter be returned. He added that 80 listeners wanted their names removed from the mailing list.

Esplin, on the other hand, said that 82 classical-music listeners requested the return of their donations. Although presently small in number, the return of funds may show significant growth if more members follow their lead or if any foundations withdraw their support, as one already is threatening. According to Esplin, if that happens or if the Utah Legislature withdraws any of their support to the University of Utah for KUER, it would strap the station’s operating expense, possibly causing serious cutbacks in personnel and programming.

The worst scenario for KUER is the possibility of the embryonic arts-advocacy group growing to such an extent that it adopts Edward McDonough’s rumination in his April 8 Salt Lake Tribune column by launching “a class-action suit against KUER for fraudulent solicitation of donations.” Is KUER’s demographic-minded decision to bury classical music worth placing the station’s future at risk? “I’ve gotten a couple of letters that said I was the downfall of classical music,” Greene said. “It would have amused me if it had happened at another time, but it doesn’t right now.” u

Editor’s note: Scott Rivers contributed to this report

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Deborah L. Botte

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