Staticky Reception Flows Both Ways After Relocation of WGMS

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By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 5, 2006

When a Detroit public radio station dumped its weekday music programs and replaced them with national news and talk shows in December, listeners responded by banding together and filing a class-action lawsuit against the station.

The suit, now pending, accused the managers of WDET-FM of fraud, alleging that listeners were tricked into contributing to a station they knew and cherished as a source of the eclectic music known as adult album alternative, or Triple A.

A couple of weeks later, the owner of WGMS, Washington's only classical station, summarily tossed it off its frequency and moved it to a much weaker home along the dial at 104.1 and 103.9 FM. The owner, Bonneville International, decided to give the clearer signal on 103.5 to another of its properties, all-news WTOP. Bonneville made the move because it believed WTOP was at a disadvantage having its main home on AM radio while Washington area listeners have long had a strong preference for the FM band. In addition, news and talk are beginning to elbow out music in media companies' planning for broadcast radio; because of its superior sound quality, FM radio grew up as a home for music, but with ever fewer listeners willing to punch up the AM band, FM is becoming the place for all formats of programming.

As in Detroit, the WGMS move has unleashed a torrent of listener complaints, though no lawsuits. But if classical listeners seem less inclined toward public protests than fans of the more rock-oriented Triple A music, the uproar has nonetheless made an impact at Bonneville, where executives are scurrying to see if they can improve reception for lovers of the classics.

Many WGMS listeners see their station's move to a frequency that can be heard only sporadically and through static in northwest Washington, southern Montgomery County, Arlington and western Fairfax as a step toward eliminating classics from the radio altogether.

WGMS Program Director Jim Allison says the motivation was quite the opposite: His bosses at Bonneville "pulled the plug on the modern rock station [Z-104] to keep classical on the air here." Z-104, also owned by Bonneville, had had trouble building an audience despite several attempts to carve out a distinct piece of the rock universe.

Allison admits the new WGMS signal is spotty and says station engineers are working to improve reception by boosting the power of the transmitter in Frederick on 103.9 FM, helping listeners in Loudoun, upper Montgomery and western Fairfax.

A fix for the District and closer-in suburbs will be tougher and less immediate, but Bonneville is looking into moving its transmitter from Waldorf to another location.

WGMS's move comes on the heels of last year's format change by public WETA from classical to talk and news, making many classical listeners feel like an endangered species.

Oddly, that sense of being squeezed out by the radio gods comes in a market where classical music has done better in the ratings than almost anywhere else in the country. WGMS regularly lands in the Top 10 among Washington area stations for total audience, and it's one of the most highly rated stations among listeners 54 and older.

Allison contends that Bonneville remains committed to the classics, both on traditional broadcast radio and in new technologies. He has developed an all-vocal-music program stream that is available on the Internet at and will soon be launched as a second channel on WTOP's 103.5 FM frequency, available to owners of digital radios. Allison is also creating another digital radio service aimed at serious classical enthusiasts, and it will become WGMS's second channel in the next six months.

Digital radios are still a novelty item, priced at a frightening $500 and sold thus far only in tabletop models. But the radios are expected to come down in price to about $200 by the end of this year, and automakers are expected to begin offering the technology in new cars over the next couple of years.

For now, however, classical fans have renewed their criticisms of WETA (90.9) for changing its format. When some former WETA listeners received fundraising calls from the public station in recent weeks, they were told that the change to a news format was merely an "experiment."

But WETA station manager Dan DeVany says the station will not return to the classics. Ever since the format switch, DeVany has said he would not have made the move from classical to news/talk had WGMS not been around to serve classical listeners. Still, now that WGMS is not available to much of the region, DeVany says he is nonetheless committed to news and talk programming, much of which is also available on public WAMU (88.5).

DeVany says many classical fans will turn to pay satellite radio, where both XM and Sirius offer three channels of classical music. Both services have a general classics channel and a pops program. Sirius also has chamber music, while XM has an all-vocal music channel.

Broadcast radio is not out of the competition, DeVany says, pointing to WGMS's plans for digital radio. But even if WETA adds a digital second channel, the content is not going to include the classics, he says, slamming the door shut.

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