WETA May Fill Classical Music Gap Left by WGMS

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bach might be back on Washington's airwaves, even if the region's only classical music station, WGMS, drops the format.

Public broadcaster WETA (90.9 FM) is considering dumping its news-and-talk programming and returning to being a classical broadcaster if the music dies on WGMS, WETA's management said yesterday.

In a special meeting Thursday, WETA's board voted to give station executives the green light to consider switching back to classical if WGMS drops the format. Dan DeVany, WETA's vice president and general manager, said the station "could move very quickly" back to classical if circumstances warrant.

Redskins owner Dan Snyder has a preliminary agreement to buy WGMS (103.9/104.1 FM) from its owners, Bonneville International Corp. A Snyder-owned subsidiary, Red Zebra Broadcasting, intends to turn the station into a sports-talk outlet that probably would also air Redskins games.

The proposed sale has classical music fans fearing they would lose the only remaining source of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart on the local airwaves. (A Baltimore station, WBJC [91.5 FM], carries classical music, but its signal doesn't reach parts of the Washington area.)

WETA and WGMS were rival classical stations for 35 years, but WETA abandoned the format in March 2005 for news supplied by National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp. It said at the time that the move was designed to boost membership and donations, but some longtime listeners complained that WETA simply duplicated programming that was available on public station WAMU (88.5 FM).

Now, WETA might have the classical field all to itself.

Red Zebra still could affect WETA's future by taking one of several strategic routes: It could keep classical on WGMS -- an option that local radio executives consider to be highly unlikely -- or it could move the classical format to the three smaller stations it owns.

Although those three stations (730 AM, 92.3 FM and 94.7 FM) have spotty signals, classical remains a viable commercial and relatively popular format in the Washington area. In the most recent quarterly ratings, WGMS ranked seventh in audience share among local radio stations.

"This is a good classical music market," DeVany said. "WGMS has done very well with it. But there's something to be said for a non-commercial station carrying it." As a public station, WETA could air long musical pieces without commercial interruption.

At the same time, WETA's news-talk programming has been relatively successful, according to DeVany and Mary Stewart, the station's vice president of external affairs. When WETA dropped classical music, its audience had been declining, attracting an average of 1.8 percent of all listeners. In the spring quarter, its audience averaged 2.5 percent, or about the same rating that the station had three years ago.

Overall pledge contributions are about even, although neither Stewart nor DeVany could provide a breakdown showing how much came from WETA listeners and WETA (Channel 26) viewers.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company