May 18 2011 10:25 AM

KPBS finally kills its classical-music baby


Kudos to KPBS this week for sizing up the hornet's nest and giving it a couple of good whacks with a baseball bat. Making major changes to the radio schedule that are certain to send thousands of loyal listeners—and donors—into an apoplectic rage takes guts. This is especially so for a station that considers its audience, many of whom help keep it afloat financially, members of the organization.

“[H]ow dare you make such a monumental change without taking a survey of your listeners!!” commented one furious person on whose favorite evening show is the classical-music program Performance Today. “I thought this was PUBLIC radio. It sounds like you have other motives.”

KPBS's stated motive is to pound its listeners with news. The two big changes involve moving the signature weekday-morning local public-affairs show These Days from 9 a.m. to noon (along with changing its name to the generic Midday Edition and cutting it from two hours to one) and exiling the longstanding nighttime classical-music programming to the internet. The classical music will largely be replaced by news from the BBC, and the These Days switch will reshuffle the weekday deck a bit. The changes happen on Monday, May 23.

The stream of 69 comments left on the station's web site as of Tuesday morning runs straight down the middle between listeners who are fuming over the loss of classical music—a number of them pointing out that the soothing sounds help them fall asleep—and those who've long resented the music's 7 p.m. start signaling the end of the broadcast day.

The axiom “To each his own” fits the KPBS experience well. We have varied listening habits based on our unique personal schedules. I belong to the second group in the preceding paragraph. I like the idea of classical music, but I must confess that I never listen to it. I and many of my friends have considered prime-time classical music a bit of a public-radio joke and, until this week, thought the station would never muster the gumption to wake and rile the snoozing, blue-haired, pledge-making La Jolla dragon that guarded the treasure.

At the same time, I will hear less of These Days—the KPBS show that means the most to me. I'm often driving to work sometime between 9 and 10 a.m., so I get to hear a nice chunk of it, but I'm rarely driving during the noon hour. As a silver lining, the change may force me to finally get in the habit of podcasting.

The folks at KPBS say that cutting the show in half is a result of the dramatic drop-off of listeners during the second hour, which tends to include arts and lifestyle content. That won't go over well with some people, but it's fine with me—when I head to work after 10, I usually switch to the iPod. That's not a comment on the quality of the show; it's just a matter of my priorities and tastes. On the other hand, it does represent a loss of four hours of largely locally focused content each week, a negative development.

I like the addition of the West Coast-oriented news show To the Point at 11 a.m., but I don't appreciate the move of the consistently excellent Marketplace to 3 and 6:30 p.m. I couldn't be less interested in the global call-in program World Have Your Say at 10 a.m., but I'm intrigued by the inclusion of Q at 8 p.m. As they say in the commercials, your results may vary.

My initial reaction overall was that KPBS swung the pendulum a bit too far in the news direction. I'd be interested in a richer music experience. There's so much good music out there that doesn't get played on commercial radio and no shortage of people in San Diego who'd be willing to program it and throw in recordings by local artists to make it unique. I know a certain someone who'd have loved to hear news of radio theater being added.

It's easy for us to criticize; it's much harder to be the one making changes that are guaranteed to anger a sizable portion of the audience. In the alternative-weekly realm, I've heard that referred to as “killing your babies”—a rather brutal but evocative metaphor. You have to be willing to take chances in order to remain fresh and relevant. While KPBS's changes will be received as a mixed bag for just about everyone, I applaud the bold moves.

Now, about letting Bob Kittle stay on The Roundtable—.

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