Friday, February 25, 2005

Chopin is on the chopping block.

Public radio stations in Washington and other cities are dropping classical music from their lineups, replacing it with news and talk shows, especially the increasingly popular offerings from National Public Radio.

In the past five years, between 40 and 50 stations that once featured a mix of classical music and news either dropped it or sharply reduced the amount they play, according to Station Resource Group, a Takoma Park consulting group that helps public broadcasters conduct strategic planning.

The latest station to join the crowd: WETA-FM (90.9) in the Washington area, which will pull classical music off its schedule and switch to an all-news format Monday.

“It is painful, but my job is to steward this public radio station in the best possible way,” said Daniel C. DeVany, WETA’s vice president and general manager and a longtime classical music listener.

Mr. DeVany and other station managers said they are adopting the all-news format because the audience for classical music isn’t growing as fast as the audience for news.

“We’re in a time of relentless news cycles. The hunger for high-quality and in-depth news is greater than ever,” said Tom Thomas, Station Resource Group’s co-chief executive.

Also driving the switch to news: fund-raising concerns.

Listeners tend to tune in longer and demonstrate more loyalty to stations that offer NPR news than to stations that primarily play classical music, making it easier to raise money from the audience, according to a study by George Bailey, a Wisconsin consultant to public broadcasters.

Nationally, NPR reports its audience has grown 52 percent since 1999. It now reaches about 22 million listeners a week.

On WETA weekdays at 9 a.m., when NPR’s “All Things Considered” newscast ends and the classical music begins, most listeners flip their dials to other stations that offer news, Mr. DeVany said.

WETA also has faced a juggernaut in WGMS-FM (103.5), a commercial classical station owned by Bonneville International Corp.

Through most of 2004, WGMS drew 5.7 percent of local listeners weekdays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when both stations play classical music, dwarfing WETA’s 1.9-percent audience share.

“There are few places where you can have a marketplace that supports two classical music stations. … The audience is only so large. It’s hard to share it,” said Arthur Cohen, a consultant who is studying the decline of classical music on the public airwaves anda former WETA manager.

If WGMS were not serving listeners who want classical music, WETA may not have given up on the format completely, said Mr. DeVany, who ran the National Symphony Orchestra’s corporate-development department before joining WETA in 1986.

“Were we in a different market, I would have very different views about this,” he said.

For the most part, the public broadcasters dropping classical music are the stations that mix the music with NPR news.

The number of classical-only public stations has held steady at 42 in the past five years, Mr. Thomas said. “It hasn’t grown, but it hasn’t declined, either.”

The lineup WETA introduces Monday will include “Day to Day,” an NPR midday show that is not available on the other NPR station in the Washington area, WAMU-FM (88.5), as well as BBC programming.

WETA will continue to offer Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and “Traditions,” a folk music show, on Saturdays.

NPR does not dictate what its member stations play, said spokesman Chad Campbell.

“Programming is and always has been a matter for the member stations to decide. NPR has no role in it,” he said, adding that the nonprofit organization offers a 24-hour classical music service for member stations.

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