Forte at Forty

Thriving under Jack Allen's leadership, KMFA endures as Classically Austin radio

Announcer Rich Upton on the air
Announcer Rich Upton on the air (Photo By Will Van Overbeek)

"How do you take the music of a lot of dead, European white guys and make it local, cool, and Austin-y – with a 'blue-jeans' instead of a 'tuxedo' attitude?"

Jack Allen, general manager and program director of KMFA-FM, is sharing one of the motivating challenges he's embraced in redefining Austin's classical-music station. In his role as "listeners' advocate," Allen has taken pains to tune in to what the station's audience wants – and deliver it. "KMFA is valued as a place of solace and comfort and edification," notes Allen. In an era of making stations around the globe available to anyone with a computer, Allen believes passionately that KMFA must earn its listeners – and their support for the local public-radio station – through exceptional quality and a distinctive Austin flavor. As he puts it, "In today's media environment, consumers have many choices. If they choose you, you'd better deliver what they want."

Marking its 40th birthday this year, KMFA has much to celebrate, including a host of fresh improvements spurred by Allen's energico leadership. Since Allen came to Austin four years ago from Minnesota Public Radio, one of the most respected stations in the country, KMFA has been on the upswing – with the station's listeners and membership, financial health, and program quality all rising up, up, and up. Formerly a bastion of tradition, the station now is embracing new technologies like global Web streaming, HD radio, a feature-rich website, iPod playlists, a MySpace page, and announcer blogs to bring the centuries-old classical repertoire to fresh and younger audiences. And for the first time ever, the station secured a prestigious Community Service Grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which began this year. KMFA is one of 11 new recipients nationally that persevere in providing a valuable community resource: commercial-free, listener-supported public radio, and it's the only classical station in the group.

In fact, CPB and staff research show KMFA to be one of just six truly commercial-free stations left in the U.S. with an absolutely pure format: all classical, all the time. Austin public-radio listeners tend to take the über-availability of such a constant companion for granted; many think of KMFA as a kind of quieter, plainer sister to KUT. But the CPB recognition reminds us how lucky Austin really is to have such a first-rate cultural resource locally. That such a radio rarity has survived and thrived in our live-music town gives evidence, says Allen, that "Austin is culturally vibrant and growing."

Allen Allegro

But like many of us midlife, KMFA had hit a bad patch of the doldrums. Around 2000, the organization was drifting along in a minor chord, lacking in vision, new energy, and strong leadership. While the problems weren't obvious to the casual listener, KMFA was suffering from malaise. Membership had plateaued then begun to decline; the station saw no financial growth. Nor was there much innovation in programming or services to members. The staff was stuck in status-quo mode, impeded by internal dissonance. The board talked of little except an unfruitful dream of a new building; meanwhile, inattentive management and bad legal counsel led to some big problems and costly mistakes, including an egregious omission discovered in the Federal Communications Commission license-renewal process, which triggered an $11,000 fine.

Realizing the need for fresh blood, the general manager and board conducted a national search in 2003 and hired Jack Allen as program director, impressed by his accomplishments and major-market public-radio experience. Allen had spent eight years at Minnesota Public Radio, a regional radio network based in St. Paul, where he topped out as director of radio for news and music. Stewart Vanderwilt, director and general manager at KUT, says Minnesota Public Radio is nationally known as an "incredibly successful, very entrepreneurial public-service broadcaster. They set an example for public radio of the highest possible expectations and standards for all endeavors: creative, technical, editorial, fundraising, and management, as well as serving the community."

It was those MPR values and high standards that Allen brought to KMFA. Not only does he understand the business and management side of public radio, Allen has an excellent command of the classical-music repertoire. He's also a seasoned announcer, having served as a national music host and manager for MPR's syndicated radio service, Classical 24. (Classical-music public radio with live hosts, Classical 24 now provides KMFA's overnight broadcasting, 10pm-6am.) Over the past four years, Allen gradually has overhauled nearly every aspect of the organization while harkening to a central leitmotif: "Consistent, cohesive, and appealing." The board makeup and leadership have strengthened; the board created a solid business plan and established strategic priorities "for the first time ever," according to Allen. "He runs quite a transparent show; he's very inclusive," notes board member Jane Stott approvingly.

