Trackback: WETA & The Globe, and the O’s

When I first wrote about the George/Globe/’GMS-gone-down-the-pubradio-block events I mused that “DC Radio was about to get a lot more interesting.” True that…the latest Washington ratings (for Winter 2007) had a Spanish-language station (“El Zol,” formerly the legendary alternative pioneer WHFS) at the top of the heap; we’ve got the corporate “greenternaltive” of the Globe, a brand-new Gospel station (see below), and the invariably-amusing Mr. K on board to breathe life into the stuck-in-the-blocks Washington Post Radio, which is still mired at number 20 in the DC ratings derby, below a country music station 40 miles outta town. (Oh, and now that baseball season’s here, I was shocked to discover the mighty (clear channel) signal of WBAL 1090 in Baltimore, which brought me the vivid exploits of Earl Weaver, Brooks Robinson, and Andy “Eyebrows” Etchebarren in my formative years in New England, is no longer the Voice of the O’s! that distinction now belongs to an FM station at 105.7 in Charm City with the call letters – get this – WHFS.) Whoa. Missed that one – but plenty of O’s fans didn’t.

So, how’s it all working out?

A) In their infinite wisdom the Baltimore Base Ball Franchise, in their effort to win the hearts and minds (back) from the “tweener” fans in the Balti-Wash-imoreington metro area who have defected to the Nationals, have effectively disappeared from the radio. They claim to have a “16-station network,” but good luck finding them: if you type in “Orioles Radio Network” into your search engine all you get are the bios of its play-by-play announcers on the official O’s site. God forbid you’d actually want to LISTEN to a game. (Or perhaps now that we’re in the era of all radio and TV broadcasts of games available via subscription from the supersite, the local broadcast information is either deemed to be superfluous – or being deliberately downplayed? Hmmm…)

B) WETA’s road has had a few bumps, most notably from former WGMS listeners with lots to say about the music selection, hosts, and the lack of any special programming, but nothing soothes like a major RATINGS bump: Public stations cannot report them officially, but according to the DCRTV blog from May 4:

WETA-FM (90.9) has seen a surge in its ratings since flipping from news and talk to classical music in January. The non-commercial outlet posted an overall (age 12+) 4.9 percent audience share during the winter period, way up from a 2.1 last fall. The station has seen higher ratings across the board, with almost a five-fold increase in middays and a doubling in afternoon drive. WETA attracts a 50/50 split among the genders, but now attracts more older listeners with classical music than it did with news and talk, with 66 percent age 55 or older. Before, about 50 percent were 55 or over.

WETA has abandoned the blogs and listener comments in favor of a “Classical Blog” of news and reviews, and added a few syndicated programs to its lineup: From the Top, distributed by my old place of business, and a year-round opera lineup, adding a combination of NPR’s World of Opera with a consortium of productions from WFMT in Chicago to its usual Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. DCRTV’s comment: Bonneville look like utter fools for throwing away a very profitable station like WGMS”…..

C) The Globe also seems to be finding its feet, getting decent-enough ratings for its initial “book,” but still struggling to find its voice. In his blog the other day (“
The Complete Radio Experience and a New Station in DC” – 4/22) the ever-astute and legendary programmer Lee Abrams (now at XM) noted the Globe has

“….the right idea, but they’re still saddled with radio baggage that weighs them down… The music is pretty cool. Covers a lot of genres but with the same psychographic type in mind. DJs are kinda ‘there’ and focus their raps on the music instead of trying to sell you on how cool they are… But the Globe just didn’t take it far enough… The music was too obvious which ultimately will lead to a disappointing experience. You just knew it was computer selected – it had that feel… I think it’s a case of slapping a format on instead of creating a mission plan. A trend in the past 20 years has been to launch a station with a condensed game plan. Music library, morning show, put up some billboards, and you’re done. The great stations were assembled with more of a complete plan – a mission”…..

“Mission,” eh? Interesting choice of words for a dyed-in-the-wool commercial programmer. PUBLIC radio programmers are spending a lot of time these days discussing the merits of “misson-based” programming, which is often as not has become a derogatory term.

Praise for George: Gone, or HiDing?

