Confession time: I’ve had a decades-long, hot-and-cold love affair with KING FM, the Seattle classical music station that has recently established earworm status in my brain. Now that affair is heating up again, though my inamorata is famously changeable.
Recently the station, maybe the last legacy of the Bullitts as ruling family of KING Broadcasting, hired in 2017 an outstanding executive director, Brenda Barnes. Under her firm and experienced guidance, the station has thrown off, at last, the constraints and bobbles of its years as a commercial radio station. It’s now a member-supported nonprofit station. Notably, to my ears at least, musically it is now full of wide-ranging, arresting surprises of consistent quality. It’s a big change for the better.
Everything about the Bullitts’ management of the KING stations was a mixture of high-mindedness, generational conflict, sale, and decline. So it is notable that one last part of that legacy is the KING FM station that survived with local ownership (two Dorothy Bullitt daughters, Patsy and Harriett) and then tried to perpetuate their mother’s strong commitment to classical music (her mother was a founder of the Seattle Symphony). I’m a graduate of Bullitt University, having worked three years for Seattle Magazine and for the TV newsroom.
Like many noble aspects of the KING empire (including King Screens and Seattle Magazine), KING FM was more a tribute to Queen Dorothy’s idealistic vision than a reliable source of income. Commercial classical radio stations suffered from poor ratings and therefore small advertising revenues, despite pitching radio ads for the upscale demographics of the listeners. (There are none of the species left, all such stations having gone the membership route, and KING was long a holdout.)
When KING Broadcasting was sold to the Providence Journal Company in 1991, the FM station was kept in the family. Eventually the two sisters decided to exit broadcasting, donating the station to a complex set of nonprofit entities. Initially, the semi-commercial station was expected to generate revenue that would go to the three musical organizations, the Symphony, the Opera, and Arts Fund (to help smaller music organizations). Those profits soon proved illusory, and so in 2011 the station shifted to membership funding.
That shift, given complex nonprofit regulations and FCC regulations, created an ownership and mission maze. When Brenda Barnes arrived to lead the station (she had managed 12 California music stations, including the greatly admired KUSC), it took her, she says, “six months to figure out the structure.” The three ownership entities include one board position from each of the three beneficiary musical organizations, and in the past that board was often dominated by people who knew little about radio.
When Barnes arrived in January 2018, she discovered that the station was likely to be “bankrupt in six months.” It was in debt, had no endowment or reserve funds, no ability to get a bank loan, a demoralized board, and a sudden need to raise money for a move. Barnes called an emergency meeting of the board, cut seven positions, and quickly (with no feasibility study) launched a $6.8 million fund drive to pull off the move (to the Opera support building on Mercer St.), get $2 million invested in a reserve fund, and keep the core audience listening. Today, the station is stable financially.
Barnes recalls that her main task was to shift the culture of the station from commercial values (dumb down the music to build a large enough audience to attract advertisers) and embrace a nonprofit model that “put the music first.” Another shift was from the period when KING FM developed “personalities” on air (notably George Shangrow and Tom Dahlstrom, both dismissed during the managerial vacillation).
Suddenly, the narrowing of music (no vocal music, for instance) from the bad old days was shifted. Music director Aaron Stoess, with 24 years of experience at the station, has blossomed into what Barnes calls “the best music director I’ve ever worked with,” and the playlist is now full of surprises, refreshingly off-repertoire, as well as music by women and composers of color. (Stoess makes sure to program music by a woman composer or a composer of color each hour.)
I particularly value the weeknight segments, hosted by Sean MacLean, a composer and pianist, whose brief and helpful introductions to the music selected by Stoess are learned, brisk, and pointed. Backstage notes: the music on KING FM is selected by Stoess, not by the announcers, and programs like MacLean’s compelling weeknight show, 8-12 pm, are pre-recorded. MacLean admits he was “embarrassed, ashamed,” to be encountering women composers and composers of color so fine and so late.
Barnes is a strategic thinker who has stabilized the station financially to the point where she is more involved in programming, along with the station’s new program director, cellist and KUOW alum Dave Beck.
Barnes, a hands-on manager, insists on two positioning strategies, meant to overcome the fact that the serious music audience for such stations may be only 10 percent of the listeners (more in the evenings). KING FM is still recovering from the days when about half the listeners heard it as background music in stores and elevators. The early way to deal with this split and inadvertent audience was to program “ditty music,” from a narrow selection of war horses and easy-listening tunes. Also annoying was the kindergarten-teacher tone of some announcers, spoon feeding classical music to presumably reluctant listeners.
The new way is to have the announcers (not “personalities”) introduce the music by making sometimes banal connections with ordinary life — either People Magazine introductions of the composer’s ordinary-life challenges or clumsy attempts to relate common problems (“Have you ever been late with an assignment? Well…”) to the next selection. Barnes has brought in story-telling coaches to advise the announcers, and she reviews some scripts to police the approach. I wonder if this defensive packaging will eventually wear thin.
The other protective device is associating the station, “Classic KING,” with nature’s sounds (gurgling rivers, ferry horns, birds) so that Classic King comes to mean the calming sounds of nature and meditative practices. Again, positioning classical music as a calming sedative is a risky ploy.
At any rate, the station seems to have found its footing, after decades of floundering. It has emerged from soothing background music to active listening, with all kinds of musical discoveries and take-chance short pieces from a wide repertoire (now very much including vocal and choral).
Barnes says her next challenge will be adding digital channels so that the audience under 45 (which prefers streaming and YouTube) will increase their listenership. KING FM has a respectable 21st place in local Nielsen ratings, though it also has a considerable international listenership through King.org. Some audience was lost due to the pandemic and the decline in drive-time listeners. As for corporate sponsorships, another leg of financial support, attracting such sponsors has become, in Barnes’s words, “very difficult.” The current annual budget for KING FM is $4.3 million, largely sustained by frequent on-air fundraising drives.
Lastly, the station, as originally conceived, is helping other musical organizations through affordable underwriting rates, live broadcasts, and the Friday evening program “Northwest Focus LIVE.” For Barnes, the key goal now is “audience development,” meaning getting more people to overcome their resistance and listen to classical music, and to get the bug enough to attend live concerts. That last figure (listeners who go to live concerts) has grown to 30 percent, Barnes reports.
KING’s Queen Dorothy Bullitt would be pleased — and relieved. As am I, back punching the 98.1 button.