Opinion

The Wee Station Gets Bigger: As XLNC1 Amplifies

Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2007 | From the window of her Chula Vista office, Lisette Atala can watch the harvesting of salt from the lagoons at the very end of San Diego Bay. It looks like something out of a science fiction movie.

Atala, the executive director of XLNC1 (FM 90.7), and her staff and board are looking for a more earthlike harvest: $200,000 for new equipment and engineering work to extend the station’s reach.

Right now, its 1,000-watt signal reaches cross-border to southern San Diego County and northern Baja. By next month, XLNC1 plans to boost its signal to 7,500 watts with a new frequency at 104.9 FM. The tower will also be moved from 600 to 4,200 feet above sea level, the highest point in Baja.

That XLNC1 has survived is just short of miraculous. XLNC1 — “the little radio station that could” — bills itself as a classical music station. It has been battling problems since it went on the air in 2000.

For listeners in northern San Diego County the weak signal has had another complication that the changes will eliminate. In a special agreement between Mexico and the United States, XLNC1 is licensed as a Mexican station, with its signal tower in Baja. But the FCC assigned its frequency and gave it the same one as KPFK, which broadcasts from Los Angeles. The signals frequently cross. “It’s like buying a house and find someone sharing the master bedroom,” said Atala.

Even with a weak signal, XLNC1 reaches 70,000 listeners weekly plus another 51,000 on the Internet. Its web audience nearly doubled in July, after Google placed it first for those using keywords like “classical music san diego.”

XLNC1′s format itself will remain, but listeners will hear some other changes. Atala and her staff and board plan to jettison the term “classical,” which freezes the music in the 18th and 19th centuries and marginalizes it as elitist and with limited appeal.

But fine art music has changed dramatically in the past two or three decades, absorbing marketing strategies, energy and forms from global, jazz and pop music. So Atala and others are looking at a new slogan, a new feel, to go along with the new frequency. Right now, Atala and others are tossing around “beautiful” music (Groan: think Montovani, Rieu and muzak). Words suggesting serenity and calm are also out there, but a late Beethoven quartet, Raymond Scott’s “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” Terry Riley’s “The Ecstasy,” or Rachel Barton’s arrangements of Kurt Cobain’s songs for string quartet are hardly soothing.

Listeners might hope that with its expanded reach and audience, new music will have a larger place. Short-staffed, Atala also doubles as program director and sticks to mostly well-known composers. San Diego has a solid base for more adventurous programming, with visiting resident artists like Felix Fan, Peter Sprague, and NOISE, as well as the Carlsbad Music Festival (coming up Sept. 28-30) and San Diego New Music’s festival (in June).

XLNC1 has added some special programming, such as “Top 400 Hits of the Last 400 Years,” its weekday morning drive-time segment. Atala figured that if hip hop and pop stations could play their hits, so could XLNC1, with a huge list of works that have stood the test of time.

When “Top 400″ started, the station asked for listener comment. Atala described the response as “tremendous.” The segment attracted young listeners who said they listened while studying, just to hear music they had never heard before, and even to soothe a baby.

For the hard-core audiences, “Music from the Concertgebeouw” broadcasts live performances from Amsterdam of the Royal Concertgebeouw and other major orchestras. Opera has a special place too, with live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, plus two other weekend programs.

With the new signal and more funding, Atala would also like to add more arts information. Right now, XLNC1 promotes music groups on both sides of the border. Also, Jung-Ho Pak, the music director of the San Diego Chamber Orchestra, hosts “The Tasting Room,” a program keyed to the orchestra’s concerts.

Yet, some music organizations have not used its resources, in part because its weak signal has limited its usefulness. Atala’s dream is to start interactive children’s network on the Internet that would allow children and teachers to download music easily.

The good news about XLNC1 is that it is a non-profit, commercial-free station. It relies on listeners and underwriters to sustain its annual budget of nearly $1 million; the staff consists of just five full and five part-time people. It competes with KPBS and other non-profits for funding, yet listeners are coming through for a bigger and better XLNC1.

Although the station has just 6,000 paying “members,” listeners sent $56,000 in a brief three-week mail and on-air capital campaign during the late summer, and XLNC1 will have a regular on-air fund-raiser in late September. Atala and her team of volunteers are also looking for corporate and foundation funding for improvements. (Some anxious fans, thinking that the new frequency was already in place, have called to complain that they couldn’t find it.)

Like other “classical” stations, XLNC1 has dream demos — an educated, moneyed, professional-class audience. Because KPBS (FM 89.5) broadcasts music daily, beginning at 7 p.m., XLNC1 is San Diego’s only 24/7 fine art music station. (KPBS plans add an all-classical stream to it digital radio programming, but no date has been set.)

XLNC1 almost shut down in 2004 because of signal and financial problems, but it has survived. Atala said that for long-term stability, she would like to find a partnership for it. “Stations like ours are a very rare commodity for a city,” Atala said.

Its rarity is the bad news. XLNC1′s format is too risky for corporate radioland, and standing alone compounds the risk. National Public Radio research indicates that the United States has 240 non-profit “classical” stations, with an additional 40 commercial stations — nonohertz pinpoints.

Many, such as KUSC (FM 91.5), are associated either with a university or a public broadcasting service. KING (FM 98.7) in Seattle and KBPS (FM 89.9) in Portland are independent nonprofits. Among the commercial stations are KHFM (FM 95.5) in Albuquerque/Santa Fe and WQXR (FM 96.3), which is owned by The New York Times. For the long term, Atala would like to find a partner for XLNC1.

On the Internet, legions of fans not only listen to stations like XLNC1, they also buy. About 12 percent of the music sold on iTunes is “classical,” even though the genre represents less than four per cent of recording sales. Based in the UK, www.gmn.com is a world-wide arts network that streams music and commentary; Mainly Mozart’s David Atherton is the artistic director. Other Internet music sources are BBC, Danish National Radio or portals like Canada’s Iceberg Radio.

Ironically, XLNC1 started as an Internet station in 1998, before Internet radio became a phenomenon. It was the dream child of the late Victor Diaz, a music lover whose family owned a string of radio stations in Mexico. His aim was to create two stations, one for “easy listening” and another for hardcore listeners. XLNC1 does both, said Atala. After Diaz’ death in 2004, his wife Martha has continued as an important supporter.

Except for a Swiss station, XLNC1 is the only one in the world that announces bilingually, said Atala. The announcers speak out the call letters with voices that have a precise, almost singing quality — in both languages. Phonetically, the letters sound out everything you need to know about great music. Here it is in Spanish: Equis-ele-ene-sey, numero uno.

Cathy Robbins is a San Diego writer and author.

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