Of the People

If you look up the word “public” in the dictionary, you find it defined as an adjective meaning “of the people.” There’s something amiss in Arlington these days concerning one of our most valuable assets that alleged to be public.

Recently this column pointed out that WETA, the public radio station, supported by “you, the public,” and no other entity, had decided that “world news” was not its mission, but classical music was. And not just classical music the way the old, familiar, decades-long way WETA had established itself.

No, WETA, at what was apparently an opportune time, had decided to become WGMS, the commercial classical station that had suddenly junked its decades old classical format. WETA embraced WGMS so warmly that it renamed its Hagerstown, Maryland, extension WGMS.

Now, getting back to ‘public.’

During the pledge drives we’ve endured and supported all these years for WETA-FM, announcers constantly reminded us that “it costs us money to bring you ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ and ‘The Writer’s Almanac,’ and ‘Car Talk,’ and ‘Fresh Air;’ so we depend on you, our listeners, to provide the funds to make these programs possible.”

Well, let’s see. ‘Companion’ is gone, as is the ‘Almanac,’ and ditto for Car Talk, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and even the venerable Mary Cliff’s “Traditions” on Saturday nights.

So, why is it again that you need all our money, WETA? You’ve got this big music library and some new WGMS-sounding announcers. Either that means you paid a fortune for WGMS’s cd’s; or you are just raking in our money, now that your former, highly-popular but expensive shows are history.

On the other side of the river, however, and just a few inches up the radio dial, we have a D.C.-based public radio station that has shown, quite specifically, that it does listen to its public; that it recognizes what “of the people” means.

First, they took on Prairie Home Companion and The Writer’s Almanac. Then came that wonderful interview program, Fresh Air. Even Mary Cliff, a WETA exclusive who made Saturday evenings such a joy, was picked up by WAMU.

And now — after being hounded by so many of us who have mourned the loss of Weekend Edition Sunday, that NPR Sunday morning program unmatched in quality, humanity, and downright fun — WAMU has announced it is making room for this Sunday star in its firmament.

So, who is it that has responded to the public lo these many weeks since WETA lost its moorings? Which station has demonstrated its willingness to be ‘of the people’? Who listened to us when we mourned the loss of so many WETA standbys, the ones we had counted on to be a natural part of the public in public radio?

It is WAMU, hands down. I hate to say it; I truly do. WETA was engrained in my public consciousness. It has stood for right and reason and community service.

But, when the time came to demonstrate which station would be an “of the people” station, I’m afraid it’s clear that WAMU takes the prize. WETA-TV, thankfully, retains a solid core of essential programming. Sad to say, WETA-FM has not.

It’s too late to go back and review the terrible decisions. If we’d wanted WGMS, we’d have listened to it. No, WETA was more than just WGMS without the commercials. Today, that’s all it appears to be. Farewell, old friend. I don’t know who you are anymore. Still, it’s sad to see you go.

Nick Penning ( is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.

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