The term “classical music radio” suggests revered, decades-old recordings of music by familiar, long-dead composers. You wouldn’t expect to associate it with 21st century music, Oregon performers and composers, young audiences, or, really, innovation. But while Portland’s All Classical radio’s airwaves and internet streams still abound with recordings of Old Masters, and likely always will, the station has lately been going way beyond its increasingly inaccurate name.
And now, as its 40th anniversary approaches, the “independent, community-funded radio station and multimedia platform” (to use its own description) is moving even farther afield — literally. It’s crossing the Rubicon, or at least the Willamette, relocating its operations from the Portland Opera building on the east bank to an office tower in the heart of downtown Portland, and creating new, state-of-the-art production studios for broadcast, video, recordings, and live performances of music and theater by Oregon artists. Construction is underway, with the move-in expected in early 2024.
It’s a significant development for a vital Oregon arts institution. But the move also signals an even greater transformation, from backward-looking, Eurocentric preservationist radio to forward-focused, Oregon-spirited, wide-spectrum multimedia cultural generator.
“We’ve been moving from being strictly a classical station to a full fledged arts and culture network,” says the station’s energetic and enterprising president and CEO, Suzanne Nance. “It’s always been a part of our DNA, but now we’re leaning into it.”
Nance also sees it as a much-needed investment in still-reeling downtown Portland’s arts community and economy. The station’s announcement promises the move will “lead urban rejuvenation of downtown Portland through music and the arts.”
For its first three decades, beginning in 1983, what was originally called KBPS and later KQAC served up recordings of music by classical composers and occasional performances from local artists from a small studio space at Northeast Portland’s Benson High School. (Read more about the station’s history here.)
In 2013, the station moved “from the bunker-like building it’s leased for two decades from Portland Public Schools to the second floor of the Hampton Opera Center,” as I wrote then. (Read our coverage here.) That $2 million relocation to the banks of the Willamette, adjacent to Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and along the Eastbank Esplanade hike and bike trail (and later the Tilikum Crossing bridge) gave the station far more visibility, accessibility and space for expanded operations, including a small studio for live performances. Its growth accelerated, and its community presence and ambition and broadened after the accession of Nance to the president and CEO position, and now includes:
- A weekly live music show featuring Oregon musicians.
- Weekly shows featuring contemporary music, film scores, recordings of recent Oregon performances, young musicians.
- A second channel devoted exclusively to programming for children, families, caregivers, and educators.
- Artist in Residence and Youth Ambassador programs, and an arts journalism mentorship
- An upcoming anthology of profiles of 40 Oregon artists
- An initiative to “change America’s playlist by producing new high-quality recordings of classical music by underrepresented composers,” including an excellent locally produced CD. (Read our coverage.)
This year’s budget tops $4 million and supports a 30-member staff. The station’s over-the-air signal reaches a quarter-million local listeners each year, and its web stream counts more than a million listeners worldwide. It’s ranked by those who evaluate such things as one of the nation’s top three classical radio stations. “Most classical radio stations pull a 2.0 or maybe a 3.0 market share,” Nance told ArtsWatch last week. “Our ratings are 6.5 market share, the highest in the nation.”
But the station’s programs continued to expand, while the space available remained constant. The studio that hosts the Thursdays@3 live performance show holds only a few dozen viewers. The aging broadcast and recording equipment couldn’t meet the needs of the station’s ambitious plans. With All Classical’s lease expiring, Nance decided to explore other opportunities.
One of those turned out to be 15,000 square feet (3,000 more than the current station HQ) in the disused KOIN Center Cinema space, which closed in 2004, on the third floor of downtown Portland’s KOIN Tower. The 35-story building, which faces Keller Auditorium, also houses studios and production facilities of KOIN and KRCW — and the equipment for broadcasting radio signals.
The timing was exquisite. Downtown Portland’s well-documented downturn and consequent soft commercial real estate market made the space a lot more affordable than it would have been pre-pandemic — and might be again soon. “If we wait three or four years,” Nance says, “we’d be priced out.”
According to real estate investment advisors Kidder Mathews’ first quarter 2023 report, across the metro area, “leasing activity dropped 43% year over year to 700,000 square feet, and total availability reached its highest point at 17.1 million square feet… Downtown Portland has been the hardest hit with vacancy at 19.3% as tenants continue to leave the urban core. Still climbing out of the negative impacts of the pandemic, coupled with new uncertainty after the initial shock of multiple bank failures in Q1, the Portland office market is expected to experience slow market activity in the near term.” Rental rates plunged accordingly, providing an opportunity for both All Classical and downtown.
KOIN Tower’s landlord has offered a “significant financial investment to help All Classical build out the space, alongside generous donations from community members and businesses such as Oregon Lumber Company,” the station’s announcement states. Though it’s already raised half of the $6 million needed to defray the costs of building and equipping its new home, the nonprofit station is still seeking donations to cover the rest. Volunteers will be welcome to help with the move; no word yet on whether a symbolic mic drop will conclude the transition, which the station expects to involve no interruptions in service.
Showcasing Oregon Artists
Along with upgrading the broadcast and recording facilities, the transformation’s crown jewel is a 100-person capacity performance venue (45 percent larger than its current performance studio) with a state-of-the-art recording studio “to document and amplify the creatives of our time; expand … the International Children’s Arts Network – and host live performances such as concerts, poetry readings, theatre in the round, community arts discussions, composer symposiums, and more,” the announcement states.
“We hope this space hosts sculptures and other visual arts, dance recitals, theater in the round, and much more,” Nance says, including “a movable stage so the room can be set up for poetry slams, theater — we could do a week-long Shakespeare festival on the radio in our space. We want all artists to feel inspired.”
As the station’s scope and mission swell, its name seems increasingly unrepresentative of its adventurous activities. For a while, it seemed to be going from “All Classical Portland” to “Cool Classical.” Nance’s vision clearly transcends all-classical, and radio, and (given the station’s worldwide reach) even Portland. Maybe when the 50th anniversary rolls around, the name might evolve with it. All Cultural Portland?
Community Rejuvenation through the Arts
The station’s move is part of a larger phenomenon: Arts and cultural organizations appear to be in the vanguard of efforts to revive downtown. All Classical’s announcement comes only days after the grand opening of “The Judy,” Northwest Children’s Theatre & School‘s new home in the 1000 Broadway Building across the street from Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The Portland Art Museum is moving into construction phase on its ambitious Rothko Pavilion addition, which will connect the museum’s current north and south buildings and vastly improve access throughout the museum. Last month, Artists Repertory Theatre began the next phase of construction on its spiffy new arts center on the west side of downtown, which ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughley reported should allow the company to move back into its own space around the same time as All Classical completes its move. And the nearby Multnomah County Central Library is temporarily shut down for a multimillion-dollar renovation.
The arts have always led the way in advancing civilization and culture, and every great city needs a strong arts culture to animate its central core. With All Classical’s move and the rest of the parade of arts-driven investment in Portland’s currently troubled central city, Oregon is seeing arts-led rejuvenation happen in real time, here and now.
“We can change the narrative about downtown Portland,” Nance insists. “It’s not all doom and gloom. This is how we do this, by bringing in artists who are going to come and create there.”