- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 14, 2002

More people are listening to WAMU-FM (88.5), one year after the public radio station dropped bluegrass music from its weekday schedule and added more news and talk programs.
The question is: Just how much have the ratings improved?
WAMU, which American University owns, drew an average 395,800 Washington-area listeners each week between March 28 and June 19, or about 1 percent more than in spring 2001, according to the Arbitron Inc. ratings service.
But when listeners from the outlying areas are included, WAMU's improvement looks more dramatic. It shows the station drew 515,900 listeners each week in the spring, 11 percent more than in spring 2001.
No matter how you slice it, station executives say the programming changes have paid off.
"We have always felt that it was our responsibility to be responsive to the needs of our community. We had a strong base of local news, and that's what listeners wanted more of," said Susan Clampitt, executive director and general manager.
Until last year, WAMU sounded like a station with an identity crisis. It aired a mix of local talk and news shows, National Public Radio programs and bluegrass music.
The public-affairs shows, particularly "The Diane Rehm Show" and "Public Interest with Kojo Nnamdi," had become reliable alternatives for listeners turned off by louder talk shows on the commercial stations.
Meanwhile, WAMU's Saturday morning newsmagazine, "Metro Connection," was winning rave reviews.
Bluegrass seemed increasingly out of place on the station's airwaves. So in June 2001, it moved the music from weekday afternoons to Sunday mornings, replacing it with the National Public Radio program "All Things Considered."
Some bluegrass fans cried foul. Ms. Clampitt said the switch was necessary because WAMU has to serve the widest possible audience, and most listeners crave news programs.
To that end, WAMU in the last year has added two reporters to its staff of five, and it has beefed up its coverage of Washington's arts scene in an attempt to distinguish itself from commercial competitors.
For example, it recently produced an acclaimed special on the Washington Opera's trip to Japan, the kind of programming Ms. Clampitt said listeners won't hear on other stations.
Although financial contributions to WAMU have risen since the changes the station raised $4.2 million in fiscal 2002, up from $3.1 million the previous fiscal year it isn't trying to mimic its for-profit peers.
"I like to think that the commercial stations make programs to make money, but we raise money to make programs," said Mark McDonald, programming director.
And as Ms. Clampitt likes to point out, WAMU hasn't completely left bluegrass fans in the cold.
The station recently started Bluegrasscountry.org, a Web site that offers round-the-clock bluegrass music on the Internet. Measurecast.com, a media research service, ranks the site as the Internet's top bluegrass and country music site, with 46,084 visitors in June.
Comings and goings
Is Washington ready for a clash of the TV traffic titans?
The buzz around the water cooler at WUSA-TV (Channel 9) is that traffic reporter Monika Samtani will return to Broadcast House this fall.
Mrs. Samtani had a loyal following in the late 1990s, when she delivered traffic reports on WUSA's early-morning news. She left last year to spend more time with her family.
Rival WJLA-TV (Channel 7) added its own traffic superstar, Lisa Baden, to its early morning news this week.
Swept away
Folks at WTTG-TV (Channel 5) were jumping with joy last week when word spread that ratings for "Fox 5 News at Ten" jumped 30 percent in July.
The newscast got a big boost from "American Idol," the popular Fox talent contest that precedes it on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.
More than 165,900 Washington-area households tuned into the weeknight version of the 10 p.m. news during the 28-day July ratings sweep, which concluded Aug. 7.
During the July 2001 sweep, the newscast drew roughly 127,600 households.
It's a shame so few advertisers care.
Sweeps are the quarterly periods when television broadcasters try to jack up their ratings so they can charge advertisers more money for airtime. Few advertisers pay attention to the July sweeps because so many viewers are at the pool or catching fireflies or whatever it is people do during the summer. (The Channel Surfer wouldn't know, as he stays planted in front his TV set year-round.)
The other big story from the July book: Ratings for the early-morning news on WUSA-TV (Channel 9), which drew roughly 43,190 households, or 30 percent more than in July 2001.
It wasn't all happiness and light at Broadcast House, though. The Gannett-owned CBS affiliate drew a paltry 63,840 households weeknights at 7, when it airs the syndicated "Weakest Link."
The numbers were down 40 percent from July 2001, when the game show "To Tell the Truth" and its C-grade celebrity panel occupied the time slot.
Got a tip for Channel Surfing? Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send an e-mail to [email protected]

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