Allen's rising star led to the departures of some longtimers who didn't share Allen's core belief in serving listeners or his passion for continuous improvement. While some departures were acrimonious, staff members like Joan Kobayashi, development and marketing director, were excited to stay on and welcomed the fresh approach. A new business manager, Brooke Dorrien, came on in 2004. Rich Upton, Dianne Donovan, and Jeffrey Blair became the station's prime-time weekday hosts; to help them stay fresh, Allen shortened each air shift from six hours to four and encouraged them to infuse local flavor into their on-air commentary.

Allen extended the changes to Austin arts organizations, which had long relied on KMFA to air free public-service announcements for their upcoming events. As Allen saw it, KMFA had been giving away too much for too long, without asking for much in return, so he instituted a new program of key cultural partners: A select group of symbiotic nonprofits that commit to spending advertising dollars with KMFA as a media partner; in return, they receive a premium package of discounted on-air spots and other benefits. The key cultural partners include the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Austin, Austin Lyric Opera, the Austin Civic Orchestra, Conspirare, the Texas Choral Consort, and the Austin Chamber Music Center.

Peter Bay, music director and conductor of the Austin Symphony, accepts the change without reservation. "We complement each other very well. That complement is necessary for our mutual survival, in terms of growing and sustaining the life of classical music in Austin." Barry Scott Williamson, departing artistic director and conductor for the Texas Choral Consort, admits that the change in leadership and partnering expectations at the station was initially tough to weather. "But now everyone over there has become real allies. I really respect what they had to do. Someone has to make the tough decisions."

Notes Vanderwilt, who like Allen came in from out of town to assume leadership at KUT and initiate a top-to-bottom shake-up of the status quo: "Self-examination is painful, being examined is painful, and change causes a certain amount of anxiety and discomfort. People don't naturally embrace disruption. So even in serving what you believe is the best long-term interest of the station, it's going to take time. You have to have a certain amount of stamina and long-term commitment and accept that some people will never embrace your ideas."

A Paradigm Shift

By all accounts, Allen has been a successful change manager at KMFA.

Forte at Forty

"He's held the organization to higher standards, and it's responded in a positive way," says board member Yvonne Tocquigny about Allen. "Jack has a real passion, what I'd call an entrepreneurial passion, for public radio and for classical music. People want to work with and for somebody who has that kind of passion and who they can learn from. He's raised the bar at KMFA far above where we ever envisioned it, and that wasn't an easy thing to do. He worked very hard to understand each board member, and he worked very hard to build consensus, with the staff and with the board. It wasn't just imposing his ideas. He was eliciting what our dreams were for the station and making them come true." Indeed, Allen is careful to characterize KMFA's progress as an orchestral, not a solo, performance. Rebranding the station was one major project on which Allen and Tocquigny collaborated, starting in 2004. As a prelude, the board re-examined and articulated KMFA's mission, vision, and core values. This involved a crucial paradigm shift – repositioning KMFA (starting with its self-image) from a nonprofit arts organization to a dynamic media organization. Once a clear, fresh identity was established, Tocquigny's creative firm developed pro bono a fresh logo and graphic identity for KMFA, with the tagline "Classically Austin 89.5." A fun series of T-shirts (given as membership gifts) links the station's music with Austin: Migas & Mozart, Bats & Brahms, Cowboys & Copland, Salamanders & Shostakovich. "It takes away the intimidating quality of classical music," notes Tocquigny, who donated the services of her firm.

While the very notion of "rebranding" might grate the nerves of a classical purist, Allen saw it as a great way for KMFA to increase its audience. Nationally, just 6% of radio listeners choose classical music. Only a tiny percentage of those have true expertise in the classical repertoire – mostly academics and what Allen calls "a very vocal and influential cultural elite." While Allen cares deeply about the good opinion of KMFA's most discerning listeners, his primary push is to make the station more accessible and appealing. According to Arbitron ratings, up to 100,000 Austinites a week punch up Classically Austin 89.5. About half of them are between 25 and 54; the median age of KMFA listeners is 48, while nationally it's about 60 for similar stations. The station would like to push its listener demographic even younger, but Allen says he's not willing to exclusively serve up the musical mix known to work: "Play bright, crispy iceberg lettuce all the time." Nor will the station deviate from classical music. He's also determined that KMFA won't pander to a "greatest hits" mentality, like most commercial classical radio stations nationwide: "I hate to see the deep, rich, broad classical-music tradition boiled down to Pachelbel's Canon and Vivaldi's Four Seasons."

