Archive for March, 2007

WETA Regains Its Soul, Loses Its Mind

Sunday, March 25th, 2007

One of Arlington’s jewels, WETA-FM radio, made an abrupt and radical move less than a month ago, when it hit the brakes on its two-year-old all-news, no music format, and, with virtually no advance notice, dropped everything to return to classical music.

But it wasn’t a return to the old WETA that the public found on its dial. No, WETA decided to be a purist, and started broadcasting nothing but classical music, with a nod to news from NPR on the hour.

The old WETA had room for not just a solid play list of classical masterworks, but also such beloved programs as Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. The new WETA jettisoned it all.

The station that had introduced Garrison Keillor to Arlington and the metro area — and brought his brilliant two-hour live program to Wolf Trap every summer — had, with no warning, hit the eject button, leaving a kindly WAMU in the District to catch Garrison before he hit the ground.

When Sunday morning came around and you tuned in for Lianne Hansen’s clever, fun and thoughtful program, Weekend Edition Sunday, you discovered she was gone, too. And now one of NPR’s finest works — produced in D.C. — has no home anywhere in the Washington broadcast market.

One minute our own Shirlington station was talk, news, talking its way in competition with WAMU, and the next it was telling you to tune over to WAMU if you missed Prairie Home and Keillor’s early weekday “Writer’s Almanac” commentary.

It’s been exactly two years since WETA announced that it would betray its classical roots and move to all news/talk because “WETA’s fall 2004 Arbitron numbers were its worst in 15 years.” In other words, ratings, the thing commercial broadcasting lives and dies for, had entered the boardroom. Founder Elizabeth Campbell, quoted in 1993 by the station’s magazine, said, “I wanted what we have, which is classical music and art” with “enough news so that people didn’t feel they were going to be cut out of news,
because they were listening to music.”

Lovers of classical music, this writer included, are delighted we have classical music back. But at the expense of Prairie Home Companion? And the best news programs on the air? Why was there not room for both?

WETA’s station director told its magazine of the Feb. 2005 shift, “This was principally and primarily a public service issue.” So, what is 2007’s move?

Observers of the classical scene here know that the region’s sole commercial classical station, WGMS, no doubt reading the same ratings charts, summarily junked its listeners last month, leaving the classical market wide open. Thus, WETA jumped for the WGMS music library and sawed off some of the best programming NPR offers.

Back in 2005 we were told the shift to all news/talk was based on audience research and an “almost unanimous approval” by its board. “The station had been considering a format change for three years,” it said then.

So, how much time was spent on this decision? From all accounts it sounds as though someone heard the WGMS announcement on the radio, frantic calls were made, deals were cut and uncut, and voila! Here, again, is classical WETA.

Yes, you have regained your soul and lived up to your founder’s hopes, but did you have to toss over so much of what our Arlington public radio station had been before? How are you going to explain this one to your listeners, when that next pledge drive rolls around?

Nick Penning is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in each edition of The Arlington Connection.