WCAO Radio 60, an award-winning country music station with veteran Baltimore on-air personalities, announced this morning that it will change to an all-gospel format on Monday.
Disk jockey Johnny Dark, an institution on Baltimore radio for more than 30 years, got his pink slip yesterday, and today was Dark's last day on the air. He planned his last show, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., as a goodbye for his fans and listeners.
"I'm more concerned about the people listening to us than about myself," he said this morning. "I'm not going to worry about what I'm going to do next until Monday. This is not the end of me, it's the end of this station. It's the end of an era."
The changeover, dictated by fading ratings, according to station officials, has also cashiered on-air personalities Ron Matz, R.C. Allen, Brenda Bissett, Tom Conroy and Danny Reese.
They will finish their work for the station with their final shows today or this weekend.
The switch to all-gospel programming won't have an immediate effect on the station's extensive sports inventory, according to a station spokesman who said that all commitments will be honored through the current seasons.
The station will continue to carry Washington Redskins football games and Washington Capitals hockey games; will continue covering the Baltimore Blast with the broadcast team of Dave Johnson and Bob Bartel; and will also cover selected Loyola College basketball games, the spokesman said.
Bartel, long-time sports director and host of various sports talk shows over the years, was among the on-air personalities whose full-time services were terminated today.
Carole Brown, the station's human resources director, said the format change will not affect WCAO's sister station, WXYV-FM (V-103), which now has an "urban contemporary" format.
WCAO was one of Baltimore's premier AM rock 'n' roll stations during the 1950s and 1960s. Its format changed to "adult contemporary" in the late 1960s, but as ratings sagged, the station changed to a country format in 1982.
The new 24-hour gospel format will begin at 5 a.m. Monday.
"The ratings were just not there" to continue with the all-country programming, Brown said. In its most recent ratings "book," WCAO had fallen to a 1 percent share of the Baltimore listening audience. (According to the Arbitron ratings service, each share point represents about 3,600 listeners in an average quarter-hour.)
"With the new programming, it's going to be a lot better combination to sell to advertisers," Brown said. "We're going to be able to reach an audience that ties in with our FM audience, and that puts us in a stronger position."
The FM station's urban contemporary format reaches mostly black listeners, Brown said. And while people who listen to gospel music don't necessarily also listen to urban contemporary, the two formats will compliment each other, "so advertisers will have a tremendous advantage trying to reach that group of people."
Station personnel were doing their best today to cope with the changes, which were announced to them yesterday afternoon.
"It's an FM world now," said Dark. "We had an opportunity with AM radio to do personality radio, which is almost unheard of anymore."
Although Dark introduced the Beatles to Baltimoreans at the Civic Center in 1964, he remembers his finest moment with the station occurring in 1984 when Billboard named WCAO its country music station of the year and proclaimed
Dark program director of year.
"Strangely enough, I've developed a passion for country music," Dark said. "Even though I'd been an adult contemporary jock when the station changed in '82, I love country music now."
"It's rough," Brown said. "People had to have a sense that something had to happen because of the . . . ratings and the economics of this business.
"Still, you're surprised, because once you hear something, all of a sudden it hits and you're shocked. But they've all handled it beautifully. They're all pros and we're very proud of them," Brown said.
All the current on-air personalities have been offered a chance to apply for positions under the new gospel format, Brown said, but none has yet responded. "It's certainly different, but we want them to considerit if they're interested," she said.
Not all the talent has been hired as yet for the new programming, Brown said.
"It sounds like we'll be picking up some listeners," said Jennifer Grimm, general manager of WPOC-FM 93.1, the market's only other country music format station.
Grimm added, however, that she does not think WCAO's change leaves much of a hole in the market, save for a very small number of people who still own AM-only radios.
"We have between the two of us pretty well maximized the country life group" of listeners in the area, she said. As for WCAO's departing personnel, she added, "I really wish we had some openings . . . but we're pretty solid right now."