BMInt Interview with Daniel C. DeVany, Vice President and General Manager, Classical WETA 90.9 FM, Washington, DC
One of Daniel DeVany’s first acts, when he became general manager of Washington, DC’s WETA in 2000, was to encourage the staff and trustees to examine how their public was being served. WETA has a 75,000 watt transmitter, which is by a significant factor the most powerful in the DC area. Yet [just as at WGBH] listenership and contributions were ebbing.
The conclusion of the self-examination led the station to believe that its variety format of news, talk, and various types of music was to blame for failing to achieve listener loyalty. It was clear from their market research that when music ended and news began or vice versa, listeners would switch the dial. Thus they decided in 2005 to convert to a single unified all-talk format with an emphasis on international news, which they believed would be great service to the DC demographic and result in greater numbers of listeners with concomitantly greater loyalty and support.
But in this bid for listeners they were competing with another public station, WAMU, which featured the NPR feed and locally produced news and talk. Readers will recognize that this is similar to what WBUR has been offering in Boston.
After 18 months with their news and talk format, WETA saw no improvement in listenership and contributions, and their listenership was still well below their public radio competitor, WAMU. When WETA learned that the only local commercial classical station was dropping that format, they decided that they would shift their own 75,000 watt service to all-classical.
Though DeVany, has a degree in classical music performance, he was was not eager at the time to make the switch.
“…we were firmly committed to our plan to be in the news business. We had devoted much time, resources and heart-felt consideration to the news format and had assembled an outstanding group of radio news professionals to create a format that served the Washington community. Moving to an all classical format, while the right thing to do in the long run, forced me to make drastic changes to our operation that affected many people for whom I had great respect and admiration. It was the most personally painful and difficult period of my career.”
Mr. DeVany later told BMInt that Boston’s WCRB was the major formative influence in his love of classical music. Indeed he said, “I’m a zealot for the classical format.”
But he also added, “Personally, I love classical music. I love the radio format. But I am also a public radio professional who takes seriously a commitment to public service. My decisions are not based on personal preference. They are informed by what I believe best serves the community. If WGMS had not planned to drop the classical format, WETA would have remained in the news/talk format.”
The bottom line is, WETA did switch, and two years after their changeover to all-classical, WETA’s listenership, loyalty and contributions are at or near all-times highs. “We got the message out that classical music broadcasting is alive, and as a result, 48% of our contributors are new.”
So what does WETA play? While the station is automated after midnight, its playlist is locally produced from a CD library of over 65,000 discs. During the day and the evening WETA plays as many live recordings of local performing groups as they can capture. “We go to as many venues as we can find to record live music.”
Classical broadcasting is alive in DC!