WETA (90.9 FM) was a classical station for 35 years until it switched to news and talk, largely from NPR and the BBC, in February 2005. But last month the board voted to authorize the station's management to consider reverting to music programming if the area's only remaining classical outlet, WGMS, dropped the format, as was already expected at the time. (Metro Washington already has an all-news NPR outlet, WAMU.)
The format change was carefully planned with Bonneville International Corp., which owns WGMS (103.9 and 104.1 FM). According to The Washington Post, WETA and WGMS executives began discussing the collaboration three weeks ago, after Dan DeVany, WETA's general manager, approached Joel Oxley, Bonneville's top local executive. They agreed that Bonneville will allow WETA use of WGMS's familiar call letter (which once stood for "Washington's Good Music Station"). WETA's booster station in Hagerstown, Maryland, WETH, will be renamed WGMS, pending approval from federal regulators.
"It made sense for these two organizations to come together," the Post quotes Oxley as saying. "Both sides agreed it made sense for their stations and their listeners. This saves classical music in this market and arguably puts it in a better place than it is now."
Both stations hope to benefit financially from the transfer: WETA aims to translate its exclusivity as the area's only classical station into more pledge dollars and members; Bonneville, meanwhile, gets to jump ship from the declining classical-radio field for programming that lures a more youthful audience — and thus potentially more local advertising dollars.
According to the Post, the two stations will cross-promote each other for approximately six months. WETA will air announcements for Bonneville's all-news WTOP (103.5 FM, 820 AM) as well as for WTWP (107.7 FM, 1500 AM), the news and talk station produced in conjunction with the Post's newsroom.
Bonneville is also donating the WGMS classical music library of 18,000 CDs to WETA, whose collection already numbers 25,000.
And of course, local listeners will be able to enjoy classical music on the air for the foreseeable future. "We're thrilled to partner with WETA to keep classical music alive in the Washington area and create a new music station that will energize many music fans," Bruce Reese, president and CEO of Bonneville, said in a statement.
According to the Post, WETA will lay off eight staff members who worked on its news and talk programming, including Rebecca Roberts, who hosted the daily current-affairs show The Intersection. WGMS, meanwhile, will lay off 10 people. Each station said it would interview the other's former staffers for any openings.
The old WGMS (which had been airing classical music since the station's inception in 1947) played its last classical selection Monday afternoon: the funereal closing chorus from Bach's St. Matthew Passion. According to the Post, longtime WGMS program director Jim Allison (who will leave the station to take the same job at WETA) announced, "It is indeed with tears of grief that we leave the Washington airwaves." Then the new regime played Sheryl Crow's A Change Would Do You Good.