By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 9, 2006
Radio-listening habits die hard. Just ask WHUR, which is discovering what happens when management gets between the audience and its favorite morning show.
Since dumping its popular morning team and replacing it this week with comedian Steve Harvey's syndicated program, the District radio station (96.3 FM) has been deluged with complaints by the hundreds. The backlash has inspired calls for a boycott of the station, which is owned by Howard University and has been among the highest-rated in the market.
The cancellation of WHUR's "The Real D.C. Morning Show" raises a broader question: What's become of "local" programming in a medium that has long traded on its community ties and good-neighbor image?
Critics of WHUR's decision say that Harvey's show -- starring one of the "Kings of Comedy," who had a WB sitcom for years -- originates from New York and is heard in a handful of other U.S. cities. In that regard, it's little different from other syndicated radio shows, such as National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," or programs hosted by such personalities as Tom Joyner, Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh. Such syndicated fare has been blamed for destroying radio's "localism" and for its homogenization, with sound-alike stations from coast to coast.
As its name implied, "The Real D.C. Morning Show" was a hometown production. It featured four hosts -- Tony Richards, Sharon "TC" Pitt, George Willborn and Herman Washington -- who discussed local personalities, issues and news, and took music requests and calls from residents. The station's promos even subtly mocked the syndicated competition by bragging that the show was "not live via satellite, but live."
As of last month, however, it no longer was. WHUR -- a for-profit station despite its nonprofit parentage -- ended "Real D.C.'s" five-year run without an on-air announcement. Harvey's program, airing 6 to 10 a.m., began Monday.
Since then, outrage.
A message board maintained by Pitt ( http://www.sistacircle.com ) has been filling up with denunciations of WHUR's management and notes of support for the fired hosts -- about 2,500 combined as of yesterday. Pitt, meanwhile, said yesterday she would "go back to the station in a minute" if asked. "I was born and raised here," she said. "This was my dream job."
Separately, an anonymous listener has collected about 400 "signatures" for an online petition that states, "We, the former listeners of WHUR, will boycott the station until our voices are heard and until The Real DC Morning Show has returned."
Tonya Brewington, a regular listener of the D.C. program, called WHUR's decision to cancel the show "jarring" because of the change in tone -- Harvey's show often emphasizes edgier humor, compared with "Real D.C.'s" more gentle, folksy style.
"I think it's a very bad choice," said Brewington, a Web designer who lives in the District. "I think the people who listen to [the program] are not the same audience for Steve Harvey. . . . It was more of a community show. You're not going to find out what happened in D.C. the night before by listening to a show out of New York. It's a sad commentary for a radio station that's associated with a prestigious university."
Several people at the station, including program director Dave Dickinson, said they were not authorized to talk about the matter publicly. They referred a reporter to Jim Watkins, WHUR's general manager. Watkins did not return multiple requests for comment yesterday.
The decision might look puzzling in light of the program's ratings. The show ranked third in its time period (behind top-rated WMMJ and WPGC) among adult listeners ages 25 to 54, according to Arbitron Co.'s most recent quarterly survey. In other words, it was a strong performer during radio's most competitive time of the day among the listeners most sought by radio advertisers.
But that also means WHUR ranked third in a long-running four-way battle for supremacy among African American listeners. The big four "urban" stations in Washington regularly split this audience. And all three of WHUR's main competitors have superstar hosts in the morning: WMMJ (102.3 FM) features Joyner, who formerly was heard on WHUR; WPGC (95.5 FM) carries Donnie Simpson; and WKYS (93.9 FM) airs Russ Parr's show.
Of those shows, only Simpson's focuses on the Washington area. Joyner broadcasts from the Midwest. Parr, based in the D.C. area, tailors his show for a national audience.
Programs that seek to attract African American listeners often have emphasized connections to their community to set them apart from mainstream stations, said Charlie Sislen, a partner in Research Director Inc., an Annapolis-based consulting firm. "To not have a local morning show is very surprising," said Sislen, whose clients include WPGC.
WHUR, however, racked up big ratings with Joyner's syndicated show until it lost that program to rival WMMJ in August 2000.
Sean Ross, a radio consultant with Edison Media Research, said Harvey's program has performed well on stations that have picked it up since it began syndication six months ago. "He's certainly the high-impact alternative to Joyner at the moment," said Ross of the 50-year-old Harvey. "Joyner hasn't stopped being Joyner, but [Harvey] is interesting. His celebrity will help him pull in a younger audience."
As for WHUR, Ross said, it was "prepared to do what everyone has to do to build a morning show until a compelling option came along."