PROVO — When BYU Broadcasting Managing Director Michael Dunn announced earlier this week that Classical 89 KBYU-FM will be off the air for the first time in 72 years beginning next June, it raised questions about the impacts on listeners and the local arts scene.
Classical 89 KBYU-FM began campus broadcasts in 1946, when jazz music and big bands were all the rage and live cougars patrolled the sidelines at football games. Students, who knew the station as KBYU-AM 660 at the time, ran and programmed the shows for their fellow students.
From talent and variety lineups to “Music of the Masters” and “KBYU Players Present,” the station slowly grew and had a citywide reach by 1948, although music selections came primarily from the radio hosts’ personal collections. By 1979, the station played primarily classical music. Fast forward through the transition from mono to stereo and eventually from tape to computer, and Classical 89 began digital HD radio broadcasts in 2005 and HD-2 programming in 2006, according to its website.
Now, 71 years and 110,000 listeners later, BYU Broadcasting will be cutting Classical 89 in order to simplify its media approach and enhance the quality of content it produces. According to Dunn, BYU Broadcasting is currently managing five media properties, and brand studies on whether or not they were being fully utilized inevitably arose. The university will focus on just two media properties — BYUtv and BYUradio.
“You’re going to look at what is it you do the very best, versus what are the opportunities, versus where are your inadequacies and what are you not able to do,” Dunn said. “And what’s very apparent to me is that we’re very, very strong in values-oriented, family sorts of programming that’s consistent with our ownership.”
That ownership circles back to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as BYU Broadcasting is run by Brigham Young University which is owned and operated by the LDS Church.
Marketing budgets also played a big part in the decision, Dunn said. Allocating resources to all five properties without letting any fall by the wayside can often pose challenges, and managing competition between them can be tricky.
“It’s not anything about ‘I’m against classical music,’” said Dunn. “It’s just that with these assets that we have, we have to look at the highest and best use of those. And I believe that a more streamlined, a more symmetrical, a more transmedia approach between radio and TV is the way forward for BYU Broadcasting.”
Dunn is also hopeful that the switch to just two media entities will enable BYU Broadcasting to be more creative with its programming.
“Can we look at music in ways that have never been looked at before and presented in interesting ways along with talk, and news, and opinion, and commentary, and ‘how to’ and even dramatic radio narratives?” Dunn asked. “The world is really open in terms of what we may do with this station, and that’s why we’re also using the better part of a year to plan it and to ready it.”
Still, Dunn stated that he recognizes the loss of Classical 89 is a significant one for the Utah community. But classical music is available in other formats and genres that radio can’t cover, he said, and BYU Broadcasting plans on preparing its audience on how to access those.
“This is eight months from now, and we’re going to be very much involved in helping people find those sources,” Dunn said. “And particularly with some of our older audience, we’re really committed to making sure that we can help guide them, redirect them, to find those avenues to enjoy the world’s certainly most beloved music.”
The switch, which includes the decision to drop KBYU and it’s PBS affiliate, primarily stems from BYUtv’s success in recent years: “Studio C” currently has over 1 billion collective pageviews on YouTube, and “Extinct,” BYU Broadcasting’s new science fiction show, has gained significant traction from its audience. In fact, BYUtv may even play a part in BYUradio in the future.
“These are two very closely aligned transmedia properties … that’s getting blurred all the time as radio products have more and more video elements to them,” Dunn said. “We’re even asking ourselves the question, ‘What television assets do we have that should be migrated over to the radio side?’”
When it comes to how often classical music will be played on the air, Dunn said he doesn’t have a definitive answer. Although local arts groups like the Utah Symphony may play a role, BYUradio will be an entirely different program. But with 536 people collaborating on BYUtv and BYUradio — no employees will be losing their jobs from the change — Dunn believes BYUradio will be a network that listeners resonate with.
“It’s something that’s not only going to make our organization stand out, but make this university, the church, and really the state of Utah, the people of Utah, really proud of what we’re able to do,” he said.
Walter Rudolph, former senior producer and general manager of KBYU-FM from 1978-2011, said that while he hasn’t been in communication with BYU Broadcasting or Dunn about the decision to drop Classical 89, the change doesn’t come as a complete surprise to him.
“I think that a decision like this … ultimately is inevitable,” he said. "We’ve seen stations that have died all around the country.”
But while it’s not entirely unexpected, he said there are many things about Classical 89 that no Spotify can make up for. Classical 89 educates listeners about composers and their respective time periods, and interviews with guest conductors and artists connect the community in ways that nothing else can.
“The classical music radio stations have done a good job of presenting the music and letting people know that it’s there and who the primary performers today are, what they bring to the music and how it can affect your life, how it can help you have a better day,” he said.
Music is also a major consideration when it comes to the aura of a city — a symphony orchestra, ballet or opera all add to a city's distinction, Rudolph said. And classical radio ties all of the arts together.
“The radio station is the key to all of it because it’s central,” he said. “It’s always there. … You get in your car, and it’s there. You go in the house, it’s there — if you want it.”
