SF Station Makes Bold Leap from Commercial to Public Radio

Bill Lueth has been on and around radio stations for 24 years. After starting his career as an announcer in Nebraska in 1987, he moved to California in 1989 to serve as a morning-show announcer for classical station KKHI. In 1993, Lueth moved into program management, and now he’s president of classical KDFC at 90.3 and 89.9 FM, a National Public Radio station in San Francisco.

We asked Bill how his career began, what challenges his station has faced in transitioning from a commercial to a noncommercial station, and how he’s working to overcome them.

ISBB: What made you decide to get into the radio industry?

Lueth: I was a big music fan of many types and always supplied the music for parties in high school and college. After my voice changed, I was often teased that I sounded like a disc jockey.

What is your biggest challenge as a National Public Radio station?

For years, KDFC was one of the most successful classical radio stations in the country with a signal that covered most of the Bay Area market. But we lost half of our audience, mostly in the South Bay, when we transitioned to listener-supported public radio and moved down the dial from 102.1 FM to two noncommercial signals: 90.3 in San Francisco, and 89.9 in the far North Bay (Napa and Sonoma counties).

How are you overcoming that challenge?

The good news is that our new antenna — with more height and greater coverage for listeners in Marin, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and beyond — will be on Wolfback Ridge Road in Sausalito by the end of September. KDFC has also begun to look for new signals to offer reception to the South Bay and to the entire Bay Area. We continue to be available via internet at KDFC.com and now have 100,000 listeners online.

We’re also targeting an audience of 35- to 54-year-olds by trying to reach classical music lovers — and music lovers of all kinds.

Did becoming a public radio station create other issues?

We changed our format from ad-supported commercial radio with 10.5 minutes per hour set aside for advertising revenue to public radio with only 1.75 minutes of sponsorships per hour. It’s a calmer environment that lets us focus on putting a great product on air. In return for hearing fewer commercials, our audience is happy to support us by writing a check, and we only have to rely on underwriters for 20 percent of our budget.

How do you compete with other stations (news, talk, rock, etc.) in the Bay Area?

We used to compete head-to-head for placement in the ratings ranker. Now we simply try to attract as many fans to classical radio as possible — and deepen our relationship with them.

How has the nation’s recent economic turmoil affected your business?

Not that much, as we’re just getting adjusted to the new revenue model. It has taken a bite out of the marketing budgets of our arts partners and that has had a bit of a trickle-down effect.

What do you love the most about your business?

I just love the one-on-one relationship that radio has with its audience. You get in your car, and most times it’s just you and the station. It’s so much fun to try to find ways to connect. Positioning and marketing the product so that people feel the station is “built for me” is very exciting.

About Gil Zeimer

Gil Zeimer is the Creative Director of Zeimer's Advertising Shoppe. As a consultant with 25 years of advertising and blogging experience, he is a Mad Man who works with businesses large and small. Read his marketing musings at www.zeimer.com.
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