Classical Music Rocks

WWFM The Classical Network just got stronger with a new general manager.

By Susan Van Dongen

Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2007 2:18 PM EDT

"If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” as the saying goes. For WWFM The Classical Network, new General Manager Peter Fretwell isn’t so much concerned about “fixing” the radio station, he just wants to make it even better by enhancing the technology. And while classical music stations across the country are switching formats — often to news and talk — Mr. Fretwell is enthusiastic about finding new audiences through fresh platforms, including high definition (HD/digital) radio and podcasts.

   ”Younger listeners — the iPod generation — apparently do care about classical music,” Mr. Fretwell says. “‘The New York Times’ recently reported that 12 percent of all iTune downloads are classical music, a far greater percentage of downloads than classical music’s share of CD sales.

   ”We’re purveyors of great music, not just a radio station,” he continues. “If we thought of ourselves just as a ‘radio station,’ that kind of marketing myopia, we might be looking at what’s coming — with iPods and the Internet and whatnot — with fear. But when you’re someone who wants to share great classical music, this new technology means opportunities. If you were strictly approaching things as a radio person, yes, you could be anxious, because technology will change radio. It’s already changed television, newspapers and magazines. But we feel that the Internet provides opportunities, not demise. We have a 25-year track record and I think the next 25 years will be even better because of digital media.”

   Arriving in Mercer County from Spokane, Wash., last spring, Mr. Fretwell also feels the radio station and network is placed in one of the most ideal locations in the nation — between two major centers for classical music and the fine arts, New York and Philadelphia.

   ”This corridor between Philadelphia and New York, historically, is one of the nation’s great areas for supporting the arts,” he says. “Look at the history of the Princeton concert series. It all started because Princeton was on the train route between New York and Philadelphia. For world class musicians commuting between the two cities, this was a stopping point.

   ”You can’t separate this area from Philadelphia and New York,” Mr. Fretwell continues. “We have supporters from New York and Philadelphia even though our direct signal is sketchy in both places. And some of our hosts literally drive from Philadelphia or from the New York metro area. Donald (Venezia) and Bill (Zagorski) also both work at classical radio stations in New York, and David (Osenberg) works in Philadelphia. I have an incredible sense of optimism because of this arts corridor. I would not want to do a 24-hour classical format in many places in the U.S., but this is one of the places I would want to try it.”

   Licensed to Mercer County Community College since 1982, WWFM is celebrating 25 years at 89.1 on the FM dial. Mr. Fretwell applauds the station’s support from the college, another reason he is optimistic about the future.

   ”We truly benefit from the college, which has a remarkable record of supporting the arts in this area, and we live in a region of the country noted for its vigorous support of the arts,” he says. “We’re confident that classical music has a strong future here because of these two supporting pillars.”

   The staff members at WWFM put together their own shows, drawing from the station’s extensive classical library, but also bringing in their own CDs. Program Director Alice Weiss says it’s one of the reasons the station stands out — perhaps even a reason why WWFM has survived as a 24/7 classical music station as others seem to be going off the air every day.

   ”The announcers have quite a bit of leeway because each person chooses his or her own selections, but they do so keeping in mind what time of day it is,” Ms. Weiss says. “We’re going to reserve the big Mahler symphonies or Bruckner symphonies for later on in the day, particularly for the late afternoon and evening hours. Because we have different listeners tuning in and out all the time, we want to give a nice variety of music. That’s been our claim to fame, that we play such a great variety of music... There is so much to enjoy, so we try to have something for everyone.”

   Without a “musical bone in my body,” to his admission, Mr. Fretwell points instead to his business background, particularly his studies at Amberton University in Garland, Texas. He says one of the basic principles in business is that, as a product becomes “commoditized,” the people who stand out the most are the ones who can differentiate themselves.

   ”Radio has become a commodity,” he says. “You can drive across the United States listening to the radio, and often, other than traffic and weather, you would be hard pressed to know where you were. Radio has become this sterile, homogenous sound. In our case, however, we have 15 local hosts who are specialists, in some cases world class experts, in a certain genre of classical music. They do their shows live, put their own playlists together. And that will differentiate our product over time.”

   The WWFM network is heard on four full-power stations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and also has seven translators, with a signal that reaches parts of five states, including Colorado, where it broadcasts from an affiliate member station in Steamboat Springs. New Jersey’s only full-time classical music station had a presence in Philadelphia, thanks to a translator at 107.9, but lost that signal in 2004 when a full-time station went on the air.

   With the rise of HD radio, Mr. Fretwell wants to get back into Philadelphia, even more powerfully than before. He says WWFM hopes to provide other public stations with HD transmission capabilities in exchange for the use of one of their digital channels. He plans to do the same in New York.

   ”As the digital age fully comes to fruition, our format will be extremely strong,” Mr. Fretwell says. “WWFM already offers high-quality classical music programming around the world via Internet streaming. We only expect our webcasting to grow in importance. To add to our 24/7 programming, we plan to also offer educational podcasts on a variety of musical topics, and blogs by some of our on-air hosts. In fact, some of our employees who aren’t announcers but support staff are enthusiastic about doing podcasts.”

   Even as Mr. Fretwell was taking the reins of the station in June, rumors circulated that he was coming east with a big format change in mind. In his career, Mr. Fretwell was program director for a conservative Christian radio station. He also worked in news-talk for a number for years. One of the rumors floating around was that WWFM was going to be changed to a full-time news and talk station.

   ”That one was particularly funny to me because of all the formats, news and talk is the most expensive and difficult to do because it’s very human resources intensive,” Mr. Fretwell says. “But these are fair questions. Our supporters need to know that what they’ve given to will remain what they’ve given to. There’s a commitment to myself and the college that this will remain what it is and hopefully get better. I didn’t move from Spokane to New Jersey to change things. My wife Rebecca and I sat and listened to WWFM (on the Internet) and it didn’t take long to sense this was a very special station.

   ”And even though I can barely play a note, it’s fun to be surrounded by people who are light years ahead of me, with musical talent and ability,” he continues. “These people (the on-air staff) are passionate about their music. It’s what makes them do what they do. And that’s rare.”

WWFM The Classical Network, can be heard locally at 89.1 FM, or on the Web at