Sound of Success: WETA Thrives on Classical Music

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A bunch of European composers who haven't had a hit in decades have been very, very good to radio station WETA.

Since dropping news and talk programming for classical music in January, the Arlington public station has seen its fortunes soar. Ratings have more than doubled since the switchover from BBC and NPR reports to Bach and Brahms concertos. And perhaps just as important to WETA (90.9 FM), pledge contributions from listeners have been gushing.

WETA's strong showing in the first four months of the year likely reflects the death of WGMS-FM, the station that called it quits in January after 60 years as Washington's commercial classical station. WETA, owned by a nonprofit foundation, coordinated its format change with WGMS's expiration, becoming the sole classical outlet on the local airwaves.

The station's early success suggests that classical music isn't dead as a radio format, despite its long decline on commercial stations across the country. According to a study last year by the National Endowment for the Arts, only 28 commercial stations nationwide had a classical-music format in 2005. Public stations have gradually cut back on classical, jazz and other musical forms to focus on news and talk -- exactly the opposite path that WETA has taken this year.

The gains of that change are borne out by WETA's audience totals during the January-March quarter. According to the ratings service Arbitron -- which releases figures for public stations separately from those of commercial stations -- WETA captured 4.9 percent of the radio audience in Washington during the first quarter, up from 2.1 percent in the preceding three months, when WETA was a news-talk station. WETA carried mostly news and talk for a two-year period starting in February 2005.

Those numbers make WETA the region's fifth most popular station, behind traditional powerhouses WHUR-FM (which plays hip-hop), WTOP-FM (all news), WPGC-FM (urban contemporary) and WMMJ-FM (R&B hits).

"It looks like a combination of things are working for us," said Dan DeVany, WETA's general manager. "People have realized that classical music on the radio resides here. It appears that WGMS listeners have found us."

Or possibly WETA has found them. The station's 75,000-watt transmitter is the most powerful in the region, beaming a signal north into southern Pennsylvania, west into the Blue Ridge Mountains, east to Maryland's Eastern Shore and south to the outskirts of Richmond. This is in contrast to WGMS's last frequencies, at 103.9 and 104.1 FM, which were plagued by static and other interference in some places.

WETA's commercial-free format might also be better suited to long classical pieces than a for-profit station, whose commercials can interrupt pieces between movements.

Two other numerical indicators pointed way up for WETA. The station had its best spring pledge drive ever, raising $590,000 in May, and attracting 6,150 new members -- double its total from its pledge drive in winter 2006. Also, since switching to classical, WETA's cumulative audience -- those listening to the station for at least 15 minutes each week -- grew to 428,300 people, up from 287,000 under its abandoned news-talk format. Most of those listeners fall into the 56-to-65 age group, slightly older than its news-talk listeners, the station said.

Another public station, WAMU-FM, had a strong quarter. The news-and-talk outlet operated by American University shot from 3.6 percent in the fall to 4.3 percent of the listening audience from January to March, according to Arbitron. The 4.3 percent average ranks WAMU sixth among all local stations.

In the wake of WGMS's demise, owner Bonneville International initially tried a classic pop hits format called "George 104," but abandoned it in April after striking a preliminary agreement to sell the station to Radio One of Lanham in Prince George's County. Radio One, which is programming the station under a marketing agreement with Bonneville, has redubbed it "Praise 104" and is playing contemporary gospel music.

Joel Oxley, Bonneville's top local executive, said yesterday that "classical is now in a great place in this market. It's in great hands" with WETA.

As for Bonneville's decision to drop WGMS and classical music, he said: "I think it made sense. I don't look back on that decision with regret."

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