Snyder's Gambit May Silence D.C.'s Last FM Classical Music Station

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, December 12, 2006

H aving won a place in the ranks of local luminaries as the guy who wrecked the Redskins and ravaged the riverside near his Potomac mansion, Dan Snyder now appears ready to put his special touch on another abiding passion of Washingtonians: the music of Bach and Beethoven.

Frustrated by the weak signals of the three radio stations he already owns, the boy billionaire last week reached a tentative deal to acquire WGMS -- which has broadcast the classics for 60 years -- and convert it to one more of his burgeoning collection of Redskins Radio outlets. The silencing of WGMS would mean the end of classical music on Washington's FM dial.

That prospect has music lovers howling, even as Redskins fans relish the possibility of being able to actually hear Sonny Jurgensen and Sam Huff narrate the misadventures of the men in burgundy and gold.

Cue the kettledrums: This is a face-off for the ages, jocks against highbrows, brawn vs. brains, class warfare on the field of popular culture.

Except that it's nothing of the sort: The audiences for professional sports and the performing arts are remarkably similar. In both cases, they are a perfect match for this region's affluent and educated population.

The overlap between Redskins fans and music lovers is apparent in the hundreds of protest e-mails and calls pouring in to WGMS and other media. Many begin, "I love the Redskins, but . . . ," then slam Snyder for killing off the classics to add the region's fifth all-sports frequency.

"Washington is a city of well-educated, well-cultured individuals, and for the nation's top-rated classical station to close its doors is beyond sad," says Scott Thureen, assistant program director of the station, whose call letters stand for Washington's Good Music Station. "Listeners feel betrayed and angry. How are we going to expose young people to this music now?"

Without WGMS, the region's orchestras, theater companies and other performing arts groups "will really lose their ability to reach their potential audience," says Mark Shugoll, chief executive of Shugoll Research, a Bethesda company that has studied the local appetite for the arts. "This is a great loss for the performing arts in Washington."

On any given Sunday, the thousands of Washingtonians who attend concerts don't come close to the crowds that fill the stadium in Landover, but over the course of a year, more people here go to the concert hall than to see gridiron action. Overall, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study, 60 percent of local residents report attending an arts performance in the past year, while 51 percent went to a pro sports game.

Obviously, if you include those of us who watch on the home screen, there are many more sports fans than Beethoven buffs. But high ticket prices limit who shows up at the stadium. Demographically, according to Scarborough Research, people who go to Redskins games are hard to tell from those who listen to classical radio: About 70 percent of each group has household income of $75,000 or more. Both audiences are majority male. And both skew heavily toward older people, though, surprisingly, the crowd at Skins games is older than the WGMS audience.

Why is Bonneville, the Utah-based company that owns WGMS (and its sister station, Washington Post Radio), so willing to part with a format that makes big money, scores consistently high ratings and is the most listened-to classical station in the nation? Easy answer: bigger money. Snyder offered Bonneville, which is owned by the Mormon Church, about 50 percent more than what WGMS is valued at, according to local radio executives.

Despite the station's $10 million in annual advertising revenues, the company's commitment to the classics was shaky well before Snyder opened his checkbook. In January, WGMS was bounced from its longtime position at 103.5 FM to make room for all-news WTOP's move from AM to FM and for the creation of this newspaper's experiment in radio news. The classical outlet's new location, at 104.1 FM, suffers from such a weak signal that many listeners saw the writing on the wall.

Commercial classical stations are a dying breed -- nationwide, their numbers have dropped from 40 to 27 since 1998 -- but what will now make Washington almost unique is that this city will have lost classical music on both commercial and public radio. Never mind that WETA (90.9 FM) has seen its ratings drop since it dumped the classics two years ago to adopt a news-talk format: Its managers see classical music as a passion of old folks who are less likely than younger news listeners to donate to the station.

"What's tragic is that we were on the cusp of having three classical stations here," says Thureen, describing WGMS's plan to launch two digital stations, available on new HD (high-definition) radios, featuring full-length classical works and vocal music. "Instead, we may well have none."

To a true fan, you can never have too much of the Redskins. But nobody likes a bully. Snyder can buy up as many stations as he has free agent players, but as we've learned, that doesn't make you a winner.

* * *

Marina Alvarez, the illegal immigrant from El Salvador whose story I told Thursday, was released from a detention center on the Eastern Shore yesterday after Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) intervened on her behalf.

Alvarez is a Howard County resident who was about to close on her first house when she was stopped for a traffic violation and police discovered a decade-old deportation order. Because of the detention, she had been separated from her two U.S.-born children for six months.

According to the woman's attorney, Peter Asaad, Dorgan negotiated a release that will allow Alvarez to return to her children, 8 and 11,while she awaits a decision on her appeal of the deportation. She will wear an ankle bracelet that lets federal authorities monitor her location.

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