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Everything old is new again at WDET

Lost in my personal drama surrounding work and Christmas shopping and what-not in December was the whirlwind involving Detroit's older public radio station, WDET.

In an abrupt about-face, WDET jettisoned many of its many hours of locally produced music programming and brought back a lot of national network public radio news, information, and entertainment shows. Gone are longtime mainstay hosts Judy Adams (who was program director, too) and Martin Bandyke, and the adult album alternative (AAA) music they championed. Back are Terry Gross and Tavis Smiley. Also back are Matt Watroba (host of "Folks Like Us") and Larry McDaniel (host of "Arkansas Traveler"), who were unceremoniously sacked in September 2004, as well as Robert Jones (though his new show will be less bluesy and more spiritual).

WDET has a new program manager, Michael Coleman, who emigrated from Ann Arbor-based Michigan Radio. His predecessor, Caryn Mathes, left for Washington DC's public radio WAMU-FM at the beginning of this year after changing WDET's program format to AAA and dropping almost all the national programming.

There are some mighty upset people out there over this round of changes. A protest was held outside WDET's offices in the Wayne State University area in late December. A lawsuit has actually been filed, alleging things like breach of contract and misleading donors. This story was big enough that it actually made the Chicago Tribune.

I don't want to say I'm unsympathetic, because I've been in that situation. We folk and information listeners were pretty upset in 2004 when our favorite shows were trashed. (Here's my angry rant. Wait, here's another.) No, we didn't sue. We wrote letters, but got snarky responses from the then-general manager. (Let it be said that the suddenly beleagured Mr. Coleman is sending out a nicer letter to the angered listeners.) Many of us found other alternatives. See, there may not have been another place to hear folk and bluegrass music, except from our own CD collections. But we could listen to Michigan Radio for the news analysis we weren't getting anymore. I know I did.

And apparently we also found something else to do with our public radio donations. The Chicago Tribune reports that the station finished its fiscal year in September 2005 $300,000 in the red, having fallen $100,000 short of the goal on the fall pledge drive. Um, AAA listeners? If you win the lotto in the public radio listening game, you should at least try to support the station.

Still, there's another issue here. Musical diversity on Detroit's airwaves has taken another hit. Sure, we get six hours a week of rootsy music back, but at the expense of about fifty hours of locally produced programs that were unique in the market. It's clear that there is an audience that appreciates AAA. Even if the music was almost never performed by local musicians, it was presented by local hosts, ones who really had ties and contacts with the listeners. That's worth something.

Myself, I don't think it should be up to public radio to fill that need. Public radio's mission should be more informative and educational than anything else. Someone, somewhere should be willing to be fill the need, though.

Recent news articles: (reverse chronological order)



( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 3rd, 2006 12:32 pm (UTC)
I can't figure out whether you think this latest change is good or bad.

Public radio is almost the only way to provide several kinds of programming. Left to its own devices, the commercial market will produce two dozen stations that all sound and look exactly alike. In seeking to attract the widest audience, they abandon all the niches and go for the one segment that has the demographics to attract the most advertising money.

That's why AM radio has collapsed into nothing but interminable rightwing talk programs. I'm afraid FM is headed in a similar direction.
Jan. 3rd, 2006 04:18 pm (UTC)
I guess I'm not completely sure whether it's good or bad, either. Personally, it's just about all good for me, since the folk and bluegrass programs are back, and I thought it was really dumb to have a public radio station that didn't run most of the national programming. In a way, though, it doesn't matter to me what they play during the weekdays, since I don't listen to the radio at work. Frankly, I thought WDET's take on adult album alternative was about as pointy-headed as music could be; it was very off-putting to me, especially during the week.

The downside is that it cuts out a type of music that wasn't being played anywhere. Granted, they weren't playing folk, but almost no one plays folk so one gets used to that. The market has the opportunity to be better informed, but loses a source of new music. That just furthers the phenomenon of two dozen stations that all sound and look alike.

