News pushes weekday bluegrass off-air in D.C.
The crying fiddles and rollicking banjoes are quiet now on WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C. Last week, the station dropped bluegrass and country music from its weekday line-up and replaced it with news shows in an effort to strengthen its core format of news and information.
The June 25 change proved to be controversial in the nation's capital. News junkies sang the station's praises while angered bluegrass fans mounted letter-writing campaigns and muttered about possible lawsuits. Two-thirds of nearly 800 responses came from disgruntled music lovers.
Fans have seen the change coming for years. In 1992, WAMU replaced music with talk shows in the early afternoon. Rumors of further cutbacks began when General Manager Susan Clampitt took the reins at WAMU last year. They intensified when the station temporarily replaced the afternoon music with news in the aftermath of November's presidential election, and Clampitt says listeners complained when bluegrass returned after the political chaos died down.
That plus the feedback WAMU received from comment lines, on-air campaigns, and focus groups convinced her that news needed to move into the key drivetime real estate. Weekday afternoons now feature The World at 3 and two added hours of All Things Considered, starting at 4. WAMU also added To the Point and Le Show on weeknights and picked up Studio 360on weekends, while dropping Whad'Ya Know?
Even as it mows its bluegrass down to weekend shows, WAMU has used a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to start a new online audio stream of bluegrass and country music, bluegrasscountry.org.
"This decision is about fulfilling our mission to serve our listening public, and what that listening public wants to hear in this market," says spokeswoman Chris Naylor.
WAMU has joined other stations around the country that are cutting back on music and adding talkier fare, including Maine Public Radio and KUER in Salt Lake City. The changes bring WAMU's schedule even more in line with that of market mate WETA-FM. WETA was already airing ATC at 4 p.m., and two years ago it dropped morning classical music to air Morning Edition opposite WAMU.
It's not hard to see why bluegrass divided WAMU listeners. For years the switch from unaccented, strait-laced news shows to Southern-flavored country tunes stuck out like a sour note in a banjo break. Naylor says the 3 p.m. switch to bluegrass drove away 90 percent of the station's listeners.
Yet the idiosyncratic formatting tied into Washington, D.C.'s status as a bluegrass capital. Starting in the '50s, working-class Appalachians, hit hard by an ailing mining industry, moved to the area looking for work. Their music came with them. Today, lawyers and lobbyists are ardent fans, and top bluegrass acts headline at city venues. Despite the rich heritage, no D.C.-area station besides WAMU plays bluegrass.
The music's presence on WAMU has diminished over the years, but it always played a crucial role in the station's growth, says Kim Hodgson, who preceded Clampitt and now heads WDAV-FM in Davidson, N.C. "It wasn't news and information that helped the station succeed in the early '70s," he says. "It was bluegrass."
Bluegrass attracted almost all of the station's volunteers when Hodgson started as g.m. in 1987, and throughout his tenure it attracted people to NPR who had never heard of the network before. "If I had ever thought that the bluegrass was seriously harming the radio station's chances of survival or its ability to do other things well, I probably would have done the same thing that [current management] has done," he says. "But I never felt that."
Bluegrass fans are calling for a boycott, complaining to Congress about
WAMU's overlap with WETA, and considering a class-action lawsuit, says attorney
Kevin Appel, who has launched the Coalition to Save Bluegrass on WAMU. "WAMU
has been a national treasure," he says. "Now they're telling us
[bluegrass fans], 'We don't care for your support. We're dumping you.'"
Posted Oct. 20, 2003
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