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Is this thing on?

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So, WUNC is dropping classical music in favor of a news and information format, "to focus on our public service mission," as WUNC General Manager Joan Siefert Rose put it.

There was much rejoicing this weekend after the station announced the changes. The prevailing theory seems to be that WUNC's classical programming was so bad, almost anything would be better. But why did a radio station with WUNC's assets produce poor programming for so long?

Answer: It was cheap.

"If it were all about the money, we wouldn't be making any changes," Rose said last week. "It was a lot cheaper to broadcast the classical music." So cheap, in fact, it left the radio station flush after years of successful fundraising and ritual public poor-mouthing of the station's finances.

Consequently, the station has the money to buy the new, expensive national shows without necessarily raising its fundraising goals. "There have been prudent fiscal decisions made over the years," said Rose, who joined the station in February.

For some time public radio marketers have felt classical music hasn't been pulling its weight. Public radio stations all over the country have been ditching the format despite its low cost.

In 1999, a research firm called Audience Research Analysis (they list WUNC as a client) issued a widely circulated report, saying among other things: "Local classical music is widely heard but not as highly valued [as news shows like Morning Edition]. While it generates almost a quarter of the listening to public radio, it produces a fifth of all listener support."

According to the ARA, listener support is a proxy for the service public radio stations provide; if listeners give you money, you must have provided a public service. It's a comforting rationalization for public radio programmers forced by Congress and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to become more "efficient"--to become part of the same sort of market economy public radio was supposed to ignore--while still claiming to provide a service.

In 1995, members of the Republican-controlled Congress increased their attack on "liberal" public radio and vowed to "zero out" funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Although that never happened, the CPB issued new performance standards in early 1996: Keep your Arbitron ratings up, or lose your CPB funding.

That reliance on ratings, along with a nationwide movement to "professionalize" public radio by dismissing station volunteers, has ushered in an era of branding and marketing, increasingly intrusive corporate underwriting, the consolidation of stations and the ascendancy of national shows delivering wealthy, educated, deep-pocketed audiences. Bigger, single-format radio stations are the new standard, and the word most often associated with local programming is "expensive."

"We're not a 'smaller is better' enterprise anymore, and none of us can think with that kind of mind-set," said Richard Madden, the CPB's vice president for radio, in a speech last May.

The ARA report says that public radio listeners who donate money prefer news to music, entertainment to news and network programming to local programming. Maybe it's just coincidental, but WUNC's programming will now be 85 percent national network news and entertainment.

To its credit, the station has made a significant investment in its local news operation--new staff, new equipment.

"We've decided to do what we do best," said Rose. Not exactly a rousing endorsement of experimentation and risk-taking at WUNC.

Is there really no more room in the booth?

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