Other Stations Benefit From WETA's Shift to Morning News
By Frank Ahrens
WETA lost money but gained a few listeners in its gambit to steal a little public radio morning thunder from cross-town FM rival WAMU.
In May, WETA (90.9) dropped its a.m. classical music program and replaced it with "Morning Edition," the National Public Radio news magazine already carried by news-talk WAMU (88.5).
The aggressive move roiled the normally placid, collegial waters of Washington public radio. WAMU was caught off guard and beefed up its local news coverage to offset the incursion by WETA, which has no reporters. Meanwhile, the classical music audience howled: Within a month of the switch, WETA was pelted with 1,350 angry calls, letters and e-mails protesting the change.
Many of the affronted listeners vowed to boycott WETA and take their pledge dollars elsewhere. WAMU and WETA anxiously anticipated their fall pledge drives to see if the threat was carried out. It appears it was, though not to a devastating degree.
WETA's 10-day pledge drive, completed Oct. 22, netted $544,989, a decrease of $114,588 from last year's fall drive. That drop included more than $10,000 worth of morning pledges from last year: In fall 1998 the classical music program raised $77,119; this year "Morning Edition" generated $64,344.
"The average giving was down a little bit, but that's pretty much what you expect when you make any sort of large change," says Arthur Cohen, WETA's vice president and general manager. "The good news was that we didn't have fewer new members."
Though giving was down, WETA signed up more new donors this year than during the fall '98 drive. Most new donors gave small amounts, bringing down the overall pledge total, Cohen says.
He added that WETA relies less on pledge drives than other public radio stations, meeting most of its $8.2 million budget with direct-mail and telemarketing solicitations.
"Morning Edition" is the biggest moneymaker available to public radio stations, though Cohen says the show was added less to raise money than to snare listeners, because "the vast majority of people in Washington are looking for information in the morning."
WAMU, which typically draws more money than WETA, raised $1,147,690 during the recent pledge drive, including $302,875 during its broadcasts of "Morning Edition." Both figures are an increase over last year's fall drive. WAMU's seven-day drive ended on Oct. 8; its budget is $6 million.
Where did WETA's classical pledges go? They may have found their way north to Baltimore's classical public station, WBJC (91.5 FM).
WBJC raised about $100,000 during its annual day-and-a-half pledge drive, held in September, an increase of $30,000 over last year. The station has a 50,000-watt signal that reaches much of Prince George's, Montgomery and Fairfax counties--which is where most of the new pledges came from, says station General Manager Cary Smith.
WBJC launched a Web site in the spring, which was quickly found and exploited by aggrieved former WETA supporters.
"We were flooded with comments like, 'I'm looking forward to your fall campaign so I can send my money to you,' " Smith says.
WBJC is a tiny ratings presence in the Washington area, earning a 0.4 share here in the most recent Arbitron ratings report (summer), meaning only 0.4 percent of area listeners listen to the Baltimore station.
WETA pulled a 2.6 share for its programming among all listeners, and a 2.0 share for "Morning Edition" during the same period. These ratings are up slightly over the same period last year. That suggests that WETA has grabbed new listeners who are not yet donating.
The ratings report showed that the majority of area "Morning Edition" listeners, however, still get their fix from WAMU, which had a 5.3 share for the summer ratings period during the morning drive among all listeners. That's comparable to the top-level ratings earned locally by Howard Stern (WJFK) and the "Tom Joyner Morning Show" (WHUR).
This is good news for WAMU, which feared it might lose "Morning Edition" listeners to WETA. In fact, it may have even picked up pledge dollars from WETA deserters.
"I'm not going to draw any real conclusions from this fund-raiser and [ratings] book, but I'd be foolish not to believe some of the fund-raising success wasn't, to a certain extent, a backlash against WETA," says Stephen Martin, WAMU's program director.
WGMS (103.5), Washington's commercial classical station, was hoping for a ratings boost following WETA's change. But its audience showed no significant change, even among the bulk of classical music's audience--listeners over 34. Nevertheless, most people who listen to classical music radio in Washington still prefer WGMS to WETA, as the WGMS morning show pulled a 3.4 share among all listeners, and the station earned a 3.6 share overall.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company