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WETA, Facing the Music (or Lack Thereof)

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page N10

If you're looking to blame someone for the demise of classical music on WETA and other public radio stations around the country, here are some bogeymen: former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich and his 1994 Contract With America team; David Giovannoni, the father of public radio's descent into market-research-driven programming decisions; and the producers of National Public Radio's news programs.

WETA (90.9 FM), whose board voted Thursday night to drop almost all its classical-music programming, is only the latest of many public stations that have dropped the classics, jazz and a slew of other local and less popular forms of programming. That trend has accelerated in recent years, as stations switch to an all-news and talk format because managers believe news-talk listeners are more likely to give money.

The Gingrich-inspired effort to zero out federal funding for public broadcasting during the first Clinton administration scared public radio executives to the bone, and even though listeners rose up to protect the stations they loved and the threatened cuts were largely averted, public radio nonetheless became a far more market-oriented endeavor.

Giovannoni, who for the past decade has been the most influential figure in public radio management, sold stations on the idea that "our network programming serves our local listeners better than our local programming does," a belief that led directly to replacing local music shows with national news and talk shows. "When we define 'local' by the place our programming originates, we're pretty much missing the point," the consultant once argued in an interview.

His research provided station executives with the foundation they needed to justify jettisoning public radio's original rationale -- to serve minority interests and communities that are ignored by the big commercial media.

"Giovannoni single-handedly destroyed the soul of public radio," argues Larry Josephson, a pioneer of non-commercial radio's 1960s free-form era, when program hosts could and did play and say whatever they wished. "If you do what he wants, you will get grants and corporate underwriting. He's a charming snake-oil salesman who has produced formats every bit as rigid as anything Clear Channel produces."

Starting in the mid-1990s, Giovannoni held workshops at which he presented research showing a greater return for stations that had a "consistency of appeal" -- in other words, stations that were all-news and talk, rather than the mix of news and music that WETA featured. In response, public stations nationwide started dropping music. In Washington, WETA canned its morning drive-time music program to air the same "Morning Edition" show that rival WAMU (88.5 FM) had on its air.

Listeners complained about the duplication, but both stations argued that their finances were better off with the news show.

NPR responded to the success of "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" -- measured both by soaring numbers of listeners and by donations to stations -- by expanding its programming throughout the day, adding shows such as "Day to Day," a midday news magazine that is not heard in Washington, and "Talk of the Nation," a call-in program. NPR News programming has a strong and growing audience that handily outstrips the classical-music audience.

In the end, managers had to choose between the commercial model of going for the biggest possible audience and public radio's original aim, to serve audiences that would never be large. The decision is becoming increasingly clear.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company