Beethoven's Revenge: Ratings Drop at Classical Music-less WETA

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005

When WETA changed formats in February, dropping classical music to become another all-news-and-talk public radio station, music fans, musicians and cultural organizations pummeled station executives with protests. How could the nation's capital have no public classical station? How would young people be exposed to the music?

"People were angry -- still are -- and I understand that," says Dan DeVany, general manager of the station (90.9 FM) and architect of the switch. "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.

But after two ratings books, two fund drives and nine months of the new programming -- a mix of news and talk shows from National Public Radio, the BBC and other outside sources, much of it oriented to foreign affairs -- WETA's audience is smaller, no more generous than the classical audience was, and no more reflective of the demographics of the Washington area.

By most measures of success, WETA still lags behind its public radio competitor, WAMU (88.5 FM), which airs much of the same programming, including NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," which the two stations simulcast in morning and evening drive time, respectively.

WETA concluded its fall fund drive with $445,000. That's a decline from $479,000 raised in the drive a year ago, when the station still devoted much of its time to the classics.

But DeVany notes that the number of donors was up slightly, from 5,535 to 5,729. And the percentage of new members, an indication of the station's ability to attract a new audience, rose from about 56 percent to 62 percent.

"We are doing almost exactly as we expected," he says.

Still, a look at the Arbitron ratings -- provided by WETA competitors who are only too happy to document the struggles of their new rival -- shows a considerable drop in listening since the format change. Year to year, WETA has lost nearly a third of its share of the total D.C. area audience, and the biggest drops have come during the midday hours, when the station formerly broadcast classical music. During that same time, WETA's news/talk rivals, WAMU and all-news WTOP (1500 AM, 107.7 FM) gained audience, while talker WMAL (630 AM) continued a slow decline.

WTOP Vice President Jim Farley sees this as evidence that WETA's news format has not found a new audience, but DeVany says the numbers show that younger listeners are discovering the station's commitment to serious discussion of world and national events. "We're seeing a greater distribution of age groups," DeVany says, citing ratings showing that the portion of WETA's audience in the 65-74 age bracket has dropped from 16 percent to 11 percent in the past year, while those in the 25-34 age range bumped up from 10 percent to 13 percent.

Despite WETA's addition of two NPR programs aimed at black listeners -- "The Tavis Smiley Show," which is heard in this market only on WETA, and Ed Gordon's "News & Notes" -- the share of the station's audience that is black has slipped slightly, from 5 percent last summer to 4 percent this summer. "It's going to take a while before we have the ethnic mix we'd like to see," DeVany says.

WETA executives argue that they had little choice but to switch formats. The classical audience was aging, and survey numbers indicated that many listeners who tuned in to NPR's "Morning Edition" then changed the station to another news or talk outlet during the middle of the day, rather than sticking with WETA for music.

"They were telling us something I couldn't deny," says DeVany, for many years one of WETA's most knowledgeable classical music hosts. "I could dig deep into my classical music soul and say, 'Who cares what the numbers show?' but that would be denying the truth. The multicultural-global view had great potential for public service, and I made a very difficult decision that certainly alienated a lot of people."

WETA's new midday and evening talk lineup is heavy on BBC programs that emphasize foreign stories generally ignored by the U.S. broadcast media. The station hopes those programs will attract Washington's large immigrant population. WETA is also trying to distinguish itself from its public radio competition by devoting two hours on Sunday evenings to documentaries.

But the format change meant eliminating almost all of WETA's locally produced programming. One of the few holdovers from the old format, Mary Cliff's popular "Traditions" show of folk and acoustic music, retains its Saturday night slot. And next spring, the station intends to replace some BBC programs with its first local talk show, a one-hour weekday magazine.

DeVany, who has been at the station since 1986, says WETA is still evolving. But even in the coming era of digital radio, when stations will add extra streams of programming that listeners will receive on a new generation of broadcast radios, WETA will not go back to classical music. The station is seeking a new home, probably a college, for its library of more than 27,000 classical CDs.

DeVany says he wouldn't have dropped music if the area didn't also have a commercial classical station, WGMS (103.5 FM), and indeed that station's ratings have benefited from WETA's switch. But in WGMS's pops approach, the music is intended largely as background, an accompaniment to work or commuting, not as the active, serious listening that public radio was created to provide.

"Are we abandoning a generation from being exposed to classical music?" DeVany asks. "There's a danger of that across all media. It's still up to the parents."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company