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Is there a place for an old linear medium in a bright shiny digital media world?

That is the question that you might think haunts Classical KING-FM Seattle. Not only is it an old mass medium — radio — but its core content comes from composers who are, in many cases, hundreds of years dead.

It’s a dual old-medium-older-content challenge which was cast in sharp relief last month when KING-FM plunged into the listener-supported public pool, giving up a long history of advertising spot sales and intensely annoying NeoVita commercials. As a former radio broadcaster and current nerd, I wondered with more than academic interest if and how a terrestrial radio broadcast station could make the transition to an audio environment where bit rate trumps frequency modulation.

Let’s start with the arguments against survival, especially when survival depends upon whether today’s music listeners would support the station with their own dollars.

Frank Catalano, Practical Nerd

It’s an old medium (Marconi’s first radio station presumably featured all of 1897’s Isle of Wight hits). It plays older content (classical music, much of whose audience is thought to die before it can get up to change the station). Delivery sequence is linear and pre-determined, not customized by the listener. And it plays long pieces in a short-attention span, interrupt-driven world.

But the arguments for survival, once you delve into them, merit consideration. And revolve around KING-FM’s apparent realization, to paraphrase an earlier comparison involving railroads, that it is in the classical music delivery business, not the radio broadcasting business.

At the start of the transition to a listener-supported model, KING-FM did away with not just commercials, but news and traffic, correctly gauging that there were many other sources for both and its audience stayed with KING-FM for the music. It’s a subtraction strategy not unlike that used by Pandora, Slacker or a whole host of Internet radio stations.

Another good reason for a comparison to streaming web media: KING-FM already had four digital channels at and was one of the first radio stations to offer full-time streaming more than 15 years ago (Program and New Media Director Bryan Lowe states he doesn’t know of “any other (terrestrial) radio station in the world that has four unique online channels”). You might even make the case that KING-FM was bringing its analog broadcast channel more in line with the digital streams, rather than the other way around.

KING-FM's iPhone app

What about automated music recommendation engines? Lowe says services like Pandora work well for some formats, but not classical. “The ‘if you like that, then you’ll probably love this’  is much harder in classical music,” he explains. “If you like Beethoven’s Fifth does that mean you will like his Second Symphony? I can tell you, for many people the answer is no.”

Instead, he says, classical music “greatly benefits from a little bit of value-added data. In formats with artists such as Lady Gaga, the popular culture is filled with info on her, but that is clearly not the case in classical music.” KING, instead, inserts brief host snippets, a kind of “metadata (from) announcers with years of experience and knowledge.”

Yet perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of survival lies in the history of mass media and what happens when a medium diminishes in dominant general influence and appeal.

Once a medium achieves critical mass and subsequently begins to lose it, it doesn’t go extinct. It specializes in what its successors don’t do as well, moving from broad to narrow.  After film came, theater emphasized a “live” experience. After television came, radio gradually went from broadcasting everything — drama, comedy, music and news on a single station — to single-purpose formats with more personal presentation. Television eventually forced film to drop newsreels and later cartoon shorts, instead highlighting spectacle and immersive entertainment (as well as stuff you simply couldn’t show on TV).

Even printed books, a very early type of mass medium, may survive by focusing on bindings, graphics and paper — the presentation and the container — as much as the content, as graphic novels and art books already do. At the same time, forward-thinking print newspapers and magazines are going  in a different direction, becoming medium-agnostic and emphasizing the timely or thoughtful content.

When mass media no longer are, the medium reshapes its content. Or the content transcends the medium.

The latter is the path apparently being taken by KING-FM. While traditional radio may very slowly lose its mass appeal as listening habits change, Lowe and KING-FM rely on FM broadcasting as another form of getting the content to the audience, not a technology inextricably bound to the content.

Or looking at it from a reversed, and perhaps more correct, perspective: Even now only 25 percent of KING-FM’s content — just one of its four classical streams — is actually on analog broadcast radio.

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