Classical music stations have been in peril over the decades – considered, by many in the industry, too reliant on an aging and fading audience. A reasonable assumption, given that much of the playlist was composed by candlelight centuries ago. Classical ones are the ultimate “oldies” stations.
It was a concern when Frank Dominguez joined WDAV-FM (89.9) nearly 25 years ago and, he says, it’s still a topic today.
Until you look at the numbers, anyway.
WDAV-FM, marking its 40th anniversary this year, is displaying some youthful strength in key indicators – with increasing financial support, and with research that shows 21 percent of its audience is in the 18 to 34 age range, younger than the station itself.
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“That’s a demographic that’s not even supposed to be listening to radio anymore,” says Dominguez, the sixth general manager in the history of the Davidson College-based public radio voice.
Nielsen Media estimates that WDAV-FM reaches about 110,000 listeners weekly in the Charlotte metro area and another 37,000 through its streaming service, making it one of the nation’s leaders among classical stations.
Part of that success comes through the use of innovative technology. WDAV-FM was a pioneer among classical stations nationally when it began offering its signal on the Internet, and its reach continues to grow. It produces three podcasts now for classical fans and has two more in development. Its app has been downloaded about 20,000 times and it has video performances on its YouTube channel. It offers a variety of blogs on all things classical.
WDAV-FM popped to life as a full-service classical broadcaster on Dec. 1, 1978, at Davidson, built on the foundation of a low-power, student-run station. It celebrated its official anniversary with a Top 40 countdown of classical music’s greatest works (Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 “Choral” were among those that made the cut).
WDAV-FM’s final anniversary celebration will be a gala Jan. 31 at the Mint Museum Randolph with a who’s-who of prominent local classical stars. Performances will come from Calin Lupanu, Charlotte Symphony concertmaster; Alan Black, Charlotte Symphony principal cellist; Grammy-winning fiddlers Mark and Maggie O’Connor; Bach Akademie Charlotte singers with artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett; Opera Carolina singers; Cynthia Lawing, piano; and conductor Robert Moody with friends.
WDAV gets administrative support, such as human resources and information technology services, from Davidson College, but the station raises its own budget of nearly $2 million from listeners and corporate donors. Over the last year, the station has connected with more than 500 new donors, a 10 percent increase and the first major surge in years, Dominguez says.
One hallmark of the station is the longevity of its announcers, including morning host Mike McKay, Myelita Melton, Joe Brant and Rachel Stewart, who started at the station as a Davidson student three decades ago and hosts the popular Sunday morning show “Biscuits With Bach.” Ted Weiner is officially the longest-serving full-timer at the station; he arrived in November 1986. He hosts the overnight show, which he records so he can do his day job as music director.
He knows people listen to the overnight show because when he makes a flub while recording it, he just leaves it in. “And I hear from listeners about it – I know they’re out there,” he says.
Dominguez believes that much of the station’s success comes from its local programming. It plays local and regional symphonies and other artists, does Spoleto broadcasts, carries at 9 a.m. weekday feature called “A Minute with Miles” – short, engaging segments demystifying classical music with Miles Hoffman of S.C. Public Radio – and airs visiting artists from its performance studio.
It promotes the classical music scene for the region, Dominguez says, and is a foremost voice for that community. To appeal to a younger, less traditional audience, the station produces a concert series at Free Range Brewing that attracts young families and even their dogs.
“It feels to me like not only are we serving people with an interest in classical music,” Dominguez says, “but people with a more casual interest.”
In all, WDAV-FM produces about 22 hours of locally originated broadcasting each day. On its HD2 frequency, it provides “Concierto,” narrated by Dominguez in English and Spanish and features music by Latin American and Spanish composers and musicians. That show is carried on more than 40 other classical stations nationally.
Is there another 40 years left for WDAV-FM? Dominguez thinks there’s plenty of gas left in the tank and plenty of innovation ahead.
“I think the future for classical looks really bright,” he says, “particularly if we go where our audience is and deliver on a device they want it on.”
A new theme
For the station’s 40th anniversary, composer Dan Locklair of Wake Forest University wrote a short piece that WDAV intends to use as its signature audio theme. You can explore it on a variety of instruments here.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.