The offices of WWFM radio, October, 2008: General manager Peter Fretwell reads the latest report on his station’s financial health and responds by commencing a staring contest with the wall of his office.

But the wall will not give him any insight into what will happen now that his station’s budget projections look like the sour twist ending of a heretofore-pleasant movie. A year before, when Fretwell first arrived at WWFM, the classical music station housed at Mercer County Community College, and the only station of its kind between New York and Washington, D.C., everything was going just fine. Donations were on target; corporate sponsorships were where they should be.

But now, with almost choreographed precision, Wall Street was killing the buzz. One day after the kickoff of the station’s fall pledge drive the stock market lost more than 700 points, and just like that, the good times stopped rolling. The station had been hoping the drive would raise $230,000 from pledges before the year was out. By mid-November barely $100,000 had come in.

Staring, Fretwell quickly learns, will achieve little. The dynamic had changed. Donations will dissipate, even from the historically loyal fellowship of classical music listeners that has stuck by WWFM for almost 30 years. Fretwell senses the financial injuries his listeners and corporate sponsors will sustain, and he already knows that even Mercer County College, his radio station’s chief supporter, will feel the weight of what will surely be a bad couple of years ahead.

So Peter Fretwell and his staff do the only thing they can do besides quit and/or stare at the wall — start trying everything. “We’re going to branch out like we’ve never done before,” Fretwell told MSNBC.com last November. “We’re asking higher-end people in the Princeton area to host dinner parties for those who may not have been donors before.”

Fretwell says a barbecue fundraiser hosted by a faculty member from the Institute for Advanced Study is coming up on Saturday, June 27. On Sunday, June 7, Trenton’s War Memorial hosts a benefit concert for the station, “Celebrating Our Musical Community” (see story, page 11).

Fretwell doesn’t know how things will work out with these new approaches, or if they will have the wherewithal for the long haul, but he accepts the need to try new things. “We expect to have some failures as we look for new approaches to public radio funding,” he says. “If we don’t have some failures, we are not trying enough innovation.”

Unlike almost every other industry, non-commercial radio faces a world in which the only known business model is in shards. Reliant on grants and donations, non-commercial radio carved a nice niche for itself since first it developed its nonprofit approach in the 1930s. For about 80 years, it worked. But it was a false beauty. Fretwell explains it this way:

Imagine you are in charge of the Manhattan Transit Authority. You are one day handed a base budget that covers about 10 percent of what you will need to operate the way you did yesterday. You are also told that fares for all riders are now donation-only. If someone doesn’t pay for a ride, you have to let him on anyway — and you have to let him stay for as long as he likes.

The remainder of your budget can come from foundation grants or sponsorships, but if corporations are to use ad posters in the trains, these posters must be purely informational. No qualitative language, like “the best” or “award-winning,” is allowed, and sponsors cannot compare their brands with anyone or anything else. And if you try to slip so much as a wisp of commercialism through, you will be fined by a zealous government agency with hungry pockets.

Oh — and you’re still expected to reach every destination with the same service you provided yesterday.

“How,” asks Fretwell, sitting in front of that same cinder block wall several months later, “do you make that work? Our business model is broken.”

After more than eight decades of not having to ask that question, no one has an answer for public radio. Least of all the government. “People assume that because you’re public radio you get federal funding,” Fretwell says. But though that’s true, federal funds cover barely 10 percent of the station’s budget. WWFM’s annual budget is about $1.4 million. The last federal check the station received from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was for $119,000.

The second difference between public radio and most other businesses is that radio’s fortunes, like those of television and newspapers, rely on a vibrant business community. While advertising itself is forbidden on public radio, sponsorships and corporate donations to local stations come from the community. Restaurants and car dealerships make up a huge percentage of local advertising for commercial radio, and are an important barometer for non-commercial radio as well. When they hurt, the pain spreads quickly.