When Classical 89 signs off for the last time in June, Rudolph said there is concern how it will affect the attendance of Utah Symphony and Utah Opera. Recorded music, commercial CDs and guest interviews broadcasted on Classical 89 tend to boost attendance at local arts events — without that outlet, those audiences may be diminished, he speculated.
Paul Meecham, president and CEO of Utah Symphony and Utah Opera, said that Utah has a national reputation for its presence in the performing arts and that local events are usually well-attended.
“I think it’s fair to say that classical music, symphonic music, is absolutely a greater part of the culture here in Utah than just about any other state in the nation,” Meecham said. “We know that Utah is the No. 1 state in the nation for adult attendance in the live performing arts. … I think being No. 1 in the nation is something to be proud of.”
When it comes to Utah Symphony and Utah Opera’s connection to Classical 89, each organization benefits from the other, Meecham continued.
“It’s a very symbiotic relationship,” he said. “They’re the classical radio voice of Utah, and we’re obviously one of the major professional symphonic and operatic organizations in Utah.”
At present, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera are considering digital radio and streaming from their own site in order to get their music on the airwaves, though neither are quite as robust as Classical 89.
“We’re just disappointed, obviously, as I’m sure many people are because Classical 89 was such a bedrock in our community, and I understand it was well-patronized and well-listened to,” Meecham said.
Rudolph added that classical music in the area has its roots from European immigrants who came to Utah over the centuries, and that its tradition is steeped deeply into Salt Lake City’s culture. But interests among newcomers to Utah today often differ from those of the past, and the change has likely been a long time coming, he said.
“It’s an entire process that is disintegrating before our eyes,” Rudolph said. “And it takes someone who’s been around awhile to recognize that, because (for) the younger people, it’s been happening to them all along.”
Believing that Dunn and the LDS Church made an informed and thoughtful decision about Classical 89, Rudolph stated that parents will have to make more of a concentrated effort to keep the tradition of classical music alive within their own homes.
“Civilizing things like good music can have a really positive effect on how we live our lives and how we respond to the things that go on around us,” he said.
Following BYU Broadcasting’s announcement about its two media properties, many in the community cried out against dropping Classical 89. Claiming it is the university’s duty to keep the classical music on the air, at time of publication, Classical 89’s Facebook page had nearly 700 comments with 226 shares. Additionally, a Twitter page devoted to saving Classical 89 currently has over 1,500 followers.
Some listeners have started petitions to bring the station back. Musician Melanie Randall from Austin, Texas, has joined forces with other petitioners including the Utah Cultural Alliance in hopes of reversing the decision.
“I believe in music,” Randall said. “I believe in the power music has to change people, to change communities, and right now, I cannot think of a more crucial time in our society to have access to beautiful music.”
It’s the first petition Randall has ever attempted, but the cause is a meaningful one for her. Listening to the station frequently as a child — her family even waited for sonatas to finish before leaving the car to complete errands — it has since become an integral part of her life.
“I stream it on my phone, or when I’m at home, I’ll listen to it on my computer,” she said. “It’s like coming home when I listen to it.”
Randall’s petition currently has more than 10,500 signatures, with two additional petitions open to the public. Randall hopes the petitions will reverse the decision made in regards to Classical 89, and that they will provide individuals with a means of expressing themselves.
“I think people also need an outlet for their frustration because this is something people need in their lives, and having it taken away without warning I think really has made people upset and they need a place to voice their anger and their frustration,” she said.
BYU communications professor Dale Cressman said that while the change hits home for nostalgic reasons, he does see the reasoning behind it.
“They’ll end up attracting a different audience, obviously, because there are folks who would like to hear, for example, BYU Sports Nation, or (BYUradio's) Julie Rose’s show in the afternoon while they’re in their car and may not have SiriusXM (Satellite Radio), and so that audience will be served,” he said.
But according to Cressman, the variety in content should also appeal to a larger demographic.
“BYUradio serves a community, but it has a much wider scope because it has national ratings,” he said. “A lot of people listen to radio in their cars, some people still listen to it at home, but either way, radio, television, local newspapers — their roles are changing, their audiences are … spread out all over the place, but there’s still a need for community.”
On the other hand, Susan Goodfellow, former flute professor at the University of Utah and guest artist for the Utah Symphony, said that since public schools no longer require music classes in their curriculum, Classical 89’s presence is all the more meaningful.
“I think it offers the community a chance to tap into music in a way that is very necessary these days,” she said. “You know, the schools are getting rid of music. Everything’s getting rid of music. And to have KBYU available meant a great deal to people.”
BYU-Idaho’s Diane Soelberg, associate dean of the College of Performing and Visual Arts, also stated that a station like Classical 89 — which is available 24 hours a day — can often spark an interest in those who are unfamiliar with the genre.
“You just never know who’s going to tune in and when they might stumble upon something like that, that could really enrich their lives,” she said. “The arts are one thing that brings beauty and peace to this sometimes awful world, and to take even more of that away is … tragic because then you have to search even harder to find those beautiful opportunities to bring peace into our lives.”
According to Classical 89’s website, a quarterly meeting with the Community Volunteer Council for Classical 89 and KBYU Eleven will be held next Friday at 10 a.m. at 701 E. University Parkway, Provo. The public is invited to attend.