Thursday, December 28, 2006

Collateral Classical Damage

According to, the sad saga of the fate of classical music on Washington DC's airwaves continues. Like Japanese movie monsters, the key players battle for position, oblivious to the havoc they wreak. As you may recall, Dan Snyder put forward the offer to buy Bonneville's commercial classical station WGMS and convert it to a sports talk format.

Now Snyder's put the brakes on the sale, claiming the frequencies WGMS operated at aren't worth the original pricetag of $45 million (plus a Clear Channel station may now be available). While the broadcast industry focuses on the Bonneville/Snyder clash of titans, let's take a look at what irresponsible behavior hath wrought.

  1. Bonneville switched frequencies between their commercial radio stations WGMS and WTOP, to create. Washington Post radio. The top-ranked commercial classical station in the country (and at one time 6th ranked in the DC Metro market) lost signal power and coverage area. Result: a significant portion of the 400,000+ loyal WGMS listeners either got a poorersignal or none at all.
  2. After more than three decades, public radio station WETA switched from classical to news/talk in a vain attempt to pump up revenues. Result: listeners who supported the station with pledges felt betrayed. WETA's ratings fall, as do revenues.
  3. Snyder offered to buy WGMS. Result: Bonneville began laying off staff. Advertising commitments fell into limbo. WGMS' subscription-only Internet radio station Viva La Voce prepared to suspend service.
  4. WETA's board gave the station permission to switch to classical – if there's no other outlet for it. Result: nothing, for now. WETA's former audience remained unserved.
While executives postured and jockeyed for position, people lost their jobs, and two formerly robust radio stations continued to suffer. WETA's experienced significant audience and revenue decline, and WGMS' fate was much worse. I don't expect WGMS to survive regardless of what happens next. If the station's sold, the format will flip and WGMS is gone. If not, the loss of staff and revenue may prove a fatal blow and the station will either go dark or go to a low-maintanence automated system – but no more classical music. A sorry end to a station that generated about $9.7 million in revenue just last year –- before these captains of industry started wheeling and dealing.

- Ralph

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