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Why does KBIA play so much classical music?

Jack Howard

One way CoMO Explained chooses topics for our episodes is from listener questions. Way back in our first iteration of the show a listener posted on Reddit and asked us why KBIA, an NPR station, plays so much classical music.

This episode is for that Reddit listener.

And before we explain why KBIA plays classical music at all, we have an important announcement. Just last week, our station’s general manager, Mike Dunn—who you may have heard in station promos—announced that KBIA and the University of Missouri purchased KWWC 90.5 from Stephens College in Columbia. If you caught Views of the News this week, you heard how excited some faculty are. 

What this means is that (pending FCC approval) KBIA 91.3 will become a daytime news station. So, the chunk of time between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. when you can now groove to Beethoven will become local and national news. The new station, 90.5 will become a 24 hour classical station available on the dial and online.


For many in our area, probably including that curious Redditer, this is good news. But why all the hubbub about classical in the first place? If KBIA is an NPR member station—part of a news organization—why would we broadcast classical music? For the answer to this question, we’ve got to put on our big glasses, flare out our pants, and go all the way back to 1972.

So, imagine you’re an instructor at the Missouri School of Journalism. You’re just exiting the golden era of radio news—Murrow’s days. And you look around and realize that your eager journalism students have no news radio station at which to work. In fact there’s not even really a local news fm station to listen to. So what do you do? You ask the University to buy a station and create a lab for radio news.

And that’s what happened. But MU and the Missouri School of Journalism didn’t exactly have the resources to provide news all day long. One major reason for this was because NPR had just gotten off the ground and there weren’t the gamut of shows that exist today for stations to play.

The way NPR member stations function is pretty different from how commercial tv and radio stations operate. Most people think of NPR as a “headquarters” and the member stations as “local outlets” in a similar arrangement to KOMU and NBC. But NPR member stations have complete discretion over what programs they carry. Local member stations like KBIA pay for nationally produced shows, but you’ll hear a mix of programs, all created by different distributors include APM, PRI, PRX and shows produced right here at KBIA. 

And where do we get money to pay for shows like this? Well, a lot of places actually. KBIA, like many local stations, is partially supported by a university—though a good deal less so today than 40 years ago when it started. The station also gets a large portion of its operating budget from listener support—hence our fund drives (which, Dunn said, will increase in frequency with the addition of the new station. Womp, womp). Businesses also make large donations to the station, which we call underwriting. Finally, we receive grant money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is a federally funded corporation. In an unexpected way, NPR is very indirectly supported by federal dollars because member stations often use grants to help pay for NPR shows. 

So back in 1972 NPR didn’t have very many shows to buy, in fact they only had one: All Things Considered. A few years later in 1979 they added Morning Edition. And since the journalism students couldn’t produce enough content for all day new, KBIA needed something to play, and that something was classical music.

Why? Because the university felt classical music was an important part of our culture that needed a source of preservation, and because no other stations in Columbia played classical music at the time.

“Continuing to offer the music of the masters was considered to be a part of your mission,” Dunn said of public radio stations.

Classical music also wasn’t accessible when KBIA launched as it is today.

“You know it’s only been a few years that people have had satellite radio where there’s multiple classical channels,” Dunn said. “In ‘72 you either had a big library or you listened to us.”

And this change in access is what’s driving a lot of public radio stations to reconsider their missions.  According to an article from the New York Times, classical audiences have an average age of 63, and Dunn said KBIA listeners prefer news to classical at a rate of 4 to 1.

Many markets have adopted a similar strategy to KBIA’s new plan—separate the stations so both audiences are happier. And this is helping keep classical alive, while giving newsy types access to news all day.

But changes to access to news, just like classical music, are changing the scape of public radio, too.

People can now access NPR directly for news all day online, bypassing local stations playing classical and news. And this is a problem, not just local station, but also for NPR, which is supported by those stations.

New formats are popping up to try to deal with these changes. Some are networks of podcasts, shows available online for streaming and download, who go directly to their audiences for funding through Kickstarter. Another solution is NPR One, a product of NPR where listeners can stream national content with local stories mixed into the stream on mobile devices and online.

These sorts of models are hoping to keep up with the changing times to make sure new forms of radio can keep developing, but the old ones don’t lose their spots in our ears. In a way, it’s like trying to make sure an important part of our culture is preserved for years to come…Hey, that reminds us of something we were just talking about…

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Abigail Keel is a senior student at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is originally from St. Louis, Missouri and grew up hating the drone of public radio in her parent's car. In high school, she had a job picking up trash in a park where she listened to podcasts for entertainment and made a permanent switch to public-radio lover. She's volunteered and interned for Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago, IL, and worked on the KBIA shows Faith and Values, Intersection and CoMO Explained.
Austin Federa left KBIA in May of 2015.
Ryan served as the KBIA News Director from February 2011 to September 2023
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