Something new on the air in WJHU-FM broadcasts

June 23, 1995|By Linell Smith and Laura Lippman | Linell Smith and Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writers Sun music critic Stephen Wigler contributed to this article.

Public radio in Baltimore will undergo major change beginning today as WJHU-FM turns away from classical music -- its mainstay for nearly a decade -- in favor of syndicated news and talk shows, the station announced yesterday.

WJHU will broadcast classical music only on weekends, leaving weekdays to its more popular rival, WBJC-FM. Instead, WJHU will offer such shows as Monitor Radio, the Diane Rehm talk show and Terry Gross' "Fresh Air," a show on culture and the arts.

General Manager Dennis Kita, who broke the news to his staff yesterday and mailed notices to the station's members, said WJHU is making the changes because it does best with news programming.

"Over the years, the overwhelming success of our news programming has led us to conclude that that programming has a lot of potential to serve even more people," he said. "So we're increasing the programming that has been the most successful for us.

"The real question," he added, "is whether we at WJHU are doing the best for public service by being one of seven radio stations in our signal area that have classical music on during the day. Or are we to put on programming that no other Baltimore station is airing."

Nevertheless, the news was greeted with dismay in the city's classical music community.

"It's shocking, and I worry that it's the beginning of a greater trend," said Kenneth Willaman, a cellist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, noting that public radio stations are reflecting the financial pressures of reduced arts funding. "Will this happen at WBJC and then at WETA?"

WJHU (88.1) will continue to play jazz on weeknights, and talk show host Marc Steiner will remain on the air on weekday evenings, although the station plans to expand his show to two hours and move it to a daytime slot in September.

Lisa Simeone, the daytime classical host whose distinctive voice made her one of the station's most popular personalities, will have a one-hour interview show Sunday mornings featuring media commentator Mark Crispin Miller and others.

Bill Spencer, who is host of the weekday morning classical music show, will be out of a job. "I guess I can say it's a very tough, tough personal blow to me," he said. "It's been in the wind for a while and it's probably in the best long-term interests of the station."

Most of the station's weekend programming will remain unchanged, including Bob Benson's classical music program on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and such shows as "Weekend Edition" and "Car Talk."

The station also will continue to produce the BSO's broadcasts of its performances at the Meyerhoff, which have been a joint production of the station and the symphony since the 1985-1986 season.

All of the weekday programming at WJHU, with the exception of Marc Steiner's talk show and Andy Bienstock's jazz program, will be syndicated. That decision drew criticism from one station employee, who asked not to be named.

"In pursuit of higher ratings they have done the typical thing, which is to eliminate what's original in the format and replace it with proven imports," the employee said. "They say they want us to do more public affairs and news, but [most] of the public affairs and news programs are coming from the satellite. They have nothing to do with Baltimore."

Mr. Kita, however, pointed out that the Marc Steiner show, which often discusses local issues, will expand to two hours a day in the fall.

"We're also looking at the possibility of doing additional feature programs which are locally based, commentaries from members of the community and short features which we hope to integrate into our national programs."

For years, WJHU's classical music programming has unsuccessfully battled the all-classical music lineup at WBJC (91.5). In the most recent Arbitron ratings for public radio stations, WJHU ranked a distant second to WBJC -- whose audience is about 50 percent larger during the average week.

The station, owned by Johns Hopkins University, entered the radio wars in earnest in the summer of 1986, creating enormous expectations. The university invested more than $1 million in transforming what had been a student-run station into a public radio station with luxurious new quarters on North Charles Street.

The university bought state-of-the-art equipment, including a recording studio and a new 10,000- watt transmitter -- and assembled a large staff that included two of the best-known voices in Baltimore radio, Ms. Simeone and Mr. Benson.

Both had been lured away from WBJC, affiliated with Community College of Baltimore. WJHU had also hired a new program manager, David Creagh, who predicted that his newly refurbished station would overtake WBJC by attracting more corporate underwriting than its competitor could.

"We can offer value, exclusivity and lack of clutter," Mr. Creagh told The Sun in March 1986. "Our listeners will be highly educated decision-makers."

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