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WCRB sale would have a classical twist

The announcement last Friday that Charles River Broadcasting was looking into selling some or all of its properties -- including WCRB-FM (102.5) -- has created a crescendo of confusion. The announcement mentioned that any buyer for WCRB would be required to continue the station's classical music format on at least one high-definition -- or digital -- channel. Such a channel would be an alternative to the main broadcast and could be heard on the new HD radio receivers but not on traditional analog receivers. And nothing was said about the future of the main station -- or of the trust that was supposed to keep WCRB classical.

The trust, created by former owner Theodore Jones before his death in 1991, seemed to mandate that the station would remain classical for 99 years. But Jones left a large loophole. ''He recognized that in the event that trustees felt the sale was financially advisable, the company could be sold," says Mary L. Marshall, chairwoman of Charles River Broadcasting. ''And he asked us to carefully consider the availability of classical music to Boston audiences." In other words, adherence to the format was a wish, not a binding command. That wish, says Marshall, is being honored by the requirement that any future buyer establish a classical HD channel. (WCRB is not yet broadcasting in HD, but current technology should allow it to program at least two separate channels.)

Strictly speaking, anyone who buys a station has the right to program it in any format. But putting such demands in a sale agreement may carry weight. ''Format demands on a new owner have been historically common and enforceable," according to Connecticut-based radio broker Frank Boyle. In fact, says Boyle, as stations switch over to digital broadcasting, they often have problems filling all their available streams. All of which, he says, should make it ''a slam dunk for 'CRB to get this kind of voluntary agreement."

Therefore, those listeners with HD radios will probably continue to receive WCRB as we now know it for years to come. (Although this seems futuristic, keep in mind the public has gotten quite comfortable adopting new music technologies. And many new cars will carry HD radios.)

But for listeners who keep their current analog radio receivers, it could mean the end of 24-hour commercial classical in Boston. Friday's announcement referred to other purveyors of classical music, citing public station WGBH-FM (89.7) and Harvard University's WHRB-FM (95.3), as well as satellite and Internet stations. However, neither WGBH nor WHRB broadcast classical music all day, every day. As Scott Fybush, editor of the weekly Northeast Radio Watch industry newsletter, notes, ''WGBH is following the overall trend in public radio toward more news and talk and less music, and classical music is just part of the eclectic mix that makes WHRB unique."

The number of classical stations nationally is declining: Fybush counts only 27 full-time commercial outlets, down from 52 in 1990. But there are workable classical models. Some are nonprofit, including stations in Dallas and Seattle. Others, such as the Bonneville-owned stations in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., make do with smaller profits than they would earn from flipping the station's signal over to FM talk or more popular music. All do reasonably well in their ratings markets. ''Like those markets, Boston is the sort of upscale, educated community that should be able to support a full-time classical station," says Fybush.

Listeners should also keep in mind that another option exists: ''It's possible that [Charles River Broadcasting] is only looking for a valuation in the current market," says Nashville-based radio consultant Robert Unmacht. ''We haven't received any offers yet," adds Marshall. In other words, Charles River Broadcasting may not sell after all.

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