When Russell Gant goes on the air Wednesday, he's thinking big.
"My hope is to sign on with the Beethoven Ninth. The whole thing. We'll be able to do that now,'' the veteran public radio announcer says.
Gant is music director of WSMR-FM 89.1, the new classical music station in Sarasota that begins broadcasting midweek. It's owned and operated by Gant's longtime home on the FM dial, WUSF-FM 89.7, the Tampa public radio station that is converting from a mixed format of classical music and news to an all-news and talk format (retaining its nighttime jazz programming), on the same day its companion classical station makes its debut.
"We'll be 24 hours of classical music, seven days a week,'' Gant says of the format of WSMR, a former Christian station that WUSF bought for $1.275 million.
But a question looms for ardent classical music lovers in the northernmost reaches of the Tampa Bay area: Will they be able to hear it?
In the past decade or so, many public radio stations — including those in Gainesville and Ocala — have switched from the traditional mixed format of classical music and news to news and talk only, dropping music entirely. But lately a countertrend has developed, with public radio stations in markets such as Columbus, Ohio, Houston and the Tampa Bay area opting to acquire sister stations, with one station offering news and talk, the other classical music.
Public radio listening patterns have changed, with popular news programs like Morning Edition and All Things Considered drawing by far the largest audiences, while the numbers for classical music — once the mainstay of public radio — have dropped.
"When you look at the charts that show listening in the middle of the day, when we play classical music, it's embarrassing,'' says JoAnn Urofsky, general manager of WUSF public media.
On WUSF, Morning Edition gets as much as a 5 percent share of the listening audience during its two hours, while classical programming in the afternoon drops as low as 1.2 percent. None of the station's 10 most listened-to hours of programming are classical music. Even the overnight jazz programming garners a greater share than classical music.
"It's not classical music that's the problem,'' Urofsky says. "The problem is the mixed format. In radio, one format all the time performs the best. What we've had are Morning Edition and All Things Considered as these two anchor programs, sustained by classical music in between.''
Urofsky says that WUSF first looked around for a second station four or five years ago, but the idea was renewed when it was offered studio space on the Sarasota-Manatee campus of the University of South Florida, which holds the station's license. Fortuitously, WSMR, with a 50,000-watt signal from Sarasota, was for sale. It has been off the air since the purchase Aug. 4.
The 72,000-watt WUSF, which went on the air in 1963, has been either a model of consistency or stuck in a rut, depending on your preferences in radio. Listener support — the chief source of financing for public radio — has been loyal, but the pledge drives have dragged on lately.
"We are what's called a legacy station,'' Urofsky says. "We've made a few tweaks here and there, but it has been the same for a very long time. And people don't like it when things change. It's irritating. But we need to change for the station to survive. Because we are not getting the kind of support we could get.''
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What can listeners expect from the all-classical WSMR?
As Gant suggests, the format will allow him more freedom in programming longer works — it was rare to hear Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in its 70-minute entirety on WUSF — and more adventurous music. He says listeners are going to hear more hard-edged works by the likes of Mahler, Bruckner, Bartok and Shostakovich, instead of, perhaps, so much bubbly baroque music seemingly designed to fade into the background. There will be more new releases, instead of familiar standards.
"We still have to think about how people are listening,'' Gant says. "People don't sit and watch the radio anymore. They're not always paying attention, and some music requires attention. They may be doing the dishes or driving. And the radio is their companion. I don't want to be background music, but I don't want to be distracting.''
On WSMR you'll probably even hear vocal music, largely banished from the classical airwaves because of surveys that find it annoys some listeners. "My feeling is that there's a lot of vocal music to love,'' says Gant, a singer himself. "La donna e mobile, the opening of Carmina Burana, Nessun dorma — those favorites are certainly going to be on there. Now whether we'll have the sound of a soprano hitting a high C coming out of your car radio at 8 in the morning, I doubt it.''
