By Todd Cohen
WAKE FOREST, N.C. — As it turns 25, WCPE is sticking with the strategy that has fueled its survival and attracted 120,000 Triangle listeners a week, plus 18,000 to 20,000 more throughout the U.S.
The key has been to broadcast classical music around the clock and rely on listeners for financial support.
“We never give up,” says Deborah Proctor, general manager.
The brainchild of Proctor and some friends at N.C. State University in 1973, WCPE first broadcast on July 18, 1978, from a house on Wake Forest Road in Raleigh.
While the station initially aired “easy-listening” music during the day and classical music at night, Proctor found during early on-air fund drives that classical fans contributed most of the money.
So a year after its launch, WCPE embraced an all-classical format, along with BBC news updates.
WCPE, one of the first stations the U.S. to air BBC news, recently lost that service, although the station still is the Triangle’s only station to broadcast live Saturday afternoon performances of the Metropolitan Opera from New York.
The annual budget for the station, which employs 20 people and depends on a core group of 50 volunteers, has grown to $1.35 million from $17,800 its first year.
And since receiving its first gift, a $25 check from a solider at Fort Bragg, the station has built a base of 12,000 active donors, each giving $95 a year on average.
On-air drives in the spring and fall each raise about one-third of the station’s budget, with mail appeals and corporate matching funds providing the rest.
Proctor, a former engineer at WRAL-TV who built the station’s first control board and transmitter, concedes the economic slump has the FM station “squeaking by” financially.
“We’ve had to count our pennies,” she says.
WCPE – its call letters were randomly assigned by the Federal Communications Commission, although the station claims composer Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach as its “namesake” – has increased its power to 100,000 watts from 12,500 watts initially, and moved to quarters near Wake Forest.
And the station, which also broadcasts by satellite, cable and the Internet, and is aired on 500 public radio and cable TV stations, has no plans to change how it operates.
“The primary thing for us,” says Proctor, “is to play the great classical music that the listener wants to hear.”