Radio Stations Harmonize On Classical Music

Joel Oxley of Bonneville. He says its agreement with WETA
Joel Oxley of Bonneville. He says its agreement with WETA "saves classical music in this market." (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Washington radio station WGMS dropped the music of Mozart and Tchaikovsky yesterday after nearly six decades and replaced its classical format with tunes by Cheap Trick, Elton John and the Bee Gees in a two-part shake-up.

Last night, WETA dropped its news and talk programming and became a classical station again in a coordinated move with Bonneville International Corp., which owns WGMS (103.9 and 104.1 FM). WETA (90.9 FM) was a classical station for 35 years until dropping the format in February 2005.

Bonneville said it struck the unusual agreement with noncommercial WETA to prevent classical music from disappearing from local airwaves.

Such an alliance between for-profit and a nonprofit radio stations is almost unheard of. But the deal, hammered out over the past several weeks, creates something for both sides, executives from the stations said.

WETA, which will be the only classical station in town, is counting on that exclusivity to help attract more pledge dollars and members. (The closest conventional station playing classical music is Baltimore's WBJC.)

Bonneville, meanwhile, leaves the declining classical-radio field for programming that lures a younger audience and, presumably, a greater share of local advertising dollars.

But Bonneville is entering a highly competitive segment of the radio market. Its new station replacing WGMS, called "George 104" (WXGG-FM), will program music from 1970s and '80s artists such as James Taylor, Foreigner and AC/DC, with a smattering of more recent recordings. WBIG (100.3 FM) and WARW (94.7 FM) have similar formats.

Bonneville said it will air George 104 without commercials for its first 104 days to try to establish the station among listeners.

"It made sense for these two organizations to come together," said Joel Oxley, Bonneville's top local executive. "Both sides agreed it made sense for their stations and their listeners. This saves classical music in this market and arguably puts it in a better place than it is now."

Coordinating the format changes with WETA was an important public relations consideration for Bonneville, CEO Bruce T. Reese said in an interview yesterday. When news broke last month that the company was considering abandoning classical music and selling WGMS to Redskins owner Dan Snyder, the company received hundreds of angry letters and e-mails -- including correspondence from "one highly placed member of Congress," said Reese. In view of that outcry, he said, Bonneville did not want to change WGMS's format if that meant leaving Washington without a classical station. (Negotiations with Snyder eventually fell apart when an agreement could not be reached over the selling price.)

WETA and WGMS executives began talking about the alliance three weeks ago, when WETA's general manager, Dan DeVany, approached Oxley. The two sides agreed on several steps:

ยท Bonneville will give WETA the right to use WGMS's familiar call letters, which once stood for "Washington's Good Music Station." WETA's Hagerstown booster station, WETH, will be renamed WGMS, pending approval from federal regulators (Arlington-based WETA will continue to be known by its current call letters).

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