Sunday, December 17, 2006

Spin Hard! Harder!

Well this is an interesting turn of events. With the eminent demise of classical music of Washington, DC commercial station WGMS, speculation about public radio station WETA’s return to the format has been rampant. While logical, in conversations with others I maintained that the switch was unlikely.

IMHO, WETA abandoned classical in a grab for the bigger pledge bucks of public radio news/talk listeners. They cloaked it in other terms, but that’s the heart of it. To return to classical after so shortly (and with so much fanfare) switching would be an admission that the leading luminaries at WETA had made a huge mistake.

My mistake was under-estimating the art of the spin -- especially in the nation’s capital. In Febuary of 2005 the station flipped formats. According to an article in Currents,
This was principally and primarily a public service issue,”[emphasis mine] said Dan DeVany, v.p. and g.m. for WETA-FM… Classical music has become more widely available in the meantime, DeVany pointed out, with the advent of satellite and Internet radio.
The board overwhelmingly approved the switch after a public comment session, when listeners and representatives from Washington-area arts organizations begged them to preserve the city’s free, noncommercial source of classical music.
Fast forward to December, 2005. Listenership is off, the fall fund drive underperforms, and in a Washington Post article, we read this:
"People were angry -- still are -- and I understand that," says Dan DeVany... "But there was an audience in the Washington area that was not being served by public radio, and we wanted to reach out to them." He's talking about breaking out of the traditional public radio audience of affluent, highly educated, older and white listeners.
Here’s how they did it. WETA reached out to non-affluent, less-educated, younger and non-white listeners with a mix of “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” other NPR news/talk shows, and BBC World Service.

And now the board that killed classical in the first place hastily meets to authorize WETA’s return to the format. If, that is, there’s no other source for classical music in Washington. So if the format is shoved off onto, say the AM station that Red Zebra owns, then WETA is off the hook.

As the Washington Post reported:
"This is a good classical music market," DeVany said. "WGMS has done very well with it. But there's something to be said for a non-commercial station carrying it."
So in nine months we’ve gone from dropping classical to better serve the public to maintaining nobody can do classical like public radio. Nicely done.

Classical programming may return to WETA –- but I repeat my caution from my previous post on the subject. Listeners of non-commercial radio need to remain active and vocal in their support (and that can include serving on a station’s board). The next format change is only a spin away.

- Ralph

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