Finale for music as WETA goes all-news

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To stop a long slide in audience, WETA-FM in Washington, D.C., will adopt an all-news format Feb. 28.

With almost unanimous approval from its board of trustees, the station will add news programs from the BBC, NPR and other sources, replacing classical music during middays and evenings, Monday through Friday. Saturday broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera and a weekly folk show will be WETA’s last music offerings.

Middays will feature NPR’s Day to Day, as well as News and Notes with Ed Gordon, the replacement of Tavis Smiley’s program that is also aimed at black listeners. Both shows will repeat at night. Chicago Public Radio’s Odyssey and BBC programs including World Briefing and Global Report round out the midday lineup.

The change leaves the nation’s capital as one of the few radio markets with two all-news public radio stations. WETA execs are betting that the Beeb’s international fare will distinguish their news/talk programming from WAMU’s. There was no talk at WETA’s board meeting about developing a local news effort to match the rival station’s.

“This was principally and primarily a public service issue,” said Dan DeVany, v.p. and g.m. for WETA-FM. The station’s longtime dual format of news and classical music had split its audience, depressing average-quarter-hour listening and the time listeners spent with the station.

WETA’s fall 2004 Arbitron numbers were its worst in 15 years, DeVany said. The station had a 2 share, down from 3.3 in the mid ’90s.

Fewer listeners were donating and underwriters were more interested in buying time during news shows than music, he added.

The station had been considering a format change for three years, finally choosing between all-news or all-classical. When listeners tuned away from WETA, more were going to news than to music, DeVany said, and the station’s morning audience has grown since 1999, when WETA replaced classical music in that time with Morning Edition.

Classical music has become more widely available in the meantime, DeVany pointed out, with the advent of satellite and Internet radio.

The new lineup will raise WETA’s programming costs but not its BBC dues. The broadcaster offers its programming at a flat fee and WETA already carries World Update.

The board overwhelmingly approved the switch after a public comment session, when listeners and representatives from Washington-area arts organizations begged them to preserve the city’s free, noncommercial source of classical music. (Commercial classical station WGMS-FM also broadcasts in Washington.) Listeners rarely attend board meetings, according to a WETA spokesman.

Several attendees also denounced WETA-TV’s refusal to air the controversial “Sugartime!” episode of Postcards from Buster.

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