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Originally published Monday, August 17, 2009 at 12:07 AM

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Eclectic KBCS-FM overhauls programming as listener interest wanes

Bellevue community radio station KBCS has been losing listeners and loyalty for years. In response, the station is changing its morning programming in hopes of drawing new listeners.

Seattle Times Eastside reporter

In the two small buildings on the Bellevue College campus that house radio station KBCS-FM (91.3), music spanning from jazz to the Grateful Dead drifts through as volunteers come and go. Colorful posters for shows like the World Rhythm Festival and "An Evening with Robin and Linda Williams" hang on the walls.

But on Aug. 24, the community radio station once dubbed "Place to Catch the Craziest Music" by a local magazine will eliminate four morning music shows and use that time instead to air the same show every day. The station also is cutting a staple: two hours of early-morning jazz in lieu of public-affairs news.

These are the first of several changes under consideration as KBCS struggles to stay relevant. Like other community radio stations nationwide, KBCS listeners are gravitating away from the station and to satellite radio and niche stations online to listen to the obscure soul, Latin or bluegrass music the station has long prided itself on airing.

Recent data cited by the station shows KBCS is losing listeners, and more important, losing the attention of the ones who do tune in. The Bellevue College-owned station needs to increase loyalty now and eventually grow listenership to survive long term, said station manager Steve Ramsey.

"We have huge potential that has gone untapped for years and years and years," Ramsey said.

But to station devotees and some longtime volunteers who keep the station running, the changes are coming too quickly and without enough input from people who love KBCS.

A group of listeners and volunteers formed Save KBCS in the spring, and its Web site has drawn hundreds of comments. The group even appealed to Bellevue College's president to put the changes on hold. College spokesman Bob Adams said President Jean Floten supports the first round of changes and will monitor the results.

Save KBCS organizers say the station is eliminating popular programs, including most morning jazz shows, one of the station's hallmarks.

"We feel the solution was very narrow-minded," said one organizer, Eric Hardee, a volunteer who hosts a folk program. "We feel it was entirely based on surveys of questionable statistics and not based on our market."

But community radio stations nationwide, particularly urban ones, are losing listeners and changing programming to adapt, said Ginny Berson, vice president and director of federation services for the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.

Community radio stations rely heavily on volunteers and are known for airing a huge range of music, providing a forum for local politics and even poetry or theater readings.

But the radio landscape has changed radically, and listeners have a lot more choice, Berson said.

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"If what you want to hear is jazz, and a particular kind of jazz, mainstream jazz or smooth jazz, you are not dependent on the community radio station that has two hours of jazz on Monday night," Berson said.

KBCS sent out a letter to members in late July about the new programming, and the station has gotten about 300 e-mails about the changes. With roughly 100 volunteers and members who donate money, KBCS has tried to let people know about the changes, Ramsey said.

Enough have objected to the way station management made the decisions for the first round that Ramsey said he plans to get additional input from volunteers and listeners for future changes.

"We didn't go into this lightly," he said. "We know we're dealing with people."

The station, founded in 1973, has a long tradition of training volunteers as disc jockeys and will continue, said program director Peter Graff. He thinks KBCS can balance being more consistent and airing diverse musical genres.

"I want to entice people to stick around and give us a try," he said.

That hasn't been the case recently. The station says from 2006 until this year, there has been about a 30 percent drop in the amount of time KBCS listeners spend tuned into the station. The roughly 45,000 listeners spend most of their time on the radio on other stations, and less than 20 percent on KBCS, or about four hours per week. The average for a public radio station is 33 percent, Graff said.

The bulk of listeners also choose KBCS as their second, third or fourth choice, according to the station's data.

Financially, the station's listener donations have been growing about 3 percent per year. Listeners donated about $9,000 more in 2008-09, contributing $485,289, but the number of members who donated has dropped to 4,640 this year from 6,241 in 2005-06. New listeners also declined.

KBCS operates independently of Bellevue College, but the school owns the station and has been concerned about its finances for several years, said Mike Talbott, dean of information resources. The station's reserves started dropping four years ago based on increased costs like health care, and Talbott said he wants to see reserves of at least six months to one year of operating expenses. Ramsay said one year of expenses is about $600,000 and the station started the fiscal year with about $177,000.

Talbott also was concerned about the decline in listeners, he said.

And that decline shows that the station is not fulfilling its public-service mission, said program director Graff.

He believes the station's fragmented programming is confusing, with shows that change every two hours and mostly air just once a week. People have a hard time finding them again, he said. Research shows people also like a consistent sound and voice in the mornings.

"We're not completely blowing the community radio model out of the water," Graff said. "We believe the model needs to evolve in how it serves its public."

Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or ntsong@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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