Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Advantage of Change

Last year, when WETA-FM announced that it would be switching from classical programming to a news-talk format, loyal listeners spoke out against it at the station's board meeting. Classical music aficionados wrote editorials in the Washington Post. And one guy with a piece of fluorescent green cardboard protested outside WETA's offices in Shirlington, VA, accompanied by a toddler who looked more interested in sidewalk.

But when I read WETA's press release, I thought of only one thing.

"Ooh! Jobs!"

Music lovers would like you to believe that it's a sign of the apocalypse when a public radio station backflips from classical or jazz programming and lands into news/talk. ("It's a sad commentary on life as we know it ceasing to exist," is how one listener said in June in a letter to the Hartford Courant, submitted when Connecticut's WNPR announced that it too was switching its sound.)

But for journalists, these switches translate into more jobs and more chances to cover stories that are overlooked by commercial broadcast media. Since last year, WETA has added a number of reporters and producers to its staff in an effort to develop programming of local and regional importance.

Local coverage, in fact, is one of the major reasons cited by management at several stations when they made that change. "We believe that this is a better way for us to serve our communities," said Jerry Franklin, president and CEO of Connecticut Public Broadcasting, Inc. (the parent of WNPR) in an interview with the Courant.

Ken Stern, a VP of National Public Radio, told Reuters: "Local news has simply been abandoned by the commercial broadcasters and sometimes even the commercial newspapers. What you see as a trend is stations like WBEZ investing heavily in local news and information."

WBEZ is the latest station to switch to news/talk, abandoning the jazz format that made it a favorite of listeners in Chicago. As expected, there has been a backlash, the most prominent being in the form of a website that encourages listeners to sign a petition, boycott the station, and write rejection letters in response to WBEZ fundraising mailings. Listeners have accused station manager Torey Malatia of not listening to the public in regards to its preference for the station's programming.

Malatia told the Chicago Sun-Times that his ears have been open:

"We've been talking about this since 2000, 2001," he says. "And we've done lots and lots of public study before we would do anything like this. This is not a small thing, so it's not something you would do without thinking about it and
talking to people and working with the board and staff and advisory council and surveying the audience and all kinds of stuff."
Data from studies show that for public radio stations, switching to news/talk is a promising move, albeit a hotly contested one. The Station Resource Group released a six-year analysis of public radio stations, finding that all-news formats experienced a 55% growth in listenership between 1999 and 2004.

And Tom Taylor of Inside Radio told the Sun-Times: "[News/talk] may have more universal appeal in the sense that it sweeps across divisions. You don't have to be a classical fan, you don't have to like a particular kind of music... The history at other public stations suggests that this is a smart business move." WHYY in Philadelphia and WNYC in New York (which switched shortly after September 11) are some of the stations to which Taylor is referring.

More stations are sure to follow suit in the years ahead, of course not without the adverse reaction of music lovers. But underneath the protests lies more opportunity for radio journalists, as well as for reporters in other media (particularly those in print media who feel they face a dim future) and for those just getting started in the industry.

And with the mandate that public broadcasting outlets serve as diverse an audience as possible (as outlined in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967), the change also provides an opportunity for stories and issues of importance to minority communities to be brought to air. WBEZ, in particular, plans to draw in Black, Hispanic and youth listeners with their new programming, according to Reuters. WETA began broadcasting NPR's News and Notes (which before, wasn't available in the DC metro area) as soon as their format changed.

It's easy to understand why jazz and classical devotees would be unsettled by the removal of their favorite music from the radio. But in an age where most are repeatly receiving the same messages from dollar-driven media, the effort to bring more voices and more information to the air benefits more a much broader public. And for journalists, it's a prime opportunity to find more stories we know need to be told.

Posted by Veronica Marché at 7:19 PM | link

Read or Post a Comment

its not unsurprising that this is occuring. The general support for these genres of music, and in fact music in general, is at an all time low. WNYC split the differnece by devoting its AM station 820 to news/talk, but leaving its FM Counterpart 93.9 as music for part of the day. True music lovers do not primarily rely on the radio anyway. The deregulation of the industry in the 90's (one of Clinton's worst moves) has driven traditional radio into the toilet. Couple that with the extreme payola scandals being uncovered (and it *is* the tip of the iceberg) The desire to listen to music on the radio....wanes.

Posted by Blogger The Very Reverend Ace Clemmons, Jr. @ 3:19 PM, July 20, 2006 #

I don't see what all the whining and crying is about. This is an excellent change in format that will benefit a much larger group of people than the small cult of classical music listeners. And like your post said it makes economic sense, people prefer this new format and more stations are certain to change in the years ahead. So classical listeners should just get over it. Public radio now serves a much broader audience! More people benefit from the free flow of information from as many journalists as possible than from a nitch form of music!

Posted by Anonymous Aaron @ 8:32 PM, August 03, 2006 #
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