All right, this blog hasn’t been around all that long, but it’s already outlasted a radio format here in the RoeDeo listening area: George 104, which came – and went – in just over two months. (76 days, to be exact – from January 22 to April 7, 2007) George, (as noted earlier in this space) was the hastily-assembled pop/rock/dance oldies format that was thrown up after owner Bonneville engineered a novel play with public broadcaster WETA: Bonneville dumped DC classical icon WGMS, WETA switched (back) to all-classical, and for good measure picked up WGMS’s Program Director (Jim Allison), its extensive record library, and even its call letters – (now used by WETA’s repeater station in Hagerstown, MD). Of course, George was a pretty low-overhead operation, (“a CD player in the back room” according to some grumblings), and pledged to go ad-free for its first 104 days in a bid to build audience. It didn’t even get that far.

So wha’happen? Turns out George isn’t completely gone – it’s now available as an HD – only channel, (103.5 – 2), next door to Bonneville’s perennial ratings champ WTOP with perhaps with lamest web site in the business. George was cleared out to make way for Praise 104.1– a new gospel format from Radio One, who are now “renting” the frequency from Bonneville. Believe it or not, it’s the first Gospel FM station in the DC area, which must be some kind of first. So perhaps that will bring a little stability to a frequency that has gone through FOUR format changes and call letters in a year’s time. Ahhh, radio…a nice stable industry.

Up Off The Canvas (or, The Other Shoe Drops)

All right, it was a big deal to me, but not many other folks paid much attention to the news that I wrote about on Day One– Bonneville’s “Yankee Swop” of its frequencies with Entercom, meaning a likely sayonara for classically-formatted KDFC in San Francisco. Sure enough, the other shoe dropped today here in DC – as of 8 pm on Monday, Jan. 22, Bonneville’s WGMS (103.9) will move down the dial to WETA (90.9), effectively ending the latter station’s less-than-successful run as a news-and-information station. It’s a complicated deal, all right – the Washington Post reports that no money will change hands, but that WETA will get from Bonneville the WGMS call letters (to be applied to its repeater station in Hagerstown, MD) , 15,000- CD record library, and even its program director, Jim Allison.

But…wait! Bonneville is not selling to Snyder and Red Zebra at all…at 3 PM today they flipped to a Jack-like oldies format called George104. I promised rants in the title: Here are a couple from DCRTV:

“… a pair of rimshot signals (Waldorf and Frederick). “Well, at least it’s low overhead,” a local radio observer tells DCRTV. Pretty much a CD player in the back of the co-owned WTOP newsroom, says another. It’s kind of sad to watch Joel Oxley and Jim Farley slowly lose their minds, says yet another. Of course, it could be an “extended stunt” until Redskins owner Dan Snyder finally decides to sign the papers and buy the station.

Bonneville’s take:

Both sides agreed it made sense for their stations and their listeners. This saves classical music in this market and arguably puts it in a better place than it is now.

– Joel Oxley, Bonneville Senior VP

You bet it does – WGMS enjoyed fairly consistent ratings (hovering between 5th and 11th in the market) until it got shoved off of its longtime frequency of 103.5 one year ago (collateral damage from the “Washington Post Radio” deal) and wound up on the much less attractive spots of 103.9 and 104.1). At 90.9, WETA’s signal is one of the best in the entire DC Metro area, with 75,000 watts and a repeater in Hagerstown, MD (that’s the one that will be re-christened WGMS-FM.

Funny, for all of the talk (and I’m as guilty as anyone) these days about New Media and the levelling of the playing field in the online world, size – and positions – still matters. It was the truly wretched signal of the Redskins’s radio stations (a/k/a Triple X Radio) that got this whole ball rolling in the first place. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of how radio works would have been able to tell you that choosing a 1000-watt station that drops to 250 watts at night to as your metro DC flagship for the Redskins was going to be a trail of tears. You also knew that the stakes were too high here in football-crazed DC for that situation to go on for more than one season. (Ironically, the format change comes one year to the day that Snyder bought his three new toys).

The new “official” ID for the stations will be “Classical WETA 90.9 FM Washington and WGMS 89.1 FM Hagerstown.”