“Corporate underwriting is down 30 to 40 percent,” Fretwell says. The station has never been reliant on such funds, he says, but as that money evaporates, WWFM misses the help the funds used to be able to give. The lion’s share of the station’s money comes from donations by listeners. In 2008 a little more than $500,000 — half the station’s budget — came from donors.

Keep in mind, however, that while the total number of donors is up — 7 percent of its estimated 150,000 listeners give, compared to 5 percent just a few years ago — per-gift contributions have come down. WWFM has not lost money from donations, Fretwell says, but neither is the station gaining ground with its expanded donor base.

Encouragingly, WWFM is expanding its online audience. In September 2007 online listeners racked up for 21,303 hours. In April they racked up more than 64,000. The downside is that the more people listen online, the more it costs to expand the bandwidth to accommodate them.

WWFM does have certain advantages, namely the support of Mercer County College. The college, which founded the station in 1982, covers indirect costs — space, accounting services, graphic arts, and security. “Last year those indirect services were valued in the annual independent audit report at just over $300,000,” Fretwell says. And, because WWFM bought HD equipment last year, the school covered hard costs for equipment.

But there also is an underlying fear surrounding the station’s relationship with the school. “If we did not have them as a parent organization, or if they are forced by economic conditions to focus all their resources on education,” he says, “we would be hundreds of thousands of dollars short each year of what we need to sustain this network of stations.”

As an educational institution, Mercer is as much at the whims of the state education budget as any other school. The state has cut back on the money it is giving to higher education, and New Jersey’s 19 community colleges are now facing the rise in tuition that the state tried until last year to avoid at all costs. According to a Rutgers reports, colleges account for 5 percent of the state’s budget now, whereas it was almost 10 percent when the WWFM was founded. And it is dwindling. This all means that schools like Mercer are facing what would be charitably considered a more “self-reliant” future.

A taste of that future is available in one of Mercer’s current radio spots. From his computer, Fretwell plays a politely stated, if somewhat ominous, audio file of MCCC chief business officer Jacob Eapen making an appeal to WWFM’s listeners to start chipping in before the school has to weigh its own federal and state aid problems with its primary mission to be an educational institution. “We cannot continue to be the major patron of WWFM,” Eapen says, following up with a call to “action” on the public’s part. In 30 seconds, Eapen leaves no doubt where the school will side if it has to make a choice between its education programs and its cultural ideals.

Fretwell doesn’t blame the school — education is its main mission, after all. But the glimpse into the looking glass doesn’t help, and Fretwell is starting to live up to his last name. He does not rule out the possibility that the school will one daysay, “Sorry, you’re on your own.” Were that to happen, Fretwell would be charged with finding a way to get “the other 93 percent,” the station’s non-contributing listeners, to help pay for the WWFM’s continued existence.

Not like he has to wait for Mercer to bail on him. “Unless more listeners or foundations step forward this year, our shortfall on hard costs could exceed $100,000 this fiscal year, which ends June 30,” Fretwell says.

But like the free riders, turnstile jumpers, and hangers-on in Fretwell’s subway analogy, there is no way to charge people who do not want to buy a ticket. The music goes out, and we are on the honor system when the bill comes due.

Fretwell has the satellite radio model on his mind. Launched a few years ago as an antidote for “terrestrial” signals, digital satellite radio was to change the model for broadcasting. The format operates like cable television, where subscribers are the revenue stream. But with the novelty worn off, subscription radio has found its balance and its limits. WWFM is researching ways of commoditizing its Internet signal, but Fretwell says the subscriber-only format of satellite radio is not going to happen at WWFM.

Satellite simply doesn’t offer any human beings.

Around the radio world, humans are playing smaller roles, or are at least getting fewer in number. In satellite broadcasting, the music plays in a continuous stream, without commercial and without word from a DJ. Just as bad, satellite classical channels play pieces of songs, out of context, and with no insight from an expert who knows, for example, that Mozart’s “La Finta Giardiniera died after three performances in 1775, largely because the composer could not control the libretto or dramatic structure.

