This past July, WRTI-FM celebrated its 60th “birthday,” representing six decades on the air. Some might consider this milestone a rather impressive accomplishment, as the music the station sends over the airwaves is anything but “pop.”
Although it might be surprising to the uninitiated, WRTI’s primary broadcast genres—jazz and classical music—have a sizable fan base in Philadelphia. Throughout the station’s listening area, which includes 12 markets from the Jersey Shore to Harrisburg and from the New York border to southern Delaware, the station has a weekly “tune in” of 354,000 listeners. In Philadelphia, listeners find WRTI on the dial at 90.1 FM, where they hear classical music from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and jazz from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Fans can also visit wrti.org 24 hours a day to stream their jazz and classical favorites.
Although most fans of these two genres may be of a certain age, so to speak, WRTI has succeeded in cultivating a new generation of listeners who prefer Bach over Beyoncé, Miles Davis over Miley Cyrus, according to Dave Conant, general manager of WRTI.
“It’s a format that does tend toward an older demographic, there’s no doubt about that, but we have seen a gradual shift to a little bit younger listeners,” Conant says. “We’ve found anecdotally that by the time people hit their 30s, 40s, [they] get tired of what they used to like to hear.”
Conant is living proof that jazz and classical music are enjoyed by people of any age. He has more than 40 years of experience as an on-air classical music host, which began during his college years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a degree in English literature. “They had a station at [UPenn] and I started working there,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I probably spent more time there than I should have.
“I guess I’ve always been interested in radio,” he continues. “I grew up in the New York metro area, listening to classical and popular music on the radio.”
Although Conant went on to earn his master’s degree in secondary education, he taught for only a short time. He took a part-time job with the now-defunct commercial radio station WFLN in 1971 and was working at the station full time by the following year. For 26 years he worked as a morning host and program director, but WFLN’s sale and format change in 1997 convinced him to move to WRTI as a morning host. Conant quickly rose through the WRTI ranks, first earning a position as executive director and then a promotion to general manager in 1998.
He continued to serve as morning show host until about a year and a half ago, when he decided to focus his energy exclusively on his managerial duties. Even so, his mellow baritone continues to grace the WRTI airwaves for fund drives and station announcements, well as an occasional substitute for one of the regular hosts.
‘In the Black’
In celebration of WRTI’s most recent milestone, the station has been holding events throughout the year. These include “Diamond Session” concerts, featuring a series of classical and jazz performances recorded live before WRTI studio audiences.
WRTI, which is a broadcast service of Temple University and has been based on the Temple campus since the station’s inception, also received a $50,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to fund the “Music Makers” series through early 2014. The series is designed to highlight the talented but perhaps under-recognized jazz and classical musicians from throughout the WTRI listening area.
For his part, Conant has enjoyed the opportunity to educate people about the music and musicians featured on the station; of course, he likes the music, too. He’s also proud to see the station alive and well in 2013. “When I came here in 1997, it had a small audience and a deficit budget,” he says. “Now we’re operating in the black.”
Although Conant has no crystal ball—he’s unsure if the Internet will come to replace the traditional broadcast medium, for example—he says stations such as his (meaning those that obtain the bulk of their annual operating budgets through community support, including that of members and sponsors) must remain as local and relevant as possible in order to retain listeners. In addition to providing cultural content over the airwaves and through its website, the station provides daily news updates through the WRTI newsroom. It also enjoys an affiliation with National Public Radio, sharing NPR news broadcasts throughout the day.
“I think it’s the sense of wonder still about radio,” he says. “People have to use their imaginations when they’re listening. It’s not like watching TV or a movie.”