Classical station KHFM converts to listener-supported, public status

On-air personalities Brent Stevens, left, and David Sinkus host classical music programs on KHFM-FM, 95.5. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Recorded bird songs signal the 6 a.m. shift from overnight pre-programmed music to live broadcasts at New Mexico’s classical music radio station. That’s the way it has been for years.

But for the past few weeks, there’s been something slightly different about program director Brent Stevens’ morning greeting.

“Good morning. This is listener-supported 95.5, KHFM Santa Fe, Albuquerque, classical, public radio,” Stevens says after the chirping chorus has faded away.

The key words here are “listener supported” and “public.”

When it signed on in Albuquerque in November 1954, KHFM became New Mexico’s first commercial FM radio station. But this past Sept. 1,  KHFM converted to non-commercial status.

That doesn’t mean the station will be commercial free. But it does mean fewer commercials and more music. And it means that most of the commercials KHFM carries now will be local rather than nationally syndicated ads pushing pills for weight loss or male potency.

“The overwhelming comment from listeners has been ‘Thank you for not having those awful commercials anymore,'” Stevens said. “And some people right away began to notice there is more music. At 10 a.m., we have added a master work — 30- to 45- or 50-minute-long concertos and romantic symphonies.”

A crowded market

The change occurred when American General Media, KHFM’s owner and operator for 15 years, bought some other radio properties and needed to divest itself of four stations in order to comply with Federal Communications Commission ownership limits. AGM donated KHFM to KHFM Community Partners, a nonprofit organization.

“We love KHFM. It is a valuable part of our investments in Albuquerque and Santa Fe,” Rogers Brandon, AGM president said. “We felt the community was going to be much better served with KHFM as a non-commercial station and not as one competing in the commercial radio market. As a non-commercial, KHFM becomes a collaborative part of  the arts community. It can provide more support for the arts, which is the mission of Community Partners.”

Non-commercial stations derive some money from advertising but rely on subsidies from listener contributions and from nonprofits such as a university or an organization like KHFM Community Partners.

Commercial radio stations get their operating budgets from advertising they attract based on ratings that are determined by the number of listeners they have in a market. The more listeners a station has, the more money it can charge for ads.

This is part of the library at KHFM-FM, 95.5, a public radio classical music station. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Stevens said KHFM has 65,000-plus listeners in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and other surrounding areas. The station’s share of the Albuquerque market has been 2.0 or less. A share is the percentage of those listening to radio in the survey area who are tuned into a particular radio station. Top-rated Albuquerque stations notch up shares of about 5.0 or more.

“The radio market in Albuquerque and Santa Fe is extremely crowded,” AGM president Brandon said. “KHFM has held its own. Its ratings have been consistent. But it has not been a world-beater. It is an adult radio station with listeners in the 45 and 55 (-year-old) plus range, which is not always the preferable demographic.”

AGM will retain some contact with KHFM. Brandon is a board member of KHFM Community Partners. And KHFM will soon move from its site on Carlisle NE, the station’s home for more than 16 years, and start renting space in a property, recently acquired by AGM, on Marble NE.

“We have some experience in non-commercial radio,” Brandon said. “My brother runs Maryland Public Radio, WYRP in Baltimore. And we talked to  a classical music station in Seattle (listener-supported KING-FM) and also KUSC (a listener-supported station operated by the University of Southern California). This is one of those decisions — much like a hip replacement — that you labor over for a long period of time and, once you’ve made it, you wish you had made it a long time ago. The response is heartwarming.”

Absolutely important

“I’m ecstatic about them going non-commercial,” said Marti Wolf, an ardent KHFM supporter. “I think it opens up a lot of opportunities, and I’m glad not to have the blaring commercials. Some classical stations play the big five (composers) or so, but I’m always wanting to hear more things. I think KHFM does a great job of appealing to a very broad audience, and I hope we start hearing even more obscure composers.”

Roger Melone, music director of the New Mexico Symphonic Chorus, applauded KHFM’s move to non-commercial status.

“One of the problems with the commercialization of a classical radio station is that just after one of those a-ha moments, when you’ve just heard something that makes you want to reflect on a poetic moment, those commercials that follow just don’t fit,” he said.

Mainly though, Melone supports whatever strategy keeps classical radio alive in the community. Melone, previously resident conductor and chorus director of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, said one of things that helped convince him to join the NMSO in 1983 was that Albuquerque had a classical radio station that was considered better than some classical stations in much larger cities.

“Classical radio stations are right there in the same category as art galleries, good theater and classical orchestras,” he said. “They are indicators of the quality of life in a community, indicators to businesses and retirees about the quality of education and the arts in a community. Classical radio stations are absolutely important to the vitality of classical music.

“KHFM supported the symphony orchestra and it supports the New Mexico Philharmonic, Opera Southwest, the Santa Fe Opera and the New Mexico Symphonic Chorus. You turn on the radio and ‘Oh! I didn’t know they were doing that symphony this weekend, or that recital.’ KHFM is informing of the good music we have in the community.”

Stevens said that, like other Albuquerque public radio stations — KUNM-FM and KANW-FM — KHFM will start doing fundraising  drives at some point.

“I don’t know exactly what the schedule will be, but at least twice a year,” he said.

Soul music

It’s not as if asking for listener contributions is a new thing for the radio station. KHFM Community Partners, made up of listeners who support the station with their wallets, has been around for years.  And over the years, Community Partners has been funding the webstream of KHFM broadcasts, the locally produced Friday evening program “Classic American Icons” and the broadcast of programs by the Albuquerque Youth Symphony, Opera Southwest and other area musical organizations.

On-air personality David Sinkus makes a recording at KHFM0FM, 95.5. Sinkus is on Monday-Thursday evenings from 7 p.m. to midnight. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“Contributions were mostly online before, but (pledge drives) will give people another way to donate and also reach a wider audience,” Stevens said. “The challenge, and really the great opportunity, is to look for funding sources from listeners and local businesses.”

He said both longtime public stations and ones that have converted to non-commercial in recent years have become stable-growth enterprises.

“I look forward to being in better financial shape as a non-commercial station in a few years than we would have been if we had continued as a commercial station,” Stevens said.

He said no programming changes are anticipated, other than trying to play more works by young, contemporary artists and recording more live performances by New Mexico musical organizations. Stevens said the lineup of on-air personalities is expected to remain the same and that syndicated shows such as Saturday opera broadcasts and Sunday evening’s “From the Top,” featuring young classical musicians, will continue.

That’s music to the ears of dedicated listener Wolf.

“Having a classical station is critical to me,” she said. “I like beautiful music, the kind of music that opens up my soul. When I am at home during the day, KHFM is on. It is my life background.”

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