WJHU switch to news pays off Music to their ears: The FM station has more listeners pledging more money since the shift from classical music.

November 03, 1995|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,SUN STAFF

It may have produced discord when it occurred this summer, but WJHU-FM's decision to switch its weekday programming from classical music to news and public affairs shows appears to have been a hit with listeners.

The station's recent fund drive raised 15 percent more than last fall's, and while WJHU's share of the audience has remained fairly steady, those listening are spending more time with the station.

Dennis Kita, general manager of WJHU (88.1), acknowledged that the station approached this year's fund drive with uncertainty, recalling a telephone message from one listener RTC unhappy with the decision to air classical music only on weekends.

"He said I was a Philistine and a Mozart-basher," said Mr. Kita. But he added, "To be truthful, I had more confidence about the long-term viability of the change than in the immediate response."

His confidence was borne out by the fund drive. About 2,800 callers pledged more than $120,000, surpassing the station's goals of 2,100 calls and $80,000.

Although results are still being analyzed, Mr. Kita said the principal daytime programs in WJHU's new lineup -- "The Diane Rehm Show" (10 a.m.-noon) and "The Marc Steiner Show" (noon-2 p.m.) -- both drew notably more pledges than did classical music in the comparable fall pledge drive in 1994.

Morning classical music averaged one to eight calls of support per hour in 1994, vs. seven to 16 per hour for "The Diane Rehm Show." The noontime classical show struggled to get one call per hour last fall, while this year WJHU received 11 to 23 calls per hour during "The Marc Steiner Show."

The popular National Public Radio programs "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" also continued to draw strong support, and weekend programming remained constant. The station also said the average dollar amount of each pledge rose from about $45 last year to about $50 in this drive.

WJHU was not alone in enjoying strong listener support this fall, which Mr. Kita and others see as an indication that the format change has been good for Baltimore's public radio market as a whole.

Earlier this month, WBJC-FM (91.5), now Baltimore's only

classical music station, conducted a four-day fund drive that drew record pledges: about $97,000 from 1,600 callers, "the most ever for a four-day drive," said general manager Cary Smith.

WEAA-FM (88.9), the jazz and talk station based at Morgan State University, also ended a successful, five-day drive that raised $54,512 in pledges, against a goal of $50,000.

WAMU-FM (88.5) in Washington, which can be heard in many areas of the Baltimore market, finished its week-long fall drive with more calls and pledges than at any time in the station's history. Almost 12,000 callers pledged more than $822,000.

Although non-commercial stations generally cite contributions as the best measure of audience satisfaction, preliminary numbers from the Arbitron ratings service showed no large changes in audiences this summer over last summer.

From July through September, WBJC led public stations in the share of listeners 12 and older, with about 6,100 people tuning in during the average quarter hour. WEAA was second with about 5,000 listeners and WJHU was third with about 4,700 listeners.

Compared to the same period last year, the shares were somewhat lower for both WBJC and WJHU while somewhat improved for WEAA. Nevertheless, both Mr. Smith at WBJC and Mr. Kita at WJHU found reasons for optimism.

Mr. Smith noted that his station's weekly total of listeners was up, and Mr. Kita pointed out that the average time listeners spent tuned in to WJHU rose by nearly an hour.

Both station officials added, however, that it is too early to tell whether listening patterns have shifted significantly as a result of the WJHU changes.

"The fact is, we're both way down there," acknowledged Mr. Kita, noting that ratings for both WJHU and WBJC are low compared to commercial stations. Top-ranked WBAL-AM (1090), for example, drew about 28,000 listeners in a quarter hour.

"It's not a horse race between WBJC and WJHU," Mr. Kita added. "We're in this together."

Mr. Smith at WBJC sounded a similar note. He said some classical music fans probably switched allegiances to WBJC, but that WJHU also benefited from its format change because "the services that we're trying to provide are very different now."

Whatever the response among listeners, WJHU's decision to switch from classic music to news and talk on weekdays was "inevitable," said a former program director and announcer who left the station last year because of the pending change in direction.

"I very much wanted to maintain the classical music [but] the support just wasn't there," said Peter Moskowitz, who left the station in mid-1994 and currently works for Borders Books and Music in Towson.

One vocal critic of the change, however, continued this week to mourn the passing of the old format.

Listener Grover Condon of Aberdeen, a former volunteer for the Friends of WJHU support organization, called the switch a loss of "an important part of Baltimore's cultural structure" in a June letter to The Sun.

And this week he said he has not been won over by the new programming. "I feel that they were the premiere public radio station in Baltimore They sort of had everything before the change," he said.

Mr. Kita, however, noted that Baltimore listeners have access to classical music from WBJC, as well as several Washington stations. "A community is better served by more than one kind of service," he said.

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