WTMD, at Towson, to change its format

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Get out the black bunting. Shut down the malls. For those among us whose thirst for easy listening is not easily slaked by a long trip in an elevator, there's bad news a-looming: WTMD-FM, Towson University's radio station, is changing its format.

WTMD will be dropping the low-calorie jazz of the past 11 years in favor of what's called "triple-A" - adult acoustic alternative. So, so long, Kenny G, John Tesh and Yanni. Hello, the Dave Matthews Band and Tracy Chapman, Los Lobos and the Rolling Stones, Matchbox 20 and Shemekia Copeland.

The switcheroo, to take effect next Tuesday, may prove a cruel, cruel blow to folks who have fond memories of the music they hear at the dentist's office. But there weren't enough of these pan-flute fanatics. According to Towson officials, WTMD (found at 89.7 FM) currently has about 3,500 members, and raises about $120,000 from them annually toward the station's $200,000 operating budget. Every week, about 37,000 people listen to one of the station's programs, while there's an average of 2,500 people total listening during any given 15 minutes.

The university has taken a look at those numbers and figures they don't reflect enough popular support to sustain a station. At best, WTMD-FM is currently the Baltimore region's fourth most popular public radio station.

"We certainly didn't relish the idea of disenfranchising a group, even a small group," says Charles Flippen, Towson's acting dean of fine arts, who helps to oversee the station. But, he said, the new version of the station should allow "greater outreach in the community and better enable us to meet that part of our mission."

The support from underwriters and members is important: Although it is subsidized by Towson University, WTMD does not receive any funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gives grants to some non-commercial radio stations.

Baltimore already has three public radio stations with distinct roles: Morgan State University's WEAA-FM provides a blend of jazz, gospel, African-influenced music, and current affairs talk shows; WBJC-FM, owned by Baltimore City Community College, plays classical music; and WYPR-FM, now independent, provides a steady stream of news and talk, with jazz in the evenings.

"It was time for a change," says Louise Miller, director of marketing for the fine arts college at Towson. "We were looking for a format that wasn't really served in this community."

For more than a year, Towson officials and consultants have