DJs, of course, are expendable in most formats. You don’t need to have a live person cue up a record and drop a needle anymore, and stations, commercial or not, have capitalized on being able to compile whole programs without the need for the personal touch. WWFM uses pre-recorded programming as well, but Fretwell says the host is there to record it, comments and all, all the way through. These programs air later, often overnight and on weekends, but are the same as the program you can hear it you tuned in right now.

The erosion of the number of people who are present throughout a program, pre-recorded or not, has become the norm. Commercial and public stations alike have become reliant on syndication as radio networks grow (see RELATED STORY, page 11). It is cheaper to pay one crew and broadcast the same content across multiple signals than it is to pay multiple crews to stay local, just as it is cheaper to have a programmer string together a bunch of songs in the computer and hit play.

WWFM could be considered the last truly independent local station in the area, and is definitely the last one to indulge its listeners’ thirst for encyclopedic knowledge about the content they are hearing. The station does use 10 National Public Radio newscasts a day and simulcasts concerts from outside venues, but it also is closely tied to the Mercer County Office of Emergency Management and numerous local entities. If there is an emergency in its area, WWFM is often among the first to know. And thanks to Internet and split-signal technology, WWFM can alert an area in crisis without bothering an area that is not.

WWFM has three full-service stations in New Jersey and six translator (relay) stations between Cape May and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Day to day, these stations broadcast what is being broadcast by “the mother ship,” Fretwell says, but digital technology allows WWFM to split its signals and broadcast specific content to any station or translator in its network. If there is an emergency at the shore, for example, the station can broadcast to people there about the problem, while continuing regular broadcasting here.

WWFM’s seventh translator station underscores just how unusual and cherished good classical content is. K216FW is the call sign for WWFM’s translator in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. An HD station, K216FW broadcasts the same content WWFM plays from West Windsor, but carries localized content when it is needed. The arrangement arose some years ago when classical music fans in Colorado wanted a top-notch station and were introduced to WWFM.

Digital broadcasting, adopted by Mercer last September, has in fact made WWFM its own network. The station operates on standard FM, and on three HD channels. HD1 is the digital version of WWFM classical, HD2 is jazz (a.k.a. Jazz On 2), and HD3 is Mercer’s college radio station. “When digital technology came along it was like we had these two extra concert halls sitting there empty, waiting for us to fill them with something,” Fretwell says. “It didn’t make any sense to just fill them with more classical.”

The station opted to fill one with the student station — which now broadcasts beyond the campus and, thus, is subject to all the FCC’s rules. The other hall would tap the region’s deep jazz roots. The only music form indigenous to the United States — and one consumed by fans of equal rabidity to classical aficionados — jazz is a major part of central New Jersey’s cultural heritage. The trouble, Fretwell says, is that jazz, like soccer, is played in school and left behind when people enter adulthood.

WWFM’s ambition is to keep jazz vital here, particularly for the kids who play it until it is no longer practical. “We want them to stay in school and to keep music in their lives,” Fretwell says. “It doesn’t have to be their vocation, but we want them to keep music as an avocation.” Mercer communications professor Alvyn Haywood, who hosts HD2’s “Jazz School HD,” says, “I think jazz could be one way of campaigning music to retain students in public schools.”

Fretwell happily admits that Jazz On 2 is an idealistic enterprise, but one that should work, so long as WWFM’s classical content stays strong and profitable. Jazz On 2’s on-air hosts are all volunteers, and its broadcasts are done from West Windsor, so there is no real added expense for WWFM. Eventually Jazz On 2 will be headquartered at Mercer’s James Kerney campus in Trenton, but even then, the expense to run it will be minimal; and the success of its aims will be dictated by the knowledge and passion of its on-air staff.

More than anything, Peter Fretwell believes that WWFM enjoys its reputation because of what most of us would call its DJs. Fretwell calls them musicologists. “They’re not DJs,” he says. “They’re so much more.”

