Radio Stations Harmonize On Classical Music
WGMS Ditches Its Old Format But Helps Orchestrate Its Revival On WETA

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:

· 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).

· Bonneville will donate WGMS's library of 18,000 classical CDs to WETA, which already has 25,000.

· The two stations will cross-promote each other for about six months. WETA, for example, will air announcements for Bonneville's all-news WTOP (103.5 FM, 820 AM), as well as for WTWP (107.7 FM, 1500 AM), the news and talk station produced in conjunction with The Washington Post's newsroom. George 104 began airing announcements that WETA had become "the new home of classical music" in Washington.

Longtime WGMS program director Jim Allison will leave the station to take the same job at WETA, replacing Maxie Jackson.

WGMS, which has been airing classical music since the station's inception in 1947, played its last classical selection yesterday afternoon. Over the mournful strains of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," Allison announced, "It is indeed with tears of grief that we leave the Washington airwaves." The station then segued into its new identity, playing Sheryl Crow's "A Change Would Do You Good."

The demise of WGMS was painful to one of its most enduring personalities, former morning host Dennis Owens. "I feel like the Titanic set sail and I got off at Liverpool," said Owens, who was heard on WGMS from 1966 to 2005. Owens, who now lives in semi-retirement in Naples, Fla., added, "I've talked to many people today and the collective hurt is hard to describe. People are literally in tears."

WETA CEO Sharon P. Rockefeller said yesterday that her station was happy with its news programming but that "we couldn't have anticipated all the external changes in the radio environment" that made a switch back to classical advantageous. Among other things, Bonneville's decision to start WTWP last year created another competitor for the audience that WETA was chasing with its mix of NPR and BBC talk shows.

DeVany said yesterday that WETA would lay off eight staff members as a result of dropping news programming. Among the casualties is Rebecca Roberts, who hosted the daily current-affairs show "The Intersection." Roberts is the daughter of NPR and ABC commentator Cokie Roberts and pundit/columnist Steve Roberts. (Also leaving is Mary Cliff, who has been with the station for more than three decades. Cliff was the host of the station's long-running weekend folk music show, "Traditions," which will end shortly.)

WGMS will lay off 10 people, including such familiar hosts as Diana Hollander, who has battled epilepsy while remaining on the air. Both stations said they would interview the other's former staffers for any openings.

WETA's morning broadcasts of news programming from National Public Radio will continue. WETA will also carry the audio portion of "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" at 7 p.m. and Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on weekends.

Although many commercial stations across the country have abandoned classical music, Oxley said it remains "a viable format." WGMS ranked 11th among local stations in the most recent quarterly audience survey by Arbitron.

Classical music, though, appeals primarily to older listeners, who are less valued by advertisers -- a key consideration in Bonneville's deliberations over WGMS.

"You're not going to get the same revenue [with classical] compared to a station that is more widely targeted and possibly younger" in its audience profile, Oxley said.

Both sides said classical music might be a better fit for WETA, which has a much stronger signal that WGMS. Many of WGMS's listeners, particularly those in Northwest Washington, McLean and lower Montgomery County, have complained about reception problems since Bonneville moved the station from 103.5 FM to 103.9 and 104.1 last year to make room for WTWP.

WETA has the most powerful FM signal in Washington; it is the only station in the area authorized to broadcast at 75,000 watts. What's more, as a public station, it does not broadcast commercials, which frequently interrupted long classical pieces on WGMS.

The agreement between Bonneville and WETA does not involve the exchange of money, both sides said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company