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Classical listeners turn to HD

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 3, 2010 - After St. Louis' longest running radio station, KFUO-FM "Classic99" changed format in early July, classical music lovers bemoaned the loss of their beloved station. But thanks to St. Louis Public Radio (KWMU 90.7 FM), classical radio is still available in St. Louis -- with a twist.

On May 24, the public radio station began broadcasting KWMU-3, a classical music channel available on HD radios. "When we knew that the city would be without a classical music service, we certainly wanted to fill that void as best we could," said Tim Eby, KWMU's general manager.

Classical music plays 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the new channel, which is also available on the internet (https://www.stlpublicradio.org/listen.php ). The music is selected by American Public Media, a national radio company and played on public radio stations across the country.

But the St. Louis channel retains a local flavor. "We have about three opportunities each hour to put in local info," Eby said. Some of that time will be devoted to profiles of regional arts and cultural institutions.

In its effort to fill the gap left by KFUO's departure, KWMU has also added three hours of classical music to its popular analog channel on Saturday nights. The program debuted July 31 with a concert by the Rotterdam Philharmonic. In the fall, that slot will feature live broadcasts of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

The Saturday night programming is available to anyone with a regular analog radio. But the new classical channel, KWMU-3, can only be accessed with an HD radio. "The biggest challenge is having people understand what HD radio is and have them understand that it won't work on the radio in your bedroom," Eby said.

Until recently, radio stations only used analog radio signals, which are received by radios and transferred directly to the speakers. Now stations can convert their music into a digital code readable by a computer. This code is then transmitted to HD radios, which read and convert the code back into sound.

Analog radio users sometimes encounter static or interruptions in radio broadcasts. But such irregularities are nearly unheard of in HD radio, because the same fragment of code is sent out multiple times. Even if the first copy of the fragment is distorted by interference from buildings or storms, the subsequent copies are likely to be received intact.

However, there can be drawbacks to HD radio. As one travels farther from a radio antenna, its station's analog broadcast begins to fade but is often still audible. HD radios simply stop playing at such distances. "Digital is either there or it's not," explained KWMU's chief engineer, Terrance Dupuis.

David Young, president of The Sound Room ,  a local seller of electronics, says that limitation could pose a particular problem for KWMU's newly installed, third HD channel. "Because it's the HD-3 channel it has about half the power of the HD-1 or HD-2 channels," Young said regarding KWMU-3. "Those HD-3 channels, which are weaker, have a hard time penetrating ... buildings with a lot of steel and metal."

Young said he can easily tune into KWMU-3 from his store in Creve Coeur, but has a harder time doing so from his Chesterfield store. He recommends installing an HD tuner, which can be attached to an existing analog radio, but says an additional cable and antenna might be necessary for the best sound. The tuner sells for $149 at The Sound Room. Smaller stand-alone radios are available from electronics websites for below $50, but Young is skeptical about their reliability.

KWMU's Eby says fewer than 100 people are listening at any time to the new channel on his station's website, but he has no way of knowing the additional number of people tuning in with HD radios. "Given that it's relatively new and all the choices that you have, we're very happy where that's at," Eby said of the numbers of listeners.

He said that listeners have been calling to thank KWMU and sending donations to support the new channel, which will remain free of corporate sponsorships until KWMU-3 builds its listener base. "We've had really very positive response from our audience," he said.

Young confirmed listeners' enthusiasm for the new channel. And he is not surprised by the unexpected demand for HD radios. If a local rock station were replaced by an HD-only channel, few would start listening, he believes. But when KFUO played its final song ("Beethoven's Ninth Symphony") on July 6, classical music lovers scrambled to find a replacement, even if it required switching to HD.

"Listeners tended to have their radio locked on that one station," Young said of KFUO. "With classical, you had one choice."

Hodiah Nemes, a student at Yale University, is a Beacon intern.