The Washington Post reports that WGMS, DC's classical radio station, has been bought by the owner of the Redskins and is almost certain to switch to a sports-talk format. For some time, WGMS, the "good music station," hasn't been very good at what it does, focussing on a limited repertory and indulging in a lot of inane chatter. Still, it was the last thing left, WETA having converted to talk last year. I grew up listening to WGMS, back when the programming was at a far superior level (there was a great weekly show by the late Paul Hume). It's sad to see this happen, although with so many alternatives available on Internet and satellite radio it's hardly the end of the world.
Anyone who spins this story as an example of classical music's allegedly declining audience — the "death of classical music" routine — will be engaging in pure fiction. WGMS, whatever its failings, has long enjoyed excellent ratings and is a profitable outfit, generating $9.7 million in advertising. Before it was downgraded to an inferior signal a year ago, its ratings were on the rise, according to Paul Farhi in the Post. Mark Fratrik, a broadcasting commentator, makes it clear why so many classical stations are being eliminated these days. To quote the Post: "One part of the problem, [Fratrik] said, is that classical works are long, which makes it more difficult for stations to fit lots of commercials onto the air. Moreover, he said, classical fans tend to be older, and advertisers pay a premium for younger listeners." So, it doesn't matter that a classical station has a healthy listenership and is profitable. The problem is that it doesn't allow advertisers to saturate the airwaves, so a listener tuning in during a short car ride can be injected with propaganda. More important, it doesn't have the right kind of listener — the young male that advertisers pathetically lust after, like Aschenbach panting on the beach in Death in Venice.
When WETA converted from classical to talk, its ratings dropped. Dan DeVany, the station's general manager, claimed then that he wouldn't have made the change if DC hadn't already had a classical station in WGMS. Now, asked whether he would reconsider, DeVany says: "I wouldn't want to speculate at this time. We're really happy with our [news-talk] format. We've been doing some good things." The CEO of WETA is Sharon Rockefeller, who is related by marriage to Nelson Rockefeller, who was instrumental in the founding of Lincoln Center. To put it bluntly, she is not doing a very good job of tending to Rockefeller's legacy.
More: An informed reader questions my optimism by pointing that since 1999 the classical audience has fallen by 29% in the Arbtiron format trends report. To which I'd reply: this decline is probably the result not of a shrinking audience but of a shrinking number of classical stations. The number of commercial classical stations in the US has dropped from 40 to 28 since 1998, according to this PlaybillArts story. Looking at the regional data on the Arbitron site, I notice a pattern: figures hold steady over time, then suddenly go down. For example, in the Mountain region, there's a drastic plunge from a share of 5.4 to 0.5 in 1999. In the Mid Atlantic region, the share held steady at around 1.9 until this year, when there was a decline. I doubt that these staggered drops are related to overall trends in classical listening. Rather, I'd guess that most of them could be correlated to abrupt closures of classical stations by profit-hungry conglomerates.