With a recording library of some 72,000 pieces to choose from, with about 3,000 identified as staples, Gant programs at least a week in advance for his show and those of the other announcers, Coleen Cook and Bethany Cagle. He'll be paying close attention to how listeners respond.
"That's one thing about our audience,'' he says. "They tell us what they like and what they don't. We're going to have to experiment a little bit.''
Program director Sheila Rue wouldn't be surprised if the all-classical format brings out the personalities of Gant, Cook and Cagle, though she also acknowledges that less talk, more music is kind of the point of the new station. "Their love and passion for the music, I'm hoping, will come out more. They should share that,'' Rue says.
Several popular syndicated programs will also be featured such as Performance Today, a daily two-hour program hosted by Fred Child that includes classical music news, interviews and live performance; and From the Top, with host Christopher O'Riley showcasing young musicians. Sunday Baroque will expand from two hours on WUSF to its full four hours on WSMR. The Metropolitan Opera broadcasts will air on Saturday afternoons. SymphonyCast will be on Sunday evenings.
Most evening and overnight programming will be provided by Classical 24, a live service delivered by satellite and produced by Minnesota Public Radio, a leader in the field.
In many ways, WSMR is a bold move. It will be one of only two all-classical stations in Florida, the other being WKCP-FM 89.7 in Miami, owned by MPR. Why, in the face of waning listenership for classical music, didn't WUSF just drop it and go with all news and talk?
"We asked ourselves that,'' Urofsky says. "It's a hard question to answer. We do a good job, and we think we can do a better job. We think it's worth the investment to do the better job.''
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Though Gant, Cook and Cagle will continue to broadcast from studios on the USF campus in Tampa, WSMR is likely to be closely identified with Sarasota.
"We consider it a real big feather in the our local arts community's hat,'' says Joseph McKenna, president of the Sarasota Orchestra. "As home to a 24-hour classical station, it helps us stand out not just in Florida but around the county as a place for the arts.''
The Sarasota Orchestra paid to be a founding sponsor of WSMR, and Urofsky expects strong support from the rest of the city's lively arts scene. Even at WUSF, musicians from the Sarasota Music Festival or the city's La Musica Festival were more often presented in studio performances than those from groups in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
"We offered that to everyone, and have had almost no response from the classical musicians of Tampa,'' Urofsky says.
One problem with the Sarasota location, however, is the coverage area of the station's signal. It won't reach parts of the Tampa Bay area accustomed to hearing classical music on WUSF. Even with the use of a "translator'' at 103.9 FM — a transmitter device to boost the signal — reception may be poor to nonexistent in North Pinellas, parts of Pasco and Hillsborough, Citrus and Hernando counties. (The translator won't be up and running this week.)
"That's always one of the complicating factors in these situations where a station that has presented two different formats then switches to present each one on a different channel,'' says Tom Thomas, CEO of Station Resources Group, a public radio policy and strategy organization in Maryland. "It almost never works out that the two successor signals exactly replicate the prior coverage area. The 50,000 watts that WSMR has is a huge signal. Its coverage area is nothing to sneeze about. It just doesn't happen to overlie exactly the current coverage contours of WUSF.''
Some listeners have already cried foul. "Where is the service to your northern communities? Don't we count? Obviously not,'' wrote Gerald Squier, vice president of the Opera Lovers Club of Spring Hill, in a letter to WUSF. The club's members are especially incensed at not being able to hear the Met broadcasts.
Squier never got a reply from the station, but Urofsky says she has heard the complaints. "It's not that we don't care. It's just that it's not as possible as we would like it to be to serve them with what they've always had.''
For those who can't get WSMR, she suggests listening to the classical signal on WUSF's HD channel, or on an iPhone app, or streamed on computer. But she concedes that the over-the-air signal will be a work in progress for a while.
"Driving around in your car, it'll be spotty, no question,'' she says. "We know that this translator will serve a lot more people; we don't know how many more. Radio is an inexact science. Until we're able to turn it on and start to experiment, we won't really know.''
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.