The other negative development is, a friend who had a pretty regular show on WDET is now not on the schedule anymore. Since they've cut the "old" on-air staff pretty drastically, he doesn't know if he's going to have any shows even on a fill-in basis. That sucks.

There's probably more if I took the time to think about it, but this comment is already pretty long. :-)
Jan. 3rd, 2006 04:31 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the clarification. I'm pretty much reconciled to the fact that commercial radio is doomed to be a wasteland, with commercial television right alongside. I find a lot of bright spots in the internet broadcasters, and what I hear about the subscription satellite services is very promising (XM and Sirius, the question is where the shakeout will take place in that market...which will be the Betamax?) There is room for diversity in media, but the pigheadedness of Congress and the FCC has removed that flexibility from the public airwaves.

Oh, and "Public Radio" stations that don't play national programming are fairly common now. Chicago's WBEZ plays little of it other than All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Apparently the prices they have to pay for the syndicated programs are based on "market size" even though they don't receive advertising revenues in proportion the way commercial stations do. Consequently, a station like WBEZ (and probably WDET as well) is caught between a rock and a hard place. Lacking the percentage of sophisticated audience that is found in cities with many Universities and government agencies, they turn away from NPR programming and go to "all jazz" or "AAA" or other cheap formats because they can't raise funding to fit the sliding scales used by NPR.

Oddly enough, Rockford, IL, which is a largely blue-collar and agricultural market, has TWO public radio stations. One carries most of the national programming (though not Thistle and Shamrock, darn it) and the other is a classical music outlet of good quality. I think this works for them because they are heavily underwritten by a few big donors, including Northern Illinois University.
Jan. 3rd, 2006 06:44 pm (UTC)
In Louisville, of the three public radio stations, I think only one carries significant national programming. The other two are classical 24/7 and a split between AAA and jazz. In Detroit, the new classical/jazz station doesn't have anything national, but just about every other public radio outlet in Michigan I know of carries the usual NPR fare.

I just checked WDET's program guide -- we didn't get "Thistle and Shamrock" back. Wah. The closest source for that is WKAR in East Lansing, and it doesn't come in very well in most of metro Detroit.

Wolf just sent this in an e-mail regarding NPR fees:
FWIW, NPR affiliation is very expensive for low-budget stations, even in markets as small as Louisville, and with certain formats, it doesn't make a lot of sense -- especially if somebody else in the market is carrying Morning Edition and ATC and all the other usual suspects. WUOL dropped affiliation 21 years ago. WFPK *never* had it. With WFPL around (even before merger), there was just no point.

The commercial radio and TV situation is... yeah, I agree. Public radio isn't the only problem or even the main problem. New stuff is consistently choked out unless it's been approved by seven vice presidents in some office in Texas first. It's beyond bad. But there are alternatives, like satellite radio and the web. People who can use these sources are probably better off than they ever were. But people who can't... well, that could be a completely new rant.
Jan. 3rd, 2006 06:53 pm (UTC)
Hmm. You have something faster than dialup? WKAR streams their programming on the internet, or did last time I looked. You maybe able to receive Fiona Ritchie that way. :) I can't, unless I'm at work.
Jan. 3rd, 2006 08:50 pm (UTC)
No, still just dial-up at home. At work it's broadband, but we're not supposed to use streaming audio because of the potential impact on the other users (though sometimes when I'm here really late I do).
Jan. 3rd, 2006 08:59 pm (UTC)
It does have a potential for impact, though not much worse than five or six people looking at visual porn. ;p

Since everyone using it would probably choose a different station, it can add up to major bandwidth pretty fast. If, on the other hand, you have a router or firewall that caches data and everyone listens to the same thing, it's not bad.

Over dialup I can listen to 24 KB/s streams, but no faster than that. Most of the regular broadcast stations stream at 64 or faster.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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