After 16 years at Chicago’s classical music station, WFMT 98.7 FM, Executive Vice President and General Manager Steve Robinson is leaving, today. On the eve of his departure, which was announced last month, Robinson answered a few questions about the station, his long run there, and the future of the business.
You’ve been at other stations. What’s unique about WFMT?
Four things: We’re a non-profit; we run commercials; all of the commercials are read by the announcers; and we’re listener supported. There’s no station in country that I know that combines all four.
How has it changed over the time you’ve been there?
I inherited a healthy station. But I increased the amount of live broadcasts that we do. We’re now doing something like 250 a year. Why? Because you can’t get it on Pandora, Spotify, satellite.
I also inherited the WFMT Fine Arts Network. I changed the name to the WFMT Radio Network, and increased the programming. For example, we did a live broadcast from Quebec City of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. There were a thousand performers and it was in a hockey rink. On Mozart’s 250th birthday, we broadcast from Salzburg, the city of his birth. The Vienna philharmonic performed with a guy named Muti conducting. And from Durbin, in 2002, we broadcast the world premier of Princess Magogo, the first indigenous South African opera, in the Zulu language. We had 4 million listeners.
Is there a future for classical music radio?
It’s such a challenging time for the whole radio industry, but at the same time, a future that’s never been filled with more promise, because the digital revolution offers limitless opportunities in what we can do online in combination with our over-the-air signal.
There are stations that feel that digital will save them should the audience dwindle. They have to be very careful because the competition is so great. A single station is going to have a hard time making up lost over-the-air revenue online. Over-the-air radio isn’t going away for now, and this is not a head in the sand view—over-the-air is still the mainstay.
For FMT, it’s more than just streaming. For example, Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin [which Robinson created] went on the air in 2003 and now is on 65 stations just in the U.S. It’s also on in Australia and the Philippines and Guam, and it’s heard everyday in Beijing, in English.
Over the air in the U.S., Exploring Music reaches 400,000 listeners a week. But in 2013 I put the entire archive online at exploring music.org. We have a pay wall, which people questioned, but I’ve always felt, when it comes to the web, that if you have something of value and no one’s willing to pay for it, maybe it wasn’t quite as valuable as you thought. So for Exploring Music, it costs you $60 a year to have access to 212 weeks— over a thousand hours of fantastic material. And it’s doing well. We’re grossing close to $50,000 a year from that.
We’re also building the Studs Terkel archive at studsterkel.org. You’ll never have to pay to get it, but eventually we’ll have all 5,500 hours online, and it’ll be very interactive. That’s another example of where online can be a vital component to a radio station, but not just by streaming and crossing your fingers.
Why leave now?
It was totally my own decision. I had a significant birthday a couple weeks ago. Sixteen years is a good run. David Polk, the program director, is a terrific, bright, young guy; Tony Macaluso, who’s running the network day to day, is the same—a fireball of activity—so it’s in good hands. I hired them both, I’m proud to say. It was time to pass the baton and try some new things, and I’ve got lots of things up my sleeve. I’m leaving, but I’m not retiring.
Which birthday was that?
[Pause.] If I was a woman you’d never ask me that. Seventy. Never felt better.
What’ll you be doing?
I’ll be a producer/entrepreneur. Radio will be part of it but we no long think just about radio anymore. I just had a meeting with a virtual reality producer. You’re going to buy a ticket to an event, put on your headset, and you’ll be sitting there in the audience. I’m very interested in the podcasting business; even though the train has kind of left the station, it’s still in its infancy. I think streaming, both video and audio, has a life that still needs to be exploited.
You started out as an on-air personality. Do you have a hankering to go back to that?
Yeah, I do have a craving to be on the air.
It’s a wonderful team here. I’ve never done anything by myself.