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On Monday, WBMS, "The World's Most Beautiful Music Station," stopped playing "beautiful" music. It had made a four-year experiment of playing classical music to Boston listeners, and the failure of the experiment is a sad commentary on those listeners.
WBMS was started in November, 1946, by the Templetone Radio Corporation. After its first week of operation the station's Hooper rating was as high as any in Boston. It had almost no commercials, planning to go on a self-supporting basis once a large and faithful audience had been built up. Martin Bookspan '46, music director of the station, said at the time: "We feel that WBMS has an intelligent body of listeners, so there is no need to drum anything into their heads by repetition."
When Templetone felt that its audience had become steady, it began putting more and more commercials on the air, though all of a "quality" variety. The Corporation discovered, however, that the more commercials there were the lower the Hooper rating sank. In order to hold its audience it initiated programs known as the endowment series which were esthetically ideal but economically suicidal. This series featured extra long classical pieces throughout the afternoon with space in between them for premium spot commercials costing $25 to $35 a spot. But no store ever bought time at these prices, and the Templetone Radio Corporation was forced to give the station up as a total loss.
It was sold to the present management, WBMS Incorporated, in July, 1948, having lost $100,000. Since that time the station has lost an additional $50,000. One of the troubles the new owners inherited from the old was an FCC license which permitted only daylight broadcasting on the frequency used. This meant and still means that more commercials must be crammed into operating time to pay salaries and upkeep.
Pops and Kostelanetz
It costs $100 an hour in maintainance, transmission, and power costs to run the station. When the endowment series failed, the new management was obliged to turn in the opposite direction and put on more and cheaper commercials. Two hours a day were reserved for symphonic works, which permitted an average of three $10 spots an hour. The deficit was to be made up by filling the rest of the time with Pops and Kostelanetz, punctuated by all the commercials that advertisers would buy.
As this trend continued, the radio audience began complaining to the station about the number and repetition of advertisements. Many listeners went so far as to call up the stores sponsoring the commercials to protest interruptions, and in some cases irate music-lovers boycotted the offending advertisers. Naturally this led to the cancellation of advertising contracts and hindered the signing of new ones. Furthermore, by this fall the station's Hooper rating fell so low that it isn't even figured any more.
Last week WBMS lost $700 and the owners had to dip into personal capital to meet the employees' payroll. And Monday the station was obliged by necessity to abandon all attempts at compromise between esthetic and economic considerations. Now it plays almost exclusively "disc jockey" music. Only 350 listeners called up to complain of the change, which means a total listening audience of 7,000 by management figuring. No advertisers have cancelled since Monday, and one of them, a television dealer, reported a 500 percent increase in business.
Unlike New York's successful WQXR, WBMS could never get the big accounts that demand a large audience. And people who listen to classical music by and large refuse to patronize the small stores that do advertise on WBMS. Instead, these people complain about the interrupted light classics and Pops, and the Italian hours. Those who couldn't be bothered complaining stopped listening.
Maybe WBMS can continue its new popular music programs and make enough money to pay off its staggering debt. More probably it will sink. If it does, the reputedly cultured Boston listeners will be largely to blame. Obviously WBMS did not have as tolerant and intelligent a body of listeners as Martin Bookspan thought.
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