Reinventing a Classic

Photo by Jason E. Kaplan
All Classical Radio president and CEO Suzanne Nance.

All Classical Radio leaves the Portland name behind while committing to a new downtown space.

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During a recent visit to the soon-to-be-former studio for All Classical Radio, it was hard to see why anyone would want to leave.

The station overlooked a sweeping view of the east bank of the Willamette River. Bikes and boats passed under the shadow of the Tilikum Crossing Bridge, as Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” played in the background when Oregon Business visited the studio recently. But after its lease expires next year, the station will be moving across the river from its space in Southeast Portland’s Hampton Opera Center to a bigger space on the third floor of downtown Portland’s iconic KOIN tower, whose brown ziggurat shape is one of the more recognizable marks on the city’s skyline.

Since the station’s beginnings — it was  initially broadcast out of Benson Polytechnic High School in 1983 — All Classical has become a heavy hitter in the world of classical music.

This summer, the station announced a rebrand, dropping the name All Classical Portland in favor of All Classical Radio. But it’s staying in Portland, and president and CEO Suzanne Nance is optimistic about where the station and the city are headed.

“After 40 years, we have really enjoyed the inspiration of Portland. It’s in our DNA. It’s in everything we do. We want to be that window from Portland to the world and the world to Portland,” says Nance, a classically trained soprano whose resumé includes roles in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte with Chicago’s Intimate Opera Company and in an Italian Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. She’s also worked in classical radio for more than a decade, and took the helm of All Classical in 2018.

The station, which serves approximately 250,000 regular listeners through the radio, and about 400,000 monthly visitors through its website, now has listeners across the United States and in over 100 countries worldwide.

While 87% of the station’s FM listenership is still in the Portland metro area, All Classical Radio’s Nielsen non-commercial classical music market share has gone from approximately 2% in 2019 to 5.4% in August of 2023 – making it the largest share of any classical public radio station in the country. Online listenership is also on the rise. According to All Classical’s internal data, the station’s streaming player visits increased 7.5% year over year from 2022 to 2023. Three-quarters of online listenership (now 10% of the station’s total listeners) resides outside of the Portland Metro area.

The increase in listenership has brought with it an uptick in donations — and other kinds of revenue. All Classical’s sustaining donor revenue has increased roughly 5% annually for the past three years, accounting for approximately a quarter of the station’s annual revenue. Foundation grants revenue also grown 10% since 2022.

Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

“The ‘Radio’ piece was important to us because we need people to know when they saw All Classical Radio across the state number, one that it represented everyone across Oregon, not just Portland, and all of our listeners in southwest Washington. And now with our global reach, it was important to say: ‘at the heart of what we do is radio,” says Nance. “Radio is a human-centered business. No algorithm is going to share a hearty laugh with you over something that’s happening outside in our city, or be able to say, “I chose ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ for you today.” Right? We wanted to reclaim that title and say we are radio.”

Nance was recruited to a career in radio while working at the Opera Philadelphia in 2001, and started at what was then All Classical Portland in 2015 as a program director and on-air host. In 2017, following the retirement of former president Jack Allen, Nance became the station’s interim CEO. (Allen, who oversaw the radio station’s move to the Hampton Opera Center in 2014, said he left “to pursue other projects” but the announcement came amid allegations of  $284,000 budget shortfall, payroll advances in potential violation of state law, and creating an alleged “culture of fear.” At the time OPB reported that the Oregon Department of Justice had been notified and was investigating the matter. The DOJ did not respond to OB’s request for an update on the case.)

In 2018, Nance’s appointment as CEO was made permanent. Joan Kingsley, board member since 2017 and chair from 2019 to 2021, says Nance’s experience as an acclaimed opera singer leader in the arts and culture community provided All Classical with invaluable insight.

“It was an easy, and demonstrably wise decision, to transition her to the CEO role,” she tells OB via email. “With ambition – and vision – Suzanne has formed deep roots in our local community: her dedication to our city’s cultural resurgence mirrors her commitment to All Classical Radio’s mission.”

Nance says she was unsure about relocating at first, not wanting to add an office move on top of the station’s 40th anniversary rebranding effort. But, she says, the opportunity was too good to pass up.

The move will add 3,000 more square feet for the same rent the company is currently paying. It makes the station more centrally located, and welcoming to local and visiting artists. It will also give the station room to grow.

All Classical’s new space previously housed the KOIN Center Cinema, which closed in 2004 after 19 years of operation. The space’s previous tenant, Skanska USA Building, vacated the space in April of 2020. The new theater space will get a facelift, creating a new performance space and recording studio, allowing local and visiting artists a proper place to record and give live performances without staff having to move furniture, as they do now.

“Right now, we do have a performance space, but it’s in the middle of our operations [so we have to] shut down sales and marketing every Thursday when we have a live performance,” says Nance.

Suzanne Nance photographedin the station’s CD library. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Despite the new name, All Classical Radio does more than just produce radio. In addition to featuring live performances, the station produces a nationally-syndicated program, “The Score,” which plays classic and modern movie scores. The station also produces podcasts, including “Where We Live,” a monthly feature that highlights organizations and individuals providing programs in art, theater or music that explore the intersection of art and social issues.

The station also engages in charity work, and conducts outreach initiatives to improve access to the arts. In 2019, All Classical Radio began an artist in residence program, and in 2022, expanded its youth residencies to include youth artist ambassadors to provide educational programming.

The new space will allow more production capacity with a new, state-of-the-art production studio, which Nance says will help to document the work of local composers and performers. The upgrades will also open new revenue streams for All Classical. “From the revenue side, this new space will allow us to rent it out to commercial entities that can help fund our mission,” says Nance. 

The move comes with a $10 million price tag, more than twice the station’s annual operating budget, of which All Classical had raised 40% by October. (The station has since announced a $750,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The money will allow All Classical to move, as well raise the floors in the on-air studios and performance space to improve acoustics and soundproofing, procure and install upgraded engineering equipment, as well as fund the construction of the new performance space, recording studio, and the audio control room. The new space is expected to open in July 2024.

The improvements, designed with the help of an acoustician — an expert in the physics of sound — are meant to create naturally live-sounding space that will be a comfortable and desirable experience for musicians and audiences both in person and on the radio. The performance space will also have an LED screen as a unique feature, which will allow All Classical Radio to present multi-media creative performances, screen documentaries and films, and host guests for interview linkups with other broadcasters around the world.

“One of the things we recognized during the pandemic, and that was important to our decision to relocate, and our brand realignment, was the narrative of Portland. We want people to be able to tune in and say, ‘Who is Portland? Where are they as a people?’ says Nance. “We can change the narrative. We’ve got a lot of positive things to celebrate, and we want to lead with those stories. I know this space will allow us to do that.”

“We realize the economic vitality of any city is directly tied to the health and wellness of the arts ecosystem, so we want to play a role in helping to bring back the arts ecosystem after the pandemic, then build for the future to really bring Portland to the place where, maybe it once was, but also where it’s going,” says Nance.