WBJC-FM became Baltimore's main source for classical music in the 1970s somewhat by default. After a commercial broadcaster, WCAO-FM, dropped classical for rock, listeners demanded more classical from WBJC. The station obliged. Today, its format is 90 percent classical music. Which is good, because WJHU-FM just drastically curtailed its classical music programming.
WJHU, too, responded to listeners' demands. It decided its ratings would improve if it increased news and information programming, including talk shows. And you thought only commercial radio was ruled by ratings?
"Unfortunately, this has become more and more necessary in recent years as institutional support has been cut or eliminated," Cary Smith, general manager of WBJC, says of the importance of ratings. That may be the reason for his radio station's selection of classical repertoire, which is sometimes criticized as unadventurous. "It's probably fair to say that we pay more attention to the kind of music that would attract an audience," he acknowledges.
Before the recent format change, 40 percent of WJHU's air time was devoted to classical music, which now has been banished to weekends only. Instead, WJHU has added such syndicated talk shows as Diane Rehm and "Fresh Air" to its diet, which include NPR standbys "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," two hour-long relays from the BBC and the Marc Steiner show, Baltimore's premiere current affairs talk show. Andy Bienstock continues to spin jazz on weeknights.
Even though classical music programs have been severely curtailed, concerts by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Bob Benson's "New Releases" remain on the schedule.
Arbitron ratings and competitive considerations played a major role in WJHU's changes. "The real question 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," said general manager Dennis Kita.
At Washington's WAMU-FM, Diane Rehm has been a big hit. But is her inside-the-beltway political show for Baltimore, particularly since WAMU is audible here? The next rating books -- and WJHU fundraising campaigns will determine that.
We urge WJHU to emphasize its metropolitan character. The best way it can do that is by strengthening its local news operation.