Weaving the Tapestry of Sound

After Allen was promoted to general manager, he created the first music director position in the history of the station. "That was a huge step forward in managing the playlist better and in weaving the tapestry of sound, all day every day," he explains. Together, he and music director Sara Hessel focused on "day-parting," the practice of crafting radio programming to match distinct audiences for each part of the broadcast day (morning, midday, afternoon, evening, and overnight). "We're day-parted more effectively now; we think more carefully about how people are using KMFA and what they might want to hear," said Allen. "We want upbeat energy in the morning – fun, accessible, robust pieces. Then while people are driving at lunch, we play shorter, brighter pieces. In the evening from 6 to 8, we do Banquet Music that can nicely accompany dinner, meal preparation, relaxing with a glass of wine."

Explains Hessel, "Jack and I are a two-person programming team. We craft the sound of the station together." Hessel, who has a master's degree in historical musicology from the University of Amsterdam, crafts in advance a minute-to-minute playlist for each day's music: "I use my knowledge of repertoire, music history, instrumentation, and performances to enhance what our listeners are doing at any given moment during the day." Hessel hosts the Banquet Music slot and hosts and produces the weekend program Ancient Voices.

The station produces a number of original programs, which it airs on weekends. (But they can be heard any time, as they're archived for Internet listening at They include: Classical Austin, showcasing the symphony and other local ensembles; 2007 Gracie Award winner Into the Light, which features female composers; Knowing the Score, winner of an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Broadcast Award; Classical Guitar Alive, which was recently picked up by WorldSpace Satellite Radio with a global reach throughout the Eastern Hemisphere; and the crossover program Film Score Focus, featuring thematic programs of contemporary compositions for films, hosted by blogging local composer Brian Satterwhite.

Allen, who serves as KMFA's on-air host from 8 to 10am on weekend mornings, hears from plenty of listeners during his airtime, by phone and by e-mail – folks adamantly requesting more – or no – opera or harpsichord. "I love angry calls, because it means someone is passionate and invested!" Allen says with a smile.

A High-Definition Future

Now in a good groove, KMFA enjoys a collegial relationship with other Austin nonprofits and KUT. "We're invested in them being as successful and viable as possible, because it keeps people coming to the noncommercial side of the radio dial," said Vanderwilt. "There's a healthy creative competition for listeners' time and attention, and that ends up raising both of our boats. They drive us to become better, and we do the same for them."

In the spirit of continuous improvement, Allen readily ticks off a number of goals for the next movement of Classically Austin radio: adding staff to serve the community more effectively, seeing KMFA produce its own overnight programming ("It will be thrilling when we can become live and local all the time"), buying the building that houses the station ("With so many other fires now put out, we could look at this now"), and upgrading to a high-definition signal, to give listeners with HD radios crisper, CD-like sound. That last is planned for 2008 and would also give KMFA a second HD channel, available for novel and educational programming; Allen is excited about having "a sandbox to play in and experiment."

To fund all of these improvements, KMFA must expand not only its listeners, but also its corporate and supporting members. In a positive trend, memberships have increased 23% since Allen was hired – 10% in 2006 alone. But there's definitely room for growth, as just 6% of the station's 100,000 listeners (about 5,600 people) support it. (For those feeling guilty, memberships are a click away at The station keeps raising the bar for its on-air fund drives, which listener-loving Allen has dubbed "the Great Conversation"; the 2007 spring drive surpassed its goal of $250,000, which was $25,000 higher than ever before. It also added a new, successful $40,000 fund drive on the occasion of its 40th birthday. Thanks to Internet streaming, KMFA is gaining appreciative members from around the globe, drawn to the cachet of a classical-music station from the live music capital of the world.

Thinking globally, broadcasting locally. After four long decades of subsistence struggles, it's a vivace start to the next 40 years. end story

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