This is not merely public relations spin. The truth across the classical music spectrum is that there are no young classical music hosts. You do not go to radio school and come out ready to take the helm of a classical music station. “It takes 20 or 25 years to get the expert knowledge you need,” Fretwell says. This is because the audience for classical music is not the audience you get for any other type of music, save, perhaps, jazz. They are geeks about classical the way trekkies are geeks about “Star Trek.” Try to pass off a set of liner notes as your own knowledge of the Brandenburg Concertos and you will be figuratively lynched by a mob who abandons you for somebody who knows what they’re talking about. This lack of youth nevertheless troubles Peter Fretwell. The young guy on the air at WWFM, Ross Amico, “is in his 40s.” Behind him, there are no real prospects. WWFM has carved a perch of great respectability from classical music fans around the world (thanks to Internet broadcasts) because its staff knows so much about every aspect of classical music. How it will maintain that perch as the staff ages, retires, and dies, Fretwell cannot say.

Fretwell would, for the record, like to train some youngsters, but given his situation, he admits he has to first find a way to survive in tact. Still, in order to save itself, WWFM must maintain its strength — loyalty among knowledgeable fans who want knowledgeable hosts. And this, in turn, means paying close attention to how the station is perceived.

“The trouble with public radio is that it is not seen as an institution,” Fretwell says. Not like, say, the Met in New York, to which people donate liberally. But here’s the ironic thing — WWFM broadcasts a number of Met productions; it plays the same music that people pay to go to New York to hear; it cross-promotes with the Met and even meets the station’s fans there. Multitudes more people, Fretwell says, experience the Met through WWFM than they do in person.

And yet the Met’s endowment would be the envy of any third world nation. He will not say who, but he references a Met financier who has lavished huge checks upon the fabled opera house but has not given one cent to WWFM. It is typical, he says. People view public radio as radio, not as culture. And until that perception gap closes, few will rally to save it.

As daunting as it is to rely on donations from one of the world’s smallest minorities — idealists with disposable income — Fretwell believes listeners will come through and “own” public radio. Ultimately, if public radio is to be saved, it is the public that will have to be responsible for it, but Fretwell, an admitted idealist himself, suspects things will work out.

Born and raised in Washington State, Fretwell studied piano, cello, and bass. In high school he played bass for a group whose lead singer was soul songstress Oleta Adams. “I told her once, ‘I’ll see you on Broadway,’” Fretwell says. “‘You’ll be singing, and I’ll be driving a cab.’” He jokes that his own musical career “was cut short when somebody discovered I had no talent.”

Fretwell earned a bachelor’s in organizational management while working in radio at John Brown University, and later earned an MBA from Amberton University in Garland, Texas. Many of his graduate projects related to nonprofit radio management and leadership issues. “At the time I worked at a non-commercial station that was a virtual Petri dish of dysfunction, so I had a lot to work with” he says.

Despite being on the other side of the country, Fretwell found WWFM online when he heard about an opening for general manager. “Trenton, New Jersey, was not at all on my radar,” he says. But he was sold on the station because of the depth of knowledge the staff had. So Fretwell and his wife, Becky, came east, where he says the New Jersey Turnpike scared him half to death.

Becky Fretwell lost her sight to retinitis pigmentosa more than 20 years ago, and now reads about 100 books a year via tape from the New Jersey Library for the Blind, Fretwell says. But she still manages to whip up sumptuous dinners from the braille cooking magazines she gets every month. Like her husband, Becky is a musician at heart. “She played organ and piano before her blindness and has slowly regained the piano playing,” he says. “She has a close personal friend who is a former concert pianist who has helped her. I personally think our daughters learned their courage and outlook on life by watching Becky deal with her blindness. She exhibits incredible courage and patience.”

The Fretwells’ daughter, Debbie, lives in Denver and just took her MCATs, hoping to go to medical school. The other, Sarah, lives in Santa Barbara and is establishing a photography business and swim lessons business.

Fretwell learned much of his own work ethic from his father, who was a minister until he retired — and then went back to work, this time in a manufacturing plant because he saw no reason to sit around doing nothing, Fretwell says.

