WWFM, Mercer County Community College’s (and the area’s) only all-classical music station, has tapped the New York market and expanded its Philadelphia presence through high-definition radio. And as of noon on September 9, WWFM is the largest all-digital classical music network in the United States.

Through a partnership with WKCR-FM, the student station at Columbia University, WWFM is now heard on 89.9 HD2 in New York. The station also will now be heard on 89.5 HD2 in Philadelphia.

The expansion gives WWFM a potential 20 million listeners. Through its old analog signals, the station’s potential listenership used to be about 2 million “with a good tail wind” and counting potential listeners on the New Jersey Turnpike who could be tuned in at any given time, says station manager Peter Fretwell, right.

The move is part of an aggressive step by WWFM into the classical music market in the northeast, and one outlined by Fretwell two years ago (U.S. 1, June 6, 2009).

The station has long played broadcasts of productions at the Met in New York, but WWFM has not been able to reach the Big Apple. Its chief competition there is WQXR, a commercial classical station that is the only one of its kind between Boston and Washington, D.C.

WQXR was owned by the New York Times for 55 years until the station was sold in July of 2009 to WNYC in a $45 million deal. A month earlier, it was rumored that WQXR might be sold to ESPN and trade classical music for sports programming. Fretwell at the time said that should WQXR cease playing classical, WWFM would be in a good position to reach into the New York market.

Fretwell’s statement was greeted with scoffing, which he still chooses not to address. “There will always be naysayers,” he said the day before the station launched its digital signal from Trinity Cathedral (near Ground Zero) in a live broadcast.

Fretwell does say, however, that WWFM’s digital delivery allows the station to reach what he calls a market “hungry for someone who will think outside the box.” Because it is not a commercial station, WWFM is not tied to commercial whims, Fretwell says. “We do it old-school. We don’t just play the top 500. We give our hosts the right to choose what they play according to their passions.”

Passion is what Fretwell claims as WWFM’s chief asset. Hosts who know and cherish classical pieces, from the well-known to the obscure, are the station’s calling card, and even Fretwell claims to hear the occasional obscure gem from one of the hosts. The partnership with WKCR at Columbia, he says, puts WWFM amid an equally passionate group of hosts who “do not care about labels.” They only care about answering the question “Can people share my music?”

The expansion, Fretwell says, “is about our survival.” The station has been surviving fairly well on bequests these past few years. One year ago WWFM received a pair of bequests totaling $360,000 (U.S. 1, September 15, 2010), but listener donations are barely enough to cover operating expenses.

But these numbers are based on a listenership of 2 million. WWFM will now potentially reach 10 times that, which makes Fretwell optimistic that passionate and generous listeners will help the station stay on the air for a long time. For the moment the outlook is good. WWFM has received scads of requests from entities looking to partner with it, including schools, orchestras, and cultural outlets.

The whole thing is overwhelming to Fretwell, who says his biggest worry now will be the ability to keep up. He took his fears to the controllers of the WWFM purse (MCCC’s administration), saying that he fears not having the resources to meet the demands of a market the size of New York. The response: “We’ll have to look into that,” Fretwell says.

WWFM’s approach to classical, Fretwell feels, will win over what he calls “the most sophisticated classical music audience in the country.” But he is cautious regarding how much of “the void” WWFM might fill in New York. “We won’t fill the whole need,” he says, “but we can find good partnerships.”

Though Fretwell considers WWFM’s hosts to be the station’s greatest asset, a case could be made that digital radio is its greatest advantage.

Digital radio, though still in its infancy, allows a station like WWFM to deliver its music far less expensively that stations relying on large broadcasting towers and heavy infrastructure.

The station, in fact, is a pioneer in the digital radio arena, which has, Fretwell says, allowed the station to be the only public (non-commercial) all-classical station in a major U.S. market.

Fretwell sees the potential for a solid future at WWFM and takes pleasure in knowing that classical radio has come full circle. In the 1930s, he says, the only way to air classical music was to do it live.

Over the years recorded music, and later, recorded broadcasts, replaced live radio. Digital, Fretwell says, allows hosts to return to the air live without massive overhead. “We’re going to do it live as often as we can,” he says.

And if there are naysayers, fine. “We envision this as a 10 to 20-year progression, not unlike the long acceptance curve for FM,” he says. “Those who love classical music want to spread it. They are excited to see us grow.”

#b#WWFM-The Classical Network Mercer County Community College#/b#, Box B, Trenton 08690; 609-587-8989; fax, 609-570-3863. Peter Fretwell, general manager. www.wwfm.org

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