Classical Carousel: Shakeup in D.C. Radio
At 3 p.m. today, WGMS signed off forever, ending 60 years and three weeks of classical music programming on commercial radio in Washington. With announcer Chip Brienza at the helm, the last piece heard on the 103.5 FM was Johann Christian Bach's Symphony in E-Flat Major (Op. 9, #2).
After a few, mournful strands of "With Tears of Grief," the final chorus from the St. Matthew's Passion, WGMS program director Jim Allison called off an honor roll of great on-air personalities, led by former morning man Dennis Owens. Allison noted that to its last day, WGMS was the top-rated classical station in the country. "It is indeed with tears of grief that we leave the Washington airwaves," Allison said.
(For those who like this sort of trivia, the final pieces to air on WGMS were the Bach and Johann Strauss's "An Artist's Life." The online playlist said that the next piece was going to be Prokofiev's Symphony #1, the Classical Symphony, but it never aired.)
But classical fans actually have more to celebrate than mourn: At 8 tonight, public station WETA (90.9 FM) will kill off its ill-conceived news/talk format and go back to the classical format it dropped just two years ago. The move, a rare, possibly unique, deal between a commercial station and a public one, means classical music will be presented in more serious fashion than has been heard on commercial WGMS for some years. (The station's official history is after the jump.)
WGMS is donating its library of 15,000 discs to WETA, and the WGMS web site will direct listeners to WETA.
A moment after WGMS died, something called George 104 launched, billing itself as music of "the 70s, 80s and whatever we want."
"Change is difficult, change is hard, change is tough," the opening announcement said. "But when you look back, change is always good." After reeling off a long list of famous Georges (Harrison, Gershwin, Clooney, Takai, Allen, Burns, Michael, Jetson and of course Washington), the announcer said the new station will be "all about the music. One minute, you'll flash back to high school, then college, then you're chasing the kids." Ugh.
The station started off with Sheryl Crow's "Change Will Do You Good," followed by a mix of mostly 80s hits, mostly rock tunes, with the occasional bit of 70s stuff, such as the Bee Gees' "More Than a Woman." The new station promises to be commercial-free for 104 days and it apparently will go without deejays.
So this is yet another variation on a new, more contemporary approach to oldies. Sadly, it is not the rhythmic oldies format that is starting to pick up steam in other cities, but seems to be a more varied playlist than the classic rock oldies approach that WBIG (100.3) moved to a few months ago. Still, those who argue that FM radio is little more than a series of redundant formats have had their arguments hugely strengthened: Washington radio now has three stations playing very similar music--94.7 The Arrow, 100.3 WBIG, and the new George 104. Throw in Mix 107.3, which has a more contemporary sound but also traffics in some of the same songs, and that's an awful lot of the same thing.
WETA's move--the station's board essentially forced the hand of management-- means the end of the line for its only local news program, "The Intersection," a daily hour of talk on D.C. area issues. Reports from WETA indicate that "Out and About," an arts talk weekly show, may survive. Most of the rest of the station's programming, primarily the news magazines of National Public Radio and news and talk shows from the BBC, is available on WAMU (88.5 FM), on the BBC's online service, or on satellite radio (NPR provides programming to Sirius, while PRI, public radio's other major programming source, has a deal with XM.)
A bunch of WGMS personnel may move over to the new classical WETA, but WGMS told the Post's Paul Farhi that it will lay off 10 staffers.
WGMS's fate was sealed when Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, eager to expand his nascent network of sports talk radio stations, made a generous offer for the station last fall. After the Post reported that Snyder's offer was 50 percent more than the station was worth, purchase talks chilled and Snyder is believed to be looking at other possibilities in the market.
But Bonneville, the company that owns WGMS, all-news WTOP and Washington Post Radio, saw that it had to move if it wanted to get the most value for its 104.1 property. The new format is designed to reach a much younger audience than classical music traditionally appeals to.
This is text from the former WGMS's web site--the station's history of itself:
WGMS began broadcasting on December 29, 1946 (under the call letters WQQW) at 570 on the AM dial. The FM signal at 103.5 went on-air September 18, 1948 and the call letters were changed in 1951 to WGMS, which stood for "Washington's Good Music Station."
The station was the first FM signal in the marketplace and holds the record for the longest consecutive broadcast in the same format.
The station's broadcast from sunrise to sunset, 7:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., and the afternoon of the station's official launch on Sunday January 5th, 1947, featured greetings from Gregory Peck, Gene Kelly, Aaron Copland and local celebrities.
The original programming was not exclusively classical and included some jazz. The first program director said of the station, "Music on WQQW will not be music to read by or music to eat by or music to shave by. It will be music to listen to."
By early 1948, the station was devoted to the classical music program format for many hours daily and its air slogan was "Washington's Good Music Station."
Within a year, the programming was almost exclusively classical. Non-programming elements included the daily reading of a chapter from a book of current interest, a roundup of newspaper editorial opinions and a weekly compilation of foreign broadcasts.
The original station and offices were located on Connecticut Avenue, NW. The station was owned by more than 125 Washingtonians, none of whom owned more than 1% of the stock.
WGMS prided itself on "belonging to the listeners." The station was relocated to 1125 Vermont Avenue, NW in 1949, and then again in 1953 to the Hotel Harrington.
The station offered a novel service beginning in 1958 with the WGMS helicopter report which reported road conditions, traffic hazards and patterns, and route suggestions offered by traffic experts of the AAA.
In 1972, RKO announced that the format of the AM signal would be changed to contemporary music and listeners, including leaders on Capitol Hill, were outraged.
FCC regulations at the time required that no more than half the material broadcast on the AM and FM bands to be duplication. This caused an additional expense for the station due to the alternative programming required. To meet the desires of the listening audience, the station requested a waiver on the duplication rule from the FCC and it was approved.
1975 was a calamitous year for the station as the studio and offices caught fire on June 6th and were destroyed.
WGMS was temporarily housed at the transmission tower site on Bells Mill Road in Potomac.
Two months later an aircraft hit the tower and the station was off the air momentarily.
In 1992, the AM signal was sold and converted to a different format and the FM station had several owners. In October of 1997, WGMS 103.5 FM was purchased by Bonneville International Corporation.
Many famous personalities have worked at WGMS over the years including former Program Director Charles Osgood and Washington music critic Paul Hume.
A highly popular feature that began in the fifties and continues today is "Guest Conductor" which features government officials, foreign ambassadors, local cultural arts leaders, and other prominent Washingtonians.
Famous guest conductors have included Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The station has a rich legacy of recognition for excellence, winning two Peabody Awards, an Armstrong Award, two Marconi Awards, multiple AIR Awards, and the prestigious NAB Crystal Award.
In January of 2006, WGMS moved to 104.1 FM and 103.9 FM in Frederick to allow sister news station WTOP the chance to move to a full service fm on 103.5.
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