Three months after WAMU-FM said it would shut down its nearly 50-year-old bluegrass offshoot if it couldn’t find a buyer by the end of the year, one prospect has emerged.
In a proposal called “Keep the Music Playing!,” the Bluegrass Country Foundation, a nonprofit run by familiar names in the District’s bluegrass community, offered to take over Bluegrass Country on Jan. 1. The proposal was the only one received by Monday’s deadline.
“Relative to other music genres, bluegrass is a niche market,” read the proposal, which WAMU (88.5) offered feedback on before it was submitted. “Nevertheless, the Washington DC area has thousands of loyal bluegrass music fans and a number of local venues that offer bluegrass exclusively or on a frequent basis.”
The economics of the bluegrass scene were questioned in July, when WAMU announced that it could no longer support Bluegrass Country. It was running a deficit of between $150,000 and $250,000 a year and had 30,000 listeners a week, compared with WAMU’s 800,000 weekly listeners. Bluegrass County began broadcasting on WAMU from American University’s campus in 1967.
“We’ve had to make a difficult business decision,” a statement posted on the Bluegrass Country website read. “To focus our financial resources and creative energy on news and information, we will have to part ways with our bluegrass service.”
In its proposal, the Bluegrass Country Foundation, which includes former Bluegrass Country director of operations Dick Cassidy on its board, said it had raised $90,000 and expects to raise $200,000 by January. The group says broadening its appeal to younger listeners will be crucial to its survival.
“By introducing more varied content gradually, we aim to keep the station’s existing listenership, while adding to it,” the proposal read, pointing out that Bluegrass Country’s audience is predominantly white and male and that 43 percent of listeners are older than 65. “We will target younger listeners as an important component, underrepresented in today’s audience, who will be the station’s mainstay in years ahead.”
The new Bluegrass Country would also retain a relationship with WAMU, the proposal said, and be broadcast on one of the station’s HD channels, as it is now. It also might stay on the dial at 105.5 FM — a frequency WAMU leases, with much less broadcasting power than 88.5.
“If you lose the terrestrial radio piece, you’ve lost a real chunk of the soul of the station,” said Randy Barrett, president of the DC Bluegrass Union and a director of the Bluegrass Country Foundation.
Jeffrey Ludin, the foundation’s president, said the new Bluegrass Country could eventually be run for about $400,000 a year if shows were produced off-site — a move that modern technology makes easy.
He said the foundation met with some current DJs, who thought the plan was “better than nothing.”
“People explicitly said they would do it for free,” he said. “They would do it no matter what.”
WAMU officials said that just one proposal was received but declined further comment. Its request for proposals said negotiations with prospective owners would continue until December, when a new owner would be selected.
“We are the only organization proposing to take over Bluegrass Country radio,” Barrett wrote in an email. “It’s a pure community effort. The station is a unique gem in the history of bluegrass music — both in Washington, D.C., and nationally. There are a lot of people who don’t want it to disappear.”
Dick Spottswood, who started broadcasting what was called “Bluegrass Unlimited” in 1967, said he was not aware the proposal had been submitted.
“My only comment would be Great! Good Luck! and Godspeed!” he wrote in an email.