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Musical Treat: KHFM utilizes brilliance of classical music to draw in listeners

Alexis Corbin, New Mexico classical music station KHFM’s newest weekday host, says KHFM plays an invaluable role in getting the word out about classical music performances in the area. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s not unusual to hear Christmas music on the radio this time of year – “The Sussex Carol” sung by the Westminster Abbey Choir, “The Holly and the Ivy” given voice by the choir of Tewkesbury Abbey, “In the Bleak Midwinter” performed by violinists Arturo Delmoni and Nina Bodnar and violist Natasha Lipkina.

Whoa! Rein in that one-horse sleigh. Not exactly the playlist you were expecting?

Well, how about “Winter Wonderland” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – but as presented by the Hampton String Quartet instead of Perry Como or Gene Autry.

“It’s the music you won’t hear anywhere else,” says on-air host Alexis Corbin. “A holiday treat from KHFM.”

Going public

Brent Stevens, KHFM executive director and program director, said the classical music station’s move from commercial to listener-supported status more than two years ago has been a success in any way you can measure it.

KHFM, 95.5, headquartered at 8009 Marble NE in Albuquerque, is New Mexico’s broadcasting and streaming 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week classical music station. It went on the air in November 1954 to give Albuquerque listeners an alternative to the rock and country music that dominated radio dials.

When KHFM signed on, it was the state’s first commercial FM radio station. But since Sept. 1, 2017, it has been a public, noncommercial, listener-supported station operating as a nonprofit under the American General Media Foundation. KHFM still gets some money from advertising. But most of the commercials are local, and there are fewer ads and more music.

“I think just about no matter how you measure it, (the switch to public status) has been a success,” said “Brent Stevens, KHFM’s executive director and program director. “We got feedback from listeners right away about hearing more music. Not just more music per minute, but longer-playing pieces.”

Now, the station depends on subsidies from listener contributions and from nonprofit institutions and organizations for most of its financial support. It gets no government funding and is not part of National Public Radio.

Earlier this month, KHFM did its winter pledge drive, appealing to listeners for donations, any amount they deemed appropriate or could afford. The station will do its quiet drive, a more subdued fundraising effort, Thursday, Dec. 26 to Tuesday, Dec. 31.

“KHFM’s average donation in 2018 was $177,” Stevens, 62, said. “That’s above the national average of $135 for public radio stations.”

He said the number of individuals listening to KHFM for at least five minutes each program shift are 36,400 in Albuquerque and 17,800 in Santa Fe.

“That’s No. 1 or No. 2 in Santa Fe and the Albuquerque numbers are good considering the breadth of the market,” Stevens said. “Our streaming numbers are 38,500 a month. We are heard in more than 20 states besides New Mexico.”

A rhythmic thing

Corbin, 42, is the newest of KHFM’s weekday on-air personalities. She hosts Weekday Mornings With Alexis from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. A native of Portland, Oregon, Corbin lived in Tempe, Arizona, before arriving in Albuquerque in 1999. She’s a percussionist.

“I was 8 when I started playing drums,” she said. “My cousin had a drum set he was not playing, so they gave it to me. The rhythmic thing was pretty natural for me.”

She has performed with the Santa Fe Symphony, Opera Southwest and the New Mexico Philharmonic as well as with groups such as Sol Calypso, a steel drum band.

Corbin had not worked in radio before going on air at KHFM on Oct. 1.

“It is fun and eye-opening,” she said. “There is so much going on that you don’t even realize when you are just listening she said. The time just flies by.”

Corbin is also director of education and outreach for the New Mexico Philharmonic, a position that helps her see KHFM not only as a place she works but as a vital resource for classical music organizations in New Mexico.

“Everybody is on a shoestring budget,” she said. “It is just so important to have KHFM to get the word out about performances.”

Good for kids

A staunch supporter of childhood music education, Corbin is founding program director of NMPhil’s Young Musician Initiative.

Although KHFM’s listeners are generally considered to be in the 45 to 55 age range and older, Corbin believes some kids are tuning in. She said her own children, a daughter, 17, and two sons, 20 and 14, all of whom are involved with music, listen to KHFM.

“I’m almost embarrassed by how much they do now that I’m on the air,” she said. “But they listened occasionally before that. At public functions, people come up to me and tell me they and their children are listening. I’ve gotten some really nice cards from families that say they listen. So I think young people listen more than we realize.”

The Albuquerque Youth Symphony concert hour, which features some rebroadcasts of AYS performances, airs monthly on KHFM from September through May.

“That’s a real special thing in your formative years,” Corbin said. “I don’t think I ever got to hear myself playing on the radio when I was young.”

More diverse

Stevens said KHFM is working now to develop podcasts, hosted by the station’s on-air personalities, that will be provided free to elementary, middle schools and high schools in Bernalillo and Sandoval counties.

“It will be a mix of music, talk and materials for teachers,” he said. “We are raising money to do it as a public service.”

But while mindful of developing young musicians and young KHFM listeners, the station is also dedicated to pleasing its older audience. And to staying on the air.

“We play a lot more diverse music than many classical radio stations,”Stevens said. “We play some 20th- and 21st-century composers. John Adams (contemporary American composer, clarinetist and conductor) comes to mind. But I would like to increase the diversity of the repertoire and of artists.”

Because, more than anything else, KHFM strives to play the music you won’t hear anywhere else.

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