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8.12.06

(Air-)Wave the Last Classical Notes Goodbye

WGMS LogoWGMS, Washington’s Classical Station (the moniker, insinuating “primary” or “first”, became true by default when WETA abandoned their mission and classical music last year), will soon send its last bit of classical music over the Washington region airwaves. The station, owned by the Bonneville Inc. is about to be sold to Red Skins owner Dan Snyder who has plans to convert it into one of his “Red Zebra” Redskins sports stations. (If you didn’t have much sympathy for Snyder to begin with, add to his list of achievements that he took Classical Music off the air in Washington.)

WGMS, no doubt, was not the ideal classical radio station. Far from it. They played the seemingly same music up and down the “greatest Hits” list; there was rarely an intriguing surprise; the commercials were beyond annoying. It was “Classical Music for Dummies” – but at least it was classical music. And it was a successful, profitable (!), classical radio station. (Having learned about the difficulties that go into assessing a classical station’s listenership, I have gained much respect for the efforts – if not always the results – of stations like WGMS.)

Viva La Voce LogoAfter being downgraded from the stronger 103.5 signal (now broadcasting the higher revenue Bonneville’s WTOP), WGMS was to address the holes of its coverage (ironically you couldn’t receive the WGMS signal at the WGMS station itself) with a booster. Moreover, WGMS was working on a very exciting project that would have had any Ionarts reader’s ears perk up: A Digital Radio Channel – traveling on the 103.5 frequency together with the digital “twin” signal of WTOP – was being worked on. Rather than simply copying WGMS’ program and spewing it out in a digital format (which means CD quality sound at the receiver’s end, among other benefits), it was to be an entirely different program. Under the working title “Virtuoso”, it was to be a “hard-core” classical channel – on the air as soon as February or March. Imagine late Beethoven String Quartets. Complete Bruckner Symphonies. Music by living composers, like Paul Moravec.

Other Articles:

Paul Fahri, Redskins Owner Set to Buy Last Classical Station (Washington Post, December 8)

Alex Ross, WGMS says goodbye to good music (The Rest Is Noise, December 8)

David Hughes offers continuous coverage and updates on DCRTV.com
Unlike with satellite radio, HD Radio is free and only requires a digital receiver. Unlike Internet Radio, HD Radio is not terribly expensive to send out to a large group of listeners. (Streaming costs became so prohibitively expensive that WGMS’ Internet Vocal Classical Music Station, “Viva La Voce”, had to move from a free, to a subscription model. Not to make money from the subscription – at $5 a month only a nominal fee, anyway – but simply to reduce the number of listeners to assure the station could afford to keep Viva La Voce alive until a new financing model would have been found.) The future of Viva La Voce and Virtuoso are probably as dim as that of WGMS’ regular program. Especially the presumed, prenatal death of the latter is the true, hidden, tragedy of the takeover of WGMS.

Under their current general manager Dan DeVany, WETA is not likely to go back to classical music because it would be tantamount to admitting complete failure of the move that he fought so hard for. WETA’s ratings are down, since; as are individual contributions. The minority audience share has, to my knowledge, not gone up… although it was a large part of the justification for the switch. (Unfortunately Mr. DeVany seems to see classical music through a racial prism.) This leaves Baltimore's WBJC as the entire Washington/Baltimore region’s classical music station. Unless you live in Silver Spring or Bethesda or have a high quality receiver and a huge roof-antenna, however, you won’t reap those benefits.

P.S. Good news for entrepreneurs? If Dan Snyder gets rid of the classical format, Bonneville is allegedly offering to donate the WGMS music library to any station that will preserve the format in the DC market.

6 comments:

Terry said...

KUSC in Los Angeles moved to dilute their classical format in the early 90's. That management team was eventually run off through a membership revolt. Hope springs eternal. Does anyone else think it's downright embarassing that our capital city cannot even offer classical music radio?

Charles T. Downey said...

Terry, embarrassing is the word.

*eye tics nervously*

This drives me absolutely nuts. It is not WGMS's fault, but I do still soundly blame WETA-FM for their cowardice. We should all pray for that station's demise unless they return to a classical format.

Once again, I urge all Ionarts readers in the area not to give any money to WETA. Please support WBJC in Baltimore instead.

Terry said...

Supporting WBJC is good and necessary in principal but the signal it's sending is too intermittent for a large portion of this area. My laptop is my radio and financial support also goes to my online stations across the country.

As to WETA, they get basic membership for the TV guide - how else to search for the occasional nugget? That's effective too because it keeps them calling my house for an increase. Then they get treated to my lecture on the lousy radio station.

Mark said...

Terry, good point about onine patronage. The majority of my listening is on my laptop also, and it's nation wide and more. With the advent of HD radio the choices will double overnight, starting this year. There is nothing like hometown radio but it's a tough market place.

smeehan said...

I am truly enraged by the loss of WGMS, to which I have been listening happily for years. The sole reason for any continued support of WETA is Mary Cliff, as I see it, and if she goes, I will never give another penny to that station. Dan DeVaney's switchover has been revealed for what it is - lowest common denominator direction.

I don't blame Dan Snyder - the man has no class and knows no better. I feel terribly sorry for the sterling cast of radio hosts at WGMS, as well as their behinds-the-scene supporting staff. I hope they will be able to come up with a rent-paying format on the web. They, and we deserve much, much better. RIP, WETA!

Anonymous said...

All of these points are good, and we should not let this pass. Anyone concerned should send a letter to Chairman Martin at the FCC (1) objecting to the license transfer to the little Nazi, Dan Snyder, and (2) objecting to the failure of WETA radio to fulfill its publicly mandated mission: compensating for market failure in commercial radio. Who is this DeVany and what is his problem????? Also copy the incoming House of Rep. chairmen with jurisdiction over broadcasting -- Dingell and Markey. Let's have some hearings on this!!