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Classical Music Is Back On The Radio In Kansas City For The First Time In Eight Years

KCUR officially launches 91.9 Classical KC today, providing the region with 24 hours of classical music programming each day.

Corrected: July 6, 2020 at 4:13 PM CDT
This story has been clarified to say that Classical KC's transmitter is on the same site as the old KXTR transmitter.

Nearly a year after announcing plans to bring classical music programming back to Kansas City, KCUR 89.3 has launched 91.9 Classical KC on the FM dial.

The station began broadcasting last week as part of a “soft launch” but officially debuts today.

Kansas City has not had a classical music station since KXTR went off the air more than eight years ago. And it hasn’t had one on the FM dial since KXTR switched to AM 19 years ago.

“The number one reason we're doing this is to serve our community, which is our mission,” said Sarah Morris, interim general manager of KCUR. “We do that through journalism, and we also do that through enrichment in the arts. We’re really a cultural and civic institution, not just a journalism organization, although obviously that's our core business. So this is to serve the broader community.”

Plans originally called for Classical KC to focus on local arts organizations and artists. But because the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted fundraising, the station for the next few years will rely mostly on high-quality syndicated programming, while gradually introducing local content.

“Because of the fundraising environment, we changed our model to get on the air quickly,” said KCUR broadcast engineer Stephen Steigman.

Steigman said there were two reasons not to delay the launch, despite the fundraising obstacles:

“First, we felt that people need — want — classical music now more than ever in these uncertain times. The news, while incredibly important and life-changing, can also oftentimes be overwhelming, and people need the inspiration and calm and excitement classical music can bring.

“And second, we knew that Kansas City musicians and ensembles and other classical music organizations were facing the possibility of a year, possibly more, of not being in front of their audiences. So this is something we could do to help them stay connected with those audiences and feature their great content while the pandemic is continuing.”

Among the syndicated programs the station will carry are “Classical 24,” a 24-hour service produced by American Public Media, which will make up a large portion of the station’s initial programming; “Performance Today,” which features live performances and is the most listened-to classical music program in the country; and “Exploring Music,” a show hosted by former Kansas City Symphony Director Bill McLaughlin focusing on a different theme every week.

Classical KC will also feature a different symphony orchestra every weeknight from 8 to 10, including the Kansas City Symphony on Thursday nights and the New York Philharmonic on Friday nights in performances hosted by actor Alec Baldwin. The Kansas City Symphony performances will be repeated on Sunday afternoons at 4, timed to coincide with when audiences are leaving the symphony’s matinee performances at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts downtown.

At least one local show will make its debut on the station this year, beginning this Saturday morning at 11: “From the Archives,” which will be hosted by the Kansas City Symphony’s recently retired executive director, Frank Byrne. The show features archival tape of performances and interviews, and will repeat Sunday at 6 p.m. The first couple of shows will be about legendary conductor George Szell, who led the Cleveland Orchestra from 1946 until his death in 1970.

With the launch of 91.9 Classical KC, KCUR will no longer broadcast classical music on weeknights from 9 to midnight. Instead it will carry a variety of popular public radio shows, including “This American Life,” “The Pulse,” “The Moth Radio Hour,” “Snap Judgment” and “Remix.”

KCUR 89.3 will continue to carry its popular “Fish Fry” and “Night Tides” shows on weekend nights.

91.9 Classical KC will feature performances by the Kansas City Symphony, shown here in Helzberg Hall at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, on Thursday nights at 8.
Todd Rosenberg
91.9 Classical KC will feature performances by the Kansas City Symphony, shown here in Helzberg Hall at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, on Thursday nights at 8.

Burgeoning idea

The idea of restoring classical music programming in Kansas City first began to take shape three years ago, when KCUR’s then-general manager, Nico Leone, broached the topic to Steigman. (Leone left KCUR in 2019 to become general manager of KERA, the public radio station in Dallas/Fort Worth.)

A search for a frequency on which to broadcast quickly turned up KWJC, which was operated by William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. The school had been leasing the signal to a Christian radio network but was looking to sell.

A sales agreement was drawn up last August and, following FCC approval, the sale became final only a couple of weeks ago. The 7,000-watt transmitter, which is located in Independence, Missouri, is on the same site as KXTR’s original transmitter decades ago, was turned back on a couple of days after that.

“We spent the week working out some bugs in the system and trying to make sure that everything was ready for launch,” Steigman said last week while en route to the transmitter.

William Jewell College, which has brought world-renowned concert artists to Kansas City for 65 years through its Harriman-Jewell Series, said it saw the sale as an opportunity to highlight the series by providing content to Classical KC.

The sale price was $2 million in cash and another $1 million in non-cash donations. Major funding for the purchase price and station operations came from the William T. Kemper Foundation, Sunderland Foundation, Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation, Richard J. Stern Foundation for the Arts, Hall Family Foundation, R.C. Kemper Charitable Trust, Dianne Shumaker and the Sosland Family.

Both KCUR and Classical KC operate out of the same space at 4825 Troost in Kansas City, in a building owned by the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

While both stations’ licenses are held by the University of Missouri Board of Curators and assigned to UMKC, Classical KC is a standalone entity separate from KCUR — although some back office functions are being shared.

“This matches three things,” Morris said of Classical KC. “Kansas City and its love and support of the arts; our mission to serve this community; and our strategy to build a really strong, sustainable organization.”

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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