A Classical Gas, for Now

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Classical music radio, virtually gone from commercial stations and increasingly shoved aside even on public radio, is refusing to die in Washington.

WETA's return to classical this January after a two-year experiment with news and talk is looking like a ratings winner: The station (90.9 FM) saw its audience more than double in the first Arbitron report since the format change. And, equally important for perennially cash-strapped public radio, the size and number of listener donations to the station soared with the switch back to classical.

But as elated as WETA executives are over the success of their new programming, classical's long-term future on the radio remains even more precarious than the medium's overall path through the digital era.

"We're very, very happy," says Dan DeVany, WETA's general manager and a longtime voice of classical programming in Washington. "But we're still evolving. The diversity of choices in radio -- Internet, satellite -- is staggering. However, there is something to be said for good old conventional radio. If you're well focused and thinking locally, you can do well."

What does a local classical station offer that a 24/7 stream of symphonies on the Web does not? Why would a fan of chamber or choral music wait around to hear an occasional piece on WETA when full-time specialized music services abound online or on pay satellite radio? And how deep is WETA's commitment to classical -- is the station's management actually most enamored with how it's vastly cheaper to program the classics than to air news and talk?

WETA's return to classical was part of a carefully choreographed dance of formats in which Washington's longtime commercial classical station, WGMS, was finally put to rest (its last dial position is now filled with a gospel station, Praise 104). WETA's strong performance in the ratings, therefore, partly reflects a shift of WGMS listeners to 90.9.

But the latest ratings show that WETA's more music-intensive approach -- without 20 minutes an hour of commercials, WETA can play longer pieces than WGMS did -- is luring listeners to stay tuned for longer periods. And contrary to the predictions of some fans of the station's former NPR and BBC news and talk shows, WETA's classical programming has drawn more than twice as high a proportion of black and Hispanic listeners as did its old format.

Still, the classical audience is an old one. Two-thirds of WETA listeners are 55 and older, according to ratings, compared with 52 percent of the audience for all-news WTOP (103.5 FM) and 43 percent of the area's other major public station, news-talk WAMU (88.5 FM).

DeVany says he's not worried about the older audience, which would cause panic at commercial stations. The jump in listener donations -- from 3,000 during the last pledge drive under the news-talk format to 6,150 pledges during the first classical fundraiser -- more than makes up for concern about aging listeners.

Although DeVany says his plan is "to stay the course," he also promises that WETA will become a more locally oriented station, adding broadcasts of area concerts this fall. The station also is considering picking up some of public radio's excellent nationally distributed classical programming, though any such changes are likely to be limited. WETA says its spending on radio is down by $1.5 million since it dropped the very expensive NPR and BBC programs that made up the bulk of the previous format.

Classical stations across the country are struggling to find the right direction. Some are moving toward the lite-classics approach that worked for WGMS, a mix of familiar melodies and lively excerpts from longer classical works. Derided as a Top 40 approach to classical music, this format made WGMS the most listened-to classical station in the nation. The idea is to reach out for people who listen at work, with the radio providing background music in the office and on the commute.

Although that approach frustrates people who know the music well or want to discover new music, it draws in many who might never go to a classical concert -- possibly the most fruitful pool of new listeners, given that serious classical buffs are more likely to gravitate to specialized services on the Web and via satellite.

Most other public stations that play classical are sticking with the format WETA used for many years before its 2005 switch to news: Those stations use classical music as a bridge between National Public Radio's cash cows, "Morning Edition" -- the nation's most popular morning show since Howard Stern's move to Sirius satellite radio -- and its afternoon drive-time progenitor, "All Things Considered." Stations that mix those shows with classical often choose musical pieces that, according to research, are least offensive to listener-donors whose first allegiance is to public radio's news coverage.

That approach tends to appall serious fans of the music. "That's really a horrible way to look at your programming," says Paul Bachmann, senior program director for classical music at XM satellite radio and a former programming manager at WGMS and several public stations. Bachmann believes public radio's mandate is to fill a niche, not to maximize audience.

Bachmann suggests that WETA take the classical niche seriously and live up to the traditional public radio mission by providing programming that commercial radio can't or won't offer. "Be the arts center of Washington," he urges. "Washington is a vibrant arts community, second only to New York on the East Coast, and WETA should be its cultural home."

DeVany agrees WETA should emphasize its role as a center of culture in the region, promoting local concerts and performing groups. The station has a full-time arts reporter whose segments on local events and artists run sporadically during the day. But DeVany seems wary of programming that detracts from WETA's identity as an all-music station. Although WETA started out its new classical format with hourly five-minute newscasts from NPR, it has now dropped many of those newscasts to run more minutes of music each hour.

And he says the station will move to a greater variety of pieces as it builds its CD library from 4,000 discs to more than 50,000 in the coming months.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company