While working on his MBA Fretwell figured that he wanted to apply his knowledge to “something that mattered. Something that made a difference. That meant affecting the community where those of us working at that radio station lived — which meant public radio, not commercial,” he says.

Commercial radio is a thorn for Peter Fretwell, partly because it creates a perception problem for public stations. Akin to newspapers, commercial radio sells ad space between the music or talk in order to make money. Unlike public radio, however, commercial stations are allowed to let advertisers pay handsomely to say most anything. So long as the content conforms to relatively loose FCC guidelines, commercial advertisers can be as shamelessly opportunistic as they please.

But despite commercial radio’s forays into crass consumerism and brazen self aggrandizement, standard radio still is entirely free to listen to. No one has ever asked you for money to keep the programming going, and no one ever will.

This dynamic has led to problems for public radio. An old sales axiom suggests that people love to buy but hate to be sold. Similarly, people will listen to ads, but not to someone outright asking them for money. Why, the public might ask, should we pay for WWFM’s free public broadcast when we don’t have to pay for WPST’s free commercial broadcast?

Even Peter Fretwell, more dependent than ever on the generosity of listeners, understands why people bristle at being hit up for donations, and why they listen elsewhere during pledge week.

Traditionally, pledge week has been public broadcasting’s golden egg. Listeners, unfortunately, do not hear the radio station’s inherent financial problem, they hear a prolonged commercial break. Fretwell openly admits that most people, loyal listener or not, will find another station until the pledge drive blows over.

WWFM is moving to year-round messages rather than concentrated pledge drives, Fretwell says. The point is to be candid about the station’s financial health and outlook, without nagging people over two weeks twice a year. Thanks to advanced technology, stations can track their audiences with great accuracy — the times they listen and how long they stay tuned in. “The new technology allows us to prove that we reach more listeners with consistent, short, daily messages,” Fretwell says. “The question that remains is whether they will become a part of the solution.”

One might ask why, given that commercial radio does not have to worry about appealing to the kindness of strangers, does WWFM not simply go commercial? The short answer is money. “We could try to buy a commercial license and program it with classical, but the barriers to entry are daunting,” Fretwell says. There is a highly regulated monopoly market on FCC licenses and there are better returns on other formats.

And commercial licenses are expensive as hell. The license for New York’s WQXR, a commercial classical station and the only other classical station between D.C. and Boston, was estimated in an April 28 New York Post article at $50 million. WWFM’s license does not cost anything, but having it creates a bevy of soft costs, Fretwell says.

WQXR, however, signifies something WWFM sorely needs. Hope. Founded in 1936 and owned by the New York Times since 1944, WQXR could be put on the block after seeing its revenue drop an estimated $34 million last year. ESPN is the front-runner to buy the station, as it is looking for a new outlet for WPEN, a sports talk station, according to the article.

Should WQXR fall the New York market would open up for WWFM. WQXR attracts 800,000 weekly listeners, according to the station’s online profile, more than thrice WWFM’s audience. Without competition, WWFM would be in place to woo listeners who no longer have their outlet at 96.3. And it could do it without incurring any of WQXR’s mounting debts. The audience would be there for the taking, so long as WWFM could pull the train up to the dock.

If WWFM can tap into the New York market and still only convince 7 percent of its listeners to ante up, it would be an enormous boost in raw dollars. WWFM itself, says Fretwell, will not leave West Windsor, so it will not have to re-establish itself, and it already has Met connections.

WWFM’s optimism rides on the results of a foray into the Philadelphia market. Briefly, and until 2004, WWFM had a translator in Center City. “All of 7 watts,” Fretwell says (WWFM’s parent signal is 1,150 watts). WWFM also has four stations broadcasting 80,000 watts in New Jersey, and yet that 7-watt translator drew a third of the station’s donations. Imagine, Fretwell, says, what a signal to New York could do.

As the model changes, Fretwell believes that classical music will survive mainly in cities. He would prefer it to thrive in local markets, but he doesn’t see that happening. He merely hopes that the stations that do survive stay away from “standardized mediocrity” and in touch with their communities.

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

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