North Texas Daily

KNTU reformats to alternative amid low ratings, funding

KNTU reformats to alternative amid low ratings, funding

KNTU reformats to alternative amid low ratings, funding
August 10
15:36 2022

DFW’s only jazz-dedicated radio station KNTU FM 88.1 announced on July 29 the station had reformatted to KNTU FM 88.1 Indie — an alternative genre station.

Mark Lambert, KNTU programming, news and operations manager said the decision to reformat was initially made in February.

“[Dan Balla] and I were the only two who knew what we were actually going to do,” Lambert said. “When you change formats, it’s one of the tightest held secrets in broadcasting. If you let the word out, then your competition can start making changes to diffuse what you’re going to do, or someone else can come along and change their format to beat you — so we didn’t tell anyone until a few days before this happened.”

Lambert said they made the decision to reformat because the radio station had seen a decrease in student interest and volunteers, low ratings and a lack of funding from underwriters.

A pair of headphones rests on a KNTU soundboard on August 8, 2022. Matt Iaia

“Dan has had a very difficult time getting businesses to sign up for underwriting,” Lambert said. “We also started subscribing to the Nielson ratings a couple years ago, and our audience is quite small — we rank 44th in the market […] There are many average quarter hours where if you don’t have a hundred listeners, you have zero ratings. We have many hours of zero.”

Lambert said he filled 11 of the 54 DJ shift positions he had available for students last spring. The station managers also made the decision in January not to broadcast the three-day annual Denton Arts and Jazz Festival in October because no students had signed up to volunteer last year.

Broadcasting the festival without student volunteers required Lambert to be on air for up to 13 hours a day.

“It was mostly the Mark Lambert show for three days,” Lambert said. “I didn’t have students showing up to help me on the air […] From 2:30 p.m. Friday afternoon until 9 or 10 p.m., I’m on the air. Saturday 10 a.m. until 11 p.m., I’m on the air. Sunday 10 a.m. until 11 p.m., I’m on the air. I just can’t that – I can’t do it without students.”

Lambert hopes the format change will encourage students to get involved with the radio station and open more opportunities for underwriting.

“[Since the format change] I’ve gotten phone calls from former DJs, students [and] current students — they want to come take part in this,” Lambert said. “It’s already having a positive impact on getting students involved.”

As an independent, non-commercial station, KNTU relies on student service fees, corporate underwriting and donations for funding. While the station is unable to run advertisements to obtain funding, Lambert said KNTU’s non-commercial status will help them compete with other alternative stations in the market.

“One huge advantage we have over 103.7 is we have no commercials,” Lambert said. “They will play five, six, seven, eight minutes of commercials at the top of the hour and the bottom of the hour. We don’t have that — we have music.”

The decision to reformat was criticized by alumni, former professors and jazz aficionados. A petition to “bring back jazz” has garnered nearly 2,800 signatures. Paul Westbrook, petition creator and president of Texins Jazz Band, emailed the petition to university President Neal Smatresk, Lambert and Balla and had not received a response as of Monday.

Lambert said the jazz station can be streamed online until it is reimplemented on HD radio once the station receives its new transmission equipment in late 2022 or early 2023.

“We failed in this part of the [announcement],” Lambert told the North Texas Daily. “We did not emphasize [jazz will be streaming on KNTU.com] because we were unveiling this new frequency — but I’m stressing that jazz is not gone.”

In addition to KNTU.com, the jazz station is available to stream on the TuneIn app.

Westbrook said streaming and programming jazz on a secondary station makes the station inaccessible to listeners who do not have access to newer technology.

“I know they talk about streaming, but my 2007 vehicle has an FM radio and a CD player — I’m not getting any streaming while I’m driving,” Westbrook said. “If you look at who listens to radio it’s mainly older people. Younger people stream a lot more. If they want to do indie, fine — do a secondary HD indie — but keep jazz on the primary channel for all of us.”

A screen displays volume levels in the KNTU on-air studio on August 8, 2022. Matt Iaia

Eighty-three percent of Americans 12 or older listen to Terrestrial, or FM/AM radio, in a given week, according to a 2020 study by Pew Research Center. Nearly any car built after the 1980s is capable of supporting FM radio, whereas HD radio requires an HD receiver. As of 2019, 18 percent of vehicles on the road and 52 percent of new cars are equipped with HD receivers.

Robert Swann, artistic director of JazzStand — the longest-running free concert series in Dallas — said jazz was originally learned on the streets, making it “the most democratic of music,” and needs to be available to all.

“I think it’s a problem,” Swann said. “[…] [The jazz station] needs to be available to people with even the most basic receivers.”

Lambert said HD radio is available to plenty of listeners in response to complaints that jazz will be less accessible in its new format.

Swann and Westbrook said they hope the jazz station will return to basic FM radio and KNTU will work with the College of Music’s jazz program to provide more diverse content and a variety of segments.

“I just haven’t heard very many DJs over the last couple of years — certainly not very many students,” Westbrook said. “The music seems to be more just like a formulaic track. It just runs and there’s no calling in and requesting a tune. I think it lost that personal touch and the connectivity to the community.”

Lambert said he has plans to implement local music and program segments in celebration of the upcoming 75th anniversary of the College of Music’s jazz studies department.

“We have already begun conversations with [the college] about having more of their faculty and staff and students come in and help […] celebrate [the] university’s history with jazz,” Lambert said. “We would love it if some of the faculty members can come over and tell stories that we can turn into jazz minutes […] and celebrate these 75 years of their great history.”

Students will be able to volunteer for the jazz station in the fall, but applications for the alternative station are suspended through the end of the year to gauge the effect of the format change.

“We understand it’s upsetting,” Lambert said. “Yes — we’re at the University of North Texas. Yes — we’ve been jazz for a long time. But we need to look at how to [help] the station grow [and] how to get students back [to being] involved. It took making this change. But we hear people and we understand — that’s why it’s so important for people to know [the jazz station is available] at KNTU.com.”

Featured Image: KNTU 88.1 station manager Mark Lambert speaks into a microphone on August 8, 2022. Photo by Matt Iaia

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Madeleine Moore

Madeleine Moore

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