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WETA Board Approves Switch To News-Talk Format

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page C01

WETA-FM listeners who had hoped to prevent the widely anticipated decision by the public broadcasting station's board of directors to drop classical music programs left its Shirlington offices disappointed last night. By an overwhelming majority, the board approved a resolution to focus on news and public-affairs programming.

After the vote, the station immediately annouced the new lineup, with round-the-clock news, analysis and interview programs, that will debut Feb. 28. Only the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera and "Traditions With Mary Cliff," the Saturday night folk music program, will remain for music lovers at 90.9 FM. Currently the station broadcasts 15 hours of classical music on a typical weekday.

"We're in the business of trying to create a larger audience and have more people join our station," said Sharon Percy Rockefeller, WETA's president and CEO, after the vote. Rockefeller and other station leaders said they had anticipated disappointment from music lovers but that a single-format approach without music made sense for the radio station and would help it to better serve its mission and its audience.

A cartoon rabbit and the demise of Western civilization were the main subjects of the public-comment period before the board took its vote on WETA-FM programming. Gay viewers, angry that WETA-TV (Channel 26) declined to broadcast an episode of "Postcards From Buster," in which a popular cartoon figure visited two lesbian couples and their children in Vermont, expressed a sense of betrayal.

And lovers of classical music, including prominent figures from the music community, cast the decision to drop music from WETA radio in broad cultural terms, as an assault on the last quiet, uncommercial realm for art on the airwaves.

Using words such as "dismayed," "abandoned" and "angered," the classical music public outweighed the handful of people who spoke out about the "Buster" decision, who also spoke of feeling dismayed, abandoned and angered. Both groups chastised the board for not taking into account, and respecting, minority cultural constituencies that look to public radio and television for programming and affirmation they can't find elsewhere.

Of the 58 members of the public at the meeting, 25 addressed the board. Usually, only a couple of people attend the meetings, station leaders said.

Board Chairman John W. Hechinger Jr. said the time spent discussing the new radio format didn't allow time for discussion of the refusal to air the "Buster" episode. Rockefeller said WETA felt "absolutely no government pressure" to suppress the episode, which had been criticized as unfit for children by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

WETA-FM management, including new Program Director Maxie C Jackson III, said WETA is still committed to diverse and representative programming and that the new radio format would allow WETA to develop programming for "underserved" communities, including African Americans.

WETA Vice President Dan DeVany said that although the initial lineup would use "a lot of acquired" programming from NPR and the BBC, the station intends to produce its own material, possibly including a cultural program that would give some coverage to the Washington arts scene. Among those hoping that WETA would keep at least some of its classical music programming was Ulrich Bader, director of artistic programming for the National Symphony Orchestra.

Bader brought an e-mail petition signed by more than 740 musicians and music lovers, including composer John Adams and prominent flutist James Galway. Bader was joined by music educators who spoke of the difficulty of introducing children to classical music when it's becoming harder to find top-quality and free radio programming. (The remaining Washington area classical station on the dial, WGMS-FM, airs commercials.) Fans and longtime members of the station argued that all signs in Washington, including the opening of the Strathmore Hall music center in Montgomery County, point to an increased interest in classical music.

In recent years, WETA has moved incrementally toward less music. The addition in 1999 of "Morning Edition," which is also carried on WAMU, beefed up its news programming but sparked protests from music lovers. A WETA spokeswoman said the station temporarily lost members after that decision but ultimately it built listenership.

Nonetheless, in 2004 the station's audience sank to its lowest point since 1991, and is ranked 18th in metropolitan Washington, according to a spokesman.

But for musicians such as William Wielgus, an oboist with the NSO, it's not about numbers, but principle. Rather than give up on music, he argued, the station should make a concerted effort to preserve it and educate new listeners.

"Instead of trying to do less," Wielgus said, "I encourage you to actively try to do more."

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