WPFW-FM will undergo radical change to a more mainstream lineup of programming

November 30, 2012

For more than three decades, noncommercial station WPFW-FM in Washington has been a feisty voice of sometimes radical leftist politics — relentlessly anti-war, anti-corporate and anti-Republican.

Next week, the station will undergo its own radical change, as it moves from an eclectic lineup of homegrown talk shows and musical programs to more mainstream syndicated programming in a bid to win back listeners and their pledge dollars.

“We have to stop the hemorrhaging,” said Tony Norman, chairman of the community board that oversees the station. “We’re losing money and audience. We have to make these changes.”

Among other changes, the station (heard at 89.3 FM) will move its weekday jazz programs from daytime hours — the most popular in radio — and add nationally syndicated news-talk shows in their place.

The jazz and other music programs that gave the station its singular identity and slogan — “Jazz and Justice” — will move to nights or weekends, typically the lowest-rated periods in radio.

The goal, Norman said, is to attract more listeners, particularly younger ones. The average age of WPFW’s listeners is over 55, and there are fewer of them every year. Among all area stations, WPFW ranked 28th in the most recent radio ratings.

The reshuffled programming lineup hasn’t gone over well with some volunteer community programmers, several of whom will lose their on-air roles. They have voiced their concerns both on the air and to General Manager John Hughes, with several blasting the programming makeover as “a corporate takeover,” according to people at the station.

The station has received complaints from listeners, as well, and is considering making minor changes to its announced plan, a WPFW spokesman said.

The acrimony is not unusual at WPFW, which has operated as a kind of community trust since its founding in 1977. It has gone through periodic episodes of management turmoil and financial difficulty.

But its current money troubles may be the most serious, according to Norman, who said the station is facing its third straight deficit, this time $150,000 to $200,000, on annual revenue of about $1.6 million. Its paid staff of 15 has been working on reduced salaries, although none will be laid off as the program changes are implemented, he said.

In remarks on the air Friday, Hughes said, “any format change presents a potential powder keg. However, this station, your station, is really under economic counterforces that require this management to take necessary steps to save our station.”

The current lineup, Hughes said, has resulted in “dwindling audiences.”

WPFW’s troubles are playing out against the backdrop of similar issues at its parent organization, the Pacifica Foundation, which operates five radio stations across the United States. The Berkeley, Calif.-based organization, founded by conscientious objectors in 1949, has been beset by management turnover, layoffs and infighting on its board.

According to its most recent audit, Pacifica has lost $5.7 million over the past four years, raising its auditors’ concerns about its ability to survive without substantial restructuring.

WPFW’s new shows will include “Tell Me More” from NPR, and Public Radio International’s “The Tavis Smiley Show,” “The Takeaway” and “Smiley and West” (co-hosted by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West). “Tell Me More” is already broadcast on another local public station, WAMU-FM (88.5).

The daytime schedule will be filled out with another talk program syndicated by Pacifica, “Letters and Politics.” “Democracy Now!,” a morning program syndicated by Pacifica, will continue on the air.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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