- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Radio listeners tuning in this morning probably noticed some big changes have taken place on the Washington airwaves.

Two local radio stations flipped formats yesterday, introducing a new playlist at formerly classical WGMS-FM (104.1) and bumping Mozart, Beethoven and the gang over to WETA-FM (90.9), which previously aired all-news programming.

The new “George 104” features hits from the 1970s and 1980s as well as “whatever we want,” a common adult hits format seen in other U.S. markets, such as WQSR-FM (102.7), or “102.7 Jack FM,” in Baltimore.

” ‘George 104’ will give Washington radio listeners another alternative between Top 40 radio and urban stations that currently document the music landscape,” said Bruce Reese, president and chief executive officer of Bonneville International Corp., which owns the station.

“George 104” kicked off 104 days of commercial-free programming at 3 p.m. yesterday with its first song: Sheryl Crow’s 1996 hit “A Change Would Do You Good.”

But with the arrival of “George 104,” listeners bid farewell to a Washington institution. The nearly 60-year-old WGMS, whose call letters stood for “Washington’s Good Music Station,” had the area’s first FM signal and held the record for the longest consecutive broadcast in the same format.

Moments before the station flipped to “George 104,” WGMS Program Director Jim Allison signed off with the help of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”

“In a few minutes, we’ll make way for a new format on this frequency,” Mr. Allison told the station’s final listeners. “It is indeed with tears of grief that we leave the Washington airwaves. But as with so many things in life, there’s more to the story. I’m very pleased to announce that the classical music tradition will continue to live on in Washington.”

The demise of WGMS is the rebirth of classical on WETA, which has the strongest FM signal in the area. The Arlington public radio station abandoned classical music in 2005 after 35 years in favor of National Public Radio and other news broadcasts.

WETA flipped to all-classical at 8 p.m. last night. Its only exceptions will be weekdays at 7 p.m. for “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” and periodic NPR cut-ins.

The privately owned station has applied to the Federal Communications Commission to transfer the WGMS call letters to its 89.1 Hagerstown simulcast frequency, and will be known as Classical WETA (90.9 FM) pending approval.

Bonneville is aiding WETA in the transition and has donated 15,000 CDs from the WGMS library. In addition, Mr. Allison is the station’s new program director.

Tom Taylor, editor in chief of Inside Radio, said the dial changes should please everyone, especially classical fans who were upset by WGMS’ move last year from 103.5 FM to a weaker signal at 104.1 FM.

“A lot of listeners got stranded,” Mr. Taylor said. “It also takes care of WETA’s identity problem. It gives them a solid niche that they can own.”

In addition, he said, Washington public radio station WAMU-FM (88.5) no longer faces direct competition from WETA.

The news is also good for Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who was in negotiations to purchase 104.1 FM from Bonneville, Mr. Taylor noted. After the deal reportedly fell through, rumors circulated that Bonneville might flip the station to a sports-talk format to rival Mr. Snyder’s “Triple X ESPN Radio,” broadcast on a trio of weak signals, 94.3 FM, 92.7 FM and 730 AM.

Adult hit stations like the new “George 104” are “put together in very unusual ways based on radio history” and typically do well, Mr. Taylor said.

“Normally, in radio you are looking for smooth segue ways. With this, you want a train wreck,” he said of the shuffled playlists.

In the Washington market, WRQX-FM (107.3), or “Mix 107.3,” probably will be affected the most by the new format, he added.

Privately held Bonneville does not have any on-air talent lined up for “George 104,” a spokeswoman said, and is playing it by ear for now. The company typically uses disc jockeys at its adult hits stations in other cities.

For its part, WETA so far has only hired Mr. Allison from WGMS, but a spokeswoman said the station is open to speaking with former on-air personalities as openings become available.

With the end of WGMS, Bonneville is ending programming on its classical HD Radio stations, Viva La Voce and Virtuoso.

Asked if classical music on commercial radio is a doomed proposition, Mr. Taylor pointed out that the format works in other cities, including New York, Milwaukee and Seattle.

Still, he noted: “If Bonneville doesn’t feel that they can pull off that format over the long term, I think that’s going to produce some soul-searching elsewhere.”

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