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Monday, August 30, 2004 - Page updated at 09:29 A.M.

Radio
KING-FM strikes a sour note for some

By Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times music critic

Host George Shangrow was fired in December.
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Classical-music audiences are not always enamored of change.

But when recent changes at Classic KING-FM (98.1), one of the nation's top classical stations, provoke more than 70 angry e-mails to the newspaper, you can be fairly sure that change has sparked unusual outrage.

The nonrenewal of radio host George Shangrow's contract last December was the first manifestation of new directions at the station, where 16-year veteran Shangrow's "Live, By George" show had long been a popular forum for bringing live local performances to the listening audience.

Last month, the station announced the departure of another longtime host, Tom Dahlstrom, who had been at KING-FM for more than 17 years. The move was described as a "resignation" by KING's press release but characterized as a firing by Shangrow; Dahlstrom declined to comment, citing the terms of his departure. His exit created a wave of displeasure in e-mails and letters, most of whose subtext was: "What is going on at KING-FM?"

Host Tom Dahlstrom left KING-FM last month.
"First you fire George Shangrow, a quality evening host with an infectious love and solid knowledge of classical music ... " wrote listener Chris Blanchett in an e-mail to KING management, with a copy to The Seattle Times. "Now you fire Tom Dahlstrom, the most genially engaging radio personality on Seattle airwaves. And this is part of a strategy to expand your audience? Is step one of this master-plan to piss-off your existing audience? Because that is exactly what you are doing."

Blanchett has co-founded what he calls "a grass-roots organization called SAVE KING-FM," (e-mail savekingfm@yahoo.com) with the goal of getting Dahlstrom and Shangrow reinstated at the station. About 100 KING-FM fans have joined the organization thus far, Blanchett says.

So what, indeed, is going on?

Program director Bob Goldfarb, who took over from longtime predecessor Peter Newman upon Newman's retirement last summer, says the changes amount to only "a few differences ... part of a conscious effort to keep the station as vital and indispensable as it has always been."

A 30-year veteran of classical-music radio who has held posts at many stations, Goldfarb was hired by Newman in May 2002 as a consultant for KING-FM. What is less well-known is that Goldfarb originally hired Newman. In the summer of 1977, Goldfarb was at KING-FM for a short period as interim program director, and at that time he hired Newman for the permanent post.

Goldfarb says the main shift at KING-FM has been a broadening of programming that includes more variety. He won't comment on the decision to terminate Dahlstrom's or Shangrow's employment at the station and says of the resulting e-mails and letters, "It's great to know that KING-FM is so important to so many people.

"I'm always sad when people are unhappy with change," Goldfarb continues. "We don't want to lose old friends. That is always a cause for concern."

But Goldfarb says there is less public unhappiness, not more, about what KING-FM is doing. He points to an annual research study, conducted for the past three years by the research firm of FMR Associates in Tucson, Ariz. The firm annually phones Seattle-area residents, screening them to discover whether respondents are part of KING's "actual or potential" audience. Last year, 48 percent of respondents reported feeling "more satisfied" with KING-FM than the previous year. In 2004, that figure rose to 62 percent. (The survey was conducted in July, after Shangrow's departure but before Dahlstrom's.)

"Anecdotal information can be suggestive," says Goldfarb of those who have contacted the station, and The Times, to complain. "But it's good to get a fix on statistical responses."

The station's ratings, however, do not register a jump in approval. The most recent Arbitron ratings period yielded a 2.6 percent share of the total radio listeners older than 12, down slightly from last year's 2.9 (the 2002 figure for the same period was 2.7). Average time spent listening was up in 2004: 8 hours, 15 minutes per week, up from 2003's 6 hours, 30 minutes per week.

Additionally, the station has been a pioneer in Internet streaming, the process by which listeners around the world can hear live programming over their computers by visiting the Web site (www.king.org). KING-FM now has between 50,000 and 60,000 connections to its Windows Media Player Webstream every week, and another 30,000 connections to its RealPlayer stream. The typical length of listening is 60-80 minutes on the Windows stream, and more than 90 minutes on Real Audio, according to the station's Bryan Lowe.

"Our music has evolved in a direction that is clearly pleasing to listeners," Goldfarb says.

"I think we play more great music now, not music that just sounds pleasant. There is more early music, more choral music, more themed music — for example, all the Beethoven piano sonatas. We're also augmenting the programming with information features; Brad Eaton has an arts news story every morning. We've added the BBC News a year ago, and people like it.

"What about the hosts? We have a terrific team. I have confidence in everyone who's here now. No more departures are planned."

Shangrow said Dahlstrom was fired because he made a few last-minute changes to programming in order to commemorate historical events. Does Goldfarb really insist on strict control over everything that is aired?

"It's pretty standard in radio," replies Goldfarb, "for hosts to concentrate on presenting music. The music director chooses all the music. The host consults with the music director if a change is wanted. Music is better chosen if the flow is carefully considered; spontaneity can result in choices that are not as well thought through. We are looking for certain balances in variety and contrast."

George Shangrow, not surprisingly, doesn't agree.

"I think that [Goldfarb's] research is ridiculous," wrote Shangrow in a recent e-mail.

"The main thing he went after me for was a 'polka band' on a live Oktoberfest show from KPC [Kirkland Performance Center]. It was a seven-minute segment and the station received seven phone calls saying how much they liked the music and the segment.

"I remember talking with Goldfarb about the fact that in business, people really only phone when they are unhappy, and that getting seven listener calls that were very happy about a segment that lasted only seven minutes was surely an indication that people were listening, interested and involved. He informed me that that was incorrect, and that only the 'controlled data' of Arbitron and professionally conducted surveys could be counted on to tell what the public was thinking."

The station has begun issuing press releases about upcoming content, as it did with the Aug. 23-27 focus on "Educating Tomorrow's Audiences," airing 7 p.m. conversations with such music-education figures as Marcus Tsutakawa (Garfield High School Orchestra and Seattle Youth Symphony Junior Symphony), Perry Lorenzo (Seattle Opera education director), Doug Fullington (Tudor Choir conductor, Pacific Northwest Ballet historian), Patricia Costa-Kim (Seattle Symphony education director) and Gregory Vancil (Seattle Bach Choir conductor).

Peter Donnelly, a KING-FM board member and president of ArtsFund (one of three recipient organizations of KING-FM's proceeds), declined to comment on personnel changes at the station or on KING-FM's new direction. Donnelly observed, "Organizations need to be periodically rethought and redefined." In 1992, KING-FM owners Priscilla Bullitt Collins and Harriet Bullitt decided to put KING-FM under the control of a newly created company, Classic Radio, which is the present licensee of KING-FM. In turn, the Bullitt sisters donated their shares in that for-profit company to Beethoven, a nonprofit corporation. Beethoven distributes the station's income to the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera and ArtsFund.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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