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Two weeks ago, WPFW-FM (89.3) smoothed the edges of its eclectic programming. Program director Lou Hankins issued a memo stating that the station would no longer play hiphop, rap, go-go, or funk—and in doing so, raised questions about the station’s identity.
Format changes are not unusual in the market-driven economy of broadcasting, but WPFW belongs to the Pacifica network of public radio stations. Pacifica’s articles of incorporation state that its mission is “to encourage and provide outlets for the creative skills and energies of the community.” Playing music like go-go, which is indigenous to the District, would seem to lie at the heart of that mission.
But faced with an eroding listenership, the station reacted by diving into the mainstream rather than working the edges. Programmers who host shows airing on weekdays from midnight-6 a.m.—which encompassed some of the station’s more innovative programming—are now advised to play soft R&B and chart-topping jazz.
The station claims that it is simply trying to return to its original format. Eighteen years ago, when the station debuted, it pursued the Pacifica ideal by playing jazz and blues—music forms then rare on D.C. airwaves. But since then, the landscape has changed tremendously. WDCU “Jazz 90” now sits to WPFW’s immediate right on the FM dial, and several other stations cover the same musical territory.
Over the years, station programmers injected funkier sounds, such as rap set to jazz. Those offerings never attracted many supporters.
But some of those who listened cared passionately about the station. Last Friday evening, 15 to 20 young people protested outside the station. Most were fans of the hiphop shows. Holding signs that read “WPFW Forgot Its Roots” and “Put the Funk Back in WPFW” they gathered signatures for a petition requesting that the station go back to being its funky self.
One of the protesters, a rapper who goes only by the name Caesar, says that the new WPFW reminds him of those stations that advertise having no rap, no rock, no hard stuff. “Everything that kids get and embrace gets taken away,” he says. “We’re not asking for more hiphop. We just want to keep the hiphop we have.”
Some of the station’s volunteers are even more upset than the listeners. “The real issue is the music,” says X-Man, the host of a weekly after-hours hiphop show. “The real issue is that a segment of the community has been locked out and boycotted by the station.” Performance poet Darrell Stover recounts a recent tiff that took place while he was guest-hosting The Poet and the Poem. Stover was playing a jazz poetry piece when Hankins called from home and said the piece was not in line with the station’s “diverse listening audience.” According to Stover, Hankins told the sound engineer to just play jazz.
“[Hankins] has a rather limited notion of what jazz is and what the true listening audience of WPFW is all about,” says Stover. “It seems to me his intention is to change ‘PFW to an easy-listening format.”
Easy-listening or not, the format seems to be attracting new listeners. WPFW’s audience has increased from 80,000 to 110,000 in the nine months Hankins has been at the helm. (At its peak in the early ’80s, the station had an estimated 150,000 listeners.)
“I’m trying to move the station to another level to try to save the listenership,” says Hankins. “What else is there? There is nothing else.”
As jazz-program host Jamal Muhammad notes, the audience demographics for hiphop and rap don’t translate into support for the station. “Hiphop doesn’t bring in any money,” he says. “That’s the bottom line. First and foremost. We’re a listener-supported station.” Hankins’ mandate has been to raise the station’s ratings, and the resulting controversy doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. “I’m a program director,” he says. “Why would I look for support on this? It’s not a political campaign—it’s a radio station.”