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UPDATE on WGBH Story: Ratings and Support Soar for DC’s WETA with Shift from All-talk to All-classical


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!


6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. From the article: “It was clear from their market research that when music ended and news began or vice versa, listeners would switch the dial.”

    I think the article is a bit shallow. I am glad for WETA and for Mr. DeVany and I am envy that WETA is trying to play during prime-time live events. Still, just because we would like WGBH to do something similar we shall not lose our critical senses and to prostitute ourselves on our interest in classical music. People do not “switch the dial because music ended”. People do not do it vice-versa as well. People DO SWITCH THE DIAL when the CONTENT of programs moves from higher quality to lower quality. So, I think the reporter who interviewed Mr. DeVany had to do assessment of the WETA’s programs quality and to correlate it with the figures of contributions – this would give more interpretable data then just the generic attribute everything to the format change.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with talk format if it done with respect to the station’s main ploy and with good radio “artistism”. There were moments where I was so fascinated with WBUR programs that I was not able to get out of my car listening. There was a moment where I was driving RT90, all the way west, and there was a phenomenal WBUR program on Sunday afternoon about some kind old abandoned house. I was so captivated with it that when I felt that I was going further away west and was losing WBUR signal I exited the mass pike, drove atop of some local heel and was sitting there for good 15 minutes listening the story. When I drive from NY then last exits of RT 84 are not only the geographical gates to Massachusetts but it is also where the WBUR/GBH coverage picks up and this is where I feel that I am getting back home. For some it might sound a bit crazy but this craziness of local listeners is what the local stations live and die for.

    So, I see no problems with ether musical or talk formats if it done properly and at demanded level. The 99.5 is all-classical station but I see no problems if 99.5 devoted an hour or two per day for good interviews or commentaries of interesting people about classical music. I would love to see 99.5 not only sell the pop classical tune but to SELL INTEREST to classical music. That how you get new young listeners. It is all depends how it is done and with what level of respect to the subject… The GBH has good and capable people work for them and good other resources. Apparently all that WGBH lacks is a will of upper management…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 14, 2010 at 10:18 am

  2. Again a fine note from Romy. I second his view on QUALITY and the need to SELL INTEREST. That explains too why I (and many others) get captured by WHRB at Harvard — the announcers may not be especially good but the material and the music are THERE. Like Romy, many’s the time I’ve listened to something I never knew I had an interest in.

    BUT just about the only times I give up the reading and the writing and the eating, to lay back and just listen, are those live BSO broadcasts when the band is hot. And they’re hot on Fridays as much as on Saturdays.

    In fact I’d go for encouraging GBH/CRB to broadcast the Friday *evenings* as well!

    Comment by clarkjohnsen — January 14, 2010 at 2:28 pm

  3. Clark said: In fact I’d go for encouraging GBH/CRB to broadcast the Friday *evenings* as well!

    I would rather go for open rehearsals then Friday evenings. Rehearsals might be phenomenally eventful; in addition knowing that they are broadcasted the musician might “animate” the show… In past some rehearsals were pressed on records and I have many of them. Love to listen them and I think if rehearsals to offer on radio under a proper sauce then they might be very dramatic, not to mention very educational.

    Thinking further about the ignorant neglect the WGBH administration in respect to the live Friday broadcasts the famous story about Mravinsky and his performance of the Bruckner Seventh comes to my mind. Mravinsky was preparing his Leningrad Philharmonic for months to play the Seventh. During the last day rehearsal the things suddenly “click” and the orchestra played the entire work from beginning to end with unseen force. There is a film out there were the musicians from Leningrad Philharmonic who played the work testify that they never experienced such an impact from music in their lives. What Mravinsky does then? He cancels (!!!) the next day concert with the most stunning and astonishing excuse I ever heard in music history. Mravinsky insisted that the magnitude of artistic presentation his orchestra had last night DOES NOT HAPPEN TWICE – so there is no reason to spoil what was done. Thinking about our situation in Boston – would it possible that today Friday matinee concert will be THE PERFORMANCE that would worth to remember to the rest of our lives? Was it the very same concert that the WGBH administrators decided “was not worthy to broadcast”? Who the hell they think they are?!

    After W. Bush many people mentioned a need to establish a mandatory IQ test for US president. Don’t you think that it would worth to have the people who in charge 99.5 All-Classical to have ANY remote understanding of what they are dealing with? Are they qualified? Was the Mr. DeVany DC station’s success derived from the fact that he personally has own appreciation of classical music and was able to navigate the needs of own station SENSIBLY?

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 15, 2010 at 12:09 am

  4. Since I cannot even receive CRB in RI, my interest is unfortunately more academic at this point. First, the call letters of the DC station are WAMU, as in American University, which has a large academic program in broadcasting and is in many respects similar to BU. Like BUR, they really put out quality programs and WETA, similar to WGBH, was trying to play copy-cat catch up in the interest of ratings. As the author pointed out, WETA failed miserably, as I believe WGBH will because BUR is simple great at what they do. Ironically, the afternoon host at WETA is John Chester, formerly of CRB.

    Comment by Jack in RI — January 15, 2010 at 7:56 am

  5. Thanks- fixed WAMU. We hope WGBH reads this as a cautionary tale.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 15, 2010 at 10:19 am

  6. Here is how the GOOD RADIOS STATIONS do it: BBC Radio Three announced Vinyl fest on Classical Collection. It will be a whole week programming that is built only with music coming from LPs and that has never been issued on CD officially. What a treat for Brits!

    Meanwhile I am still waiting the WGBH announced Michel Plasson with Oslo Philharmonic playing Saint-Saëns’ Third. It had to be yeastoday, according to WGBH site, but never materialized…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 21, 2010 at 12:24 pm

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