I was in the car at mid-afternoon today when, for reasons beyond even me, I switched from satellite radio to commercial FM, in particular the local classical music station, WGMS-FM. They were playing Lynard Skynard. Something was amiss. Then they played a 15-second tag that went something like: "There is still classical music in Washington. Switch to WETA at 90.9 FM. The management of Bonneville thanks you for your support. And now, we continue with the new sound of George 104!"
Let's back up a bit.
Washington has too many news and talk radio stations. They're all over the AM band, like everywhere else, and now they're invading the FM band. Back in 2005, WETA decided the Nation's capital could stand just one more, and switched from classical and fine arts programming to an all news/talk format. That left WGMS to carry the banner. Then WGMS switched their frequency from 103.5, giving it up for (what else?) WTOP, another news/talk channel, and switched over to 104.1, which has a weaker signal. Nice move, fellas.
Meanwhile, Dan Snyder, owner of the Redskins, gets together with Bonneville, owner of WGMS, about buying the station and changing it to an all-sports format. (What would they call the announcers, "jock jocks?") Well, the deal fell through, but Bonneville still wanted to change formats. So, at 3:00 in the afternoon yesterday, they broke the bad news to the world; what the world needs now, is one more oldies station. Not just any oldies station, mind you, but "the 70s, the 80s, and... whatever we want." Right, like they wouldn't dare leave every second of airplay up to marketing experts. (At least the first 104 days are commercial free. It's almost worth putting up with for that reason alone.)
Right about this time, the Board of Directors at WETA woke up from the Night of the Living Dead, long enough to make the bold leap that Washington could muddle through somehow with one less news/talk station. Bonneville donated their entire library of 15,000 classical music recordings to WETA, as well as (pending FCC approval) their now-defunct call letters for WETA's translator in Hagerstown, Maryland.
And they all lived happily ever after.
The bad news is, conventional radio in this country is still lacking in imagination, as if all the money is in "shooting toward the middle," at a time when there is considerable growth in "narrowcasting" in other forms of media. In a recent Washington Post Sunday Magazine piece, the problem with banking on the oldies format is becoming apparent with programming beginning with music from the 1970s. In the 50s and the 60s, a generation listened to more or less the same thing with popular music. But by the 70s, musical tastes in the youth market began to segment. Now, the generation which came of age in the 70s is becoming part of the "oldies" market. The problem is, it's no longer one identifiable market. That's when the cash cow begins to break down. It's no longer about "shooting toward the middle" when it's a moving target.
The good news is, I can listen to Chopin's Nocturnes in the evening without being jolted by an obnoxious car dealer commercial, since "a public radio station is more conducive to classical music than commercial radio." (Wow, you think?) That's as long as I'm ever stuck listening to FM instead of my beloved XM Satellite Radio. With XM, I can still be entertained by any one of dozens of distinct formats, depending on the mood I'm in. This includes the programming of WETA expatriates Robert Aubry Davis (star of "Millennium of Music," one of my faves), and his confrere Michael Goldsmith.
Life is good. At least in my car.