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The switch several months ago from an NPR and news-talk format to all classical music at WETA 90.9 FM was swift and abrupt. In other words, not at all like public radio, which tends to agonize big changes over (donated!) catered lunches with community focus groups and several in-house committees.
If ratings are an indication, and it’s safe to say they are, WETA’s return to the classics was a great move for the station. In the first ratings book from Arbitron following the switch, WETA more than doubled its listenership, snagging 4.9 percent of the metro D.C. audience (commercial stations are in that mix, as well). That was up from 2.1 percent in the previous ratings book when WETA was news and talk. Now the new numbers are out and they show WETA’s still in solid shape at a 4.4 percent market share, about neck-and-neck with its former competitor, WAMU, which is at 4.7.
City Desk decided to check in with WETA FM’s V.P. and General Manager Dan DeVany, a 20-year vet of the station, now that the dust has settled.
CD: How happy were you when you saw your winter Arbitron ratings?
DD: That is huge, we were overjoyed and surprised, really, at how it happened. That was an amazing turnaround.
CD: What has been the effect on your fundraising? When was the last pledge drive? Are your numbers up?
DD: We conducted our first drive in May, shortly after the winter data came out and it was the most successful membership drive in the history of the station.
CD: Why do you think that is?
DD: It’s a combination of things. One was definitely the enthusiasm of the audience. After it appeared there would not be a classical station in the market [when WGMS was bought out in January], it turned out there was a station for classical and WETA was it. WGMS was a Washington institution, broadcasting for over 60 years, and had this whole tradition as “the good music station.” When the company that owned them decided not to continue with that format and WETA picked it up, we were able to provide a landing place for those listeners.
CD: What have you lost in this move?
DD: I have not really thought of it in terms of loss at this point. I will say this: We had only been in the news-information format for a relatively short amount of time (since 2005), but in that time, we had assembled a fine staff of news professionals who did good work. With The Intersection (the locally focused call-in talkshow hosted by Rebecca Roberts and canceled when the switch was announced), we were really proud of that. In that regard, it was extremely painful to take this somewhat fledgling format and change it. We were not expecting to do that. We never expected to do that. We had a great group of people who I value tremendously, so, professionally and personally, it was excruciating. But it was also an opportunity. We were able to step up and switch into a format that would not have been represented at all in the Washington market.
CD: There’s a lot of heat on public broadcasting for getting away from classical.
DD: That’s true. There’s no question, certainly as far as public broadcasting is concerned, we went against the trend, and there was risk with that. We decided it was the right move, and it does seem to be the right move. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend (how swift we did it) to anybody.
CD: Do you ever switch over to WAMU to listen to NPR?
CD: Can you dish about the pinch NPR puts on local stations? How much are you saving by not paying them?
DD: It’s about $1 million, just shy of a million, but cost-savings was not a primary factor in our consideration. I’ll say this: I’m happy two core public radio formats are well represented in the Washington market.
CD: That was very diplomatically put. So do you have a plan to make WETA FM more local?
DD: We do view what we’re doing now as local programming, we have local people on the air. But, yes, our next step in localization as we move into fall and beyond will be broadcasting locally produced and recorded music. It’s a really important piece of this change and we’re purposely taking our time to do it right and as thoughtfully as we can… As a noncommercial broadcaster, we have opportunities to do things others may not be able to, including airing local concerts. We have great expertise here, technically and creatively, to do that kind of programming….We’re working with the National Symphony Orchestra…and I’ll be able to talk a little more about that soon.