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NEPM moving classical music off flagship frequency to focus on news, talk

NEPM on Hampden Street in Springfield, Mass.
Carrie Healy
NEPM on Hampden Street in Springfield, Mass.

New England Public Media, based in Springfield, Massachusetts, is moving classical music off of its flagship 88.5 FM station to other locations on the dial.

In a decision that NEPM leadership announced on Monday, the public media outlet will devote its news channels to “all news, all day.”

President Matt Abramovitz said that the organization has spent the last year polling listeners, gathering community feedback and researching how people in the region use media today.

“What we saw is that there is a big need for more news information and trusted journalism in our region,” he said.

The move away from a split format, with news and classical music sharing one station, mirrors the direction other public media outlets have moved over the years. Abramovitz, who came to NEPM in early 2022 after leading programming for the New York City classical radio station WQXR, said that people tend to change the channel when there’s a switch in the content they’re listening to. Having dedicated stations for news and classical music will make the experience easier for listeners, he said.

“A lot of this is driven by what we know about the audience,” he said. “The audience is smart. When they want news, they want to be able to get news. And when they want something different, they want to be able to find that too. And so we think these two services will make it even easier to get those things.”

Beginning on Monday, listeners looking for classical music will have to tune into the station’s other family of frequencies across western Massachusetts: 91.9 FM in Hampden County, 91.7 FM in Franklin County, 89.5 FM in southern Berkshire County, 98.9 FM in northern Berkshire County, 88.5 HD-2 in Springfield and 89.3 FM in Hampshire County.

Those stations will play classical music all day, with one exception: In Hampshire County, the new all-classical channel at 89.3 FM will have to share time with Amherst College’s student programming, which is usually on the air between the hours of 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Abramovitz said. Local classical hosts John Nowacki, Steve Petke and Jon Solins are staying on the airwaves, too.

Some musical and non-news programming will remain on 88.5 FM, however: “Jazz à la Mode” in the evenings, and other cultural and entertainment programs on the weekends, including “Jazz Safari with Kari Njiiri” and “Tertulia with Raquel Obregon” in the evenings.

In a press release, NEPM described the shift to elevate news programming as an “investment in local storytelling.” However, the move comes just five months after the outlet’s leadership laid off a quarter of its staff, citing financial struggles. The organization, which was formed in 2019 after a merger of New England Public Radio and Springfield’s WGBY public television, posted operating losses of $4.67 million last fiscal year and $3.8 million the previous fiscal year, according to financial records.

Included in those layoffs were the entire team producing the long-running magazine-style TV series “Connecting Point,” which covered local culture and issues, NEPM’s director of digital content and Iohann Rashi Vega, the director of NEPM’s youth media-training initiative Media Lab.

Those layoffs hit several respected Latino journalists, including “Connecting Point” host Zydalis Bauer, a Holyoke native and an alumna of WGBY’s Latino Youth Media Institute. In reaction, 10 Latino members of NEPM’s Community Advisory Board resigned in protest, accusing the organization of only paying “lip service to inclusion and belonging.”

Abramovitz said that NEPM is not currently hiring journalists as part of its increased focus on news but said he is eager for that to happen in the long term. He said that the organization has recently hired fundraising and sales staffers to “work on the revenue side.”

“Not a ton of listeners are writing in about the layoffs at this point,” he said. “We are in the process of a major transformation at NEPM, redefining who we are and what we do and trying to become a more successful community-focused organization that is sustainable for the long term. And so the changes we went through in the spring were part of that process, as is this format change.”

As part of the refocusing on news, NEPM's newsroom will have live election coverage during local general elections this November and is bringing back a concept similar to its previous weekly news roundtable "The Shortlist" early next year. And Abramovitz said the organization will look to increase collaborations with other local news outlets.

Listeners’ reactions to the announced changes varied across social media. Some worried that the classical stations would have weaker signals where they lived, while others appreciated the move.

John Montanari, who served as classical music host and music director during his more than three decades at New England Public Radio until his 2013 retirement, said it was “sound programming” to have one service devoted exclusively to classical music and another to news so that the listeners know whenever they want those services, any time of day or night, they’re reliably there.

“Just like any time you tune into house-and-garden TV, you’re not going to get a cooking show or a golf lesson or the Alvin Ailey dance company,” he said.

One frequent listener is University of Massachusetts Amherst music education professor Daniel Albert. A composer, percussionist and nearly lifelong resident of the region, Albert said he appreciates that NEPM is thinking about listeners’ access to music programming and that classical music will stream at and, later next month, on a new NEPM app. He said the outlet seems to be following the listening trends of its audience in an effort to better serve them.

But Albert said the transition might be more challenging for people who don’t get a strong signal from the stations now being used for classical music and who might not have the technology or savvy to stream the audio.

“I just am concerned about folks who maybe don’t have access to those resources,” he said. “I think you’re cutting out that population there. Is it a lot? Admittedly, probably not. But these are folks for whom classical music has been a major part of their lives.”

One of those people is Elisa Campbell, an Amherst resident who said she has been listening to classical music on the radio station since as early ’70s. She said that where she lives, the clock radio she relies on in the morning doesn’t always pick up the weak signal of the station where classical music is moving to.

“I may have to go out and buy a tablet and use that instead of my clock radio, but I don’t like that idea,” she said. “I live on a low income, I’m retired and I wasn’t planning to spend money on electronics.”

Albert said he’s glad to see jazz and Latin American music will still have a home on the station’s main airwaves. He said that he trusts that NEPM did its homework, reaching out to listeners to see what they wanted before making this change. But as a music educator, he said, he’d love to see NEPM place even more focus on a diverse range of musical genres as it continues to expand its vision in the future.

“I wonder if we can expand upon those offerings, in addition to still offering classical too,” he said. “So that maybe we can accommodate a wider range of interests from across the NEPM listenership.”

This story was independently reported by Dusty Christensen and edited by Maureen Turner at the request of the NEPM newsroom. NEPM leadership did not review the story before publication.

Dusty Christensen is an investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He currently teaches news writing and reporting at UMass Amherst.
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