Thursday, January 17, 2008

WMRA -- Dropping Classical with Class

Long-time readers of this blog may recall my series of posts taking WETA-FM to task, first for dropping classical music, and then bringing it back. It wasn't so much the format change that I objected to, it was the intellectual dishonesty displayed by WETA surrounding the decision.

Despite WETA's high-minded statements about abandoning classical music to reach out to audiences unserved by public radio, kicking the format to the curb was really only about one thing -- chasing after the bigger pledge dollars pubradio news and talk format listeners cough up. WETA's return to classical was partially due to circumstance, and partially due to the fact that both listenership and pledge dollars dropped significantly after the change.

Down our way, public radio station WMRA-FM in Harrisonburg, Virginia changed over from NPR news/classical to primarily news/talk this week. And while the underlying reasons were precisely the same as WETA's, how WMRA presented their decision was very different -- and refreshingly honest.

WMRA also operates WEMC, a sister station just down the road at Eastern Mennonite University. WEMC has a weaker signal and smaller coverage area than WMRA. Basically, the two stations switched formats, with WEMC now running mostly automated classical programming, and WMRA going to news/talk.

On their website, WMRA explains the reason behind their decision. In a question-and-answer section, they lay it all out quite candidly.

We have an opportunity to offer more diversity of programming to most of our listening area, giving people a choice between music and information throughout the day. Almost all of our classical music listeners will still be able to hear music on another station during the midday, whereas most of them could not hear midday information programming.

Not quite the bafflegab proffered by WETA -- especially since WMRA didn't completely eliminate classical music. Check out the answer to the following question (emphasis mine):

What do you hope to gain from these new programs?

Foremost is increased public service, indicated by more people listening to public radio with this additional choice available to them. We are excited by the prospect of better fulfilling our mission by having a larger impact on the civic discourse in the communities we serve. We anticipate, of course, that serving more listeners, and serving them better as they listen longer, will turn into fundraising success so that we can provide even better service. Our long range plans call for increasing our community involvement, more coverage of Virginia news and issues, and expanding Virginia Insight to a daily live program once the resources are in place.
And there it is. WMRA changed the format to increase listenership and pledge dollars. But unlike WETA, they said so.

The other big difference was this: when WETA made the switch, it was consistently one of the top-rated stations in their market. WETA was making money -- it just got greedy and tried to make more money. WMRA had a much tougher row to hoe, as they themselves admit.

The audience for WMRA has not grown over the past 5 or 6 years, despite a rapidly growing population. In the past year and a half, the audience has actually declined significantly, particularly during the middays. On top of that, the average time spent listening has also declined. We have seen the effects of this on our fundraising. The number of members has decreased, and although the average gift has grown, the trend is not a sustainable one. We came up short of our goals in most of our recent on-air fundraisers, and have had to add a third fundraiser in recent years. We had to cancel some programs and reduce staffing two years ago. Because almost half of our operating budget comes from listener contributions, successful fundraising is essential to our being able to provide a quality service.

I applaud WMRA for their integrity. They could have spun it, but instead, station management chose to present the real reasons for the change. The thoughtful nature of their comments indicates to me this was a difficult decision not entered into lightly.

WMRA closes their explanation page by listing all the public radio stations in their listening area that play classical music (even WTJU gets a mention). They even provide program times, so WMRA's former classical listeners can find the music they love elsewhere.

WMRA may no longer play much classical music, but they still have plenty of class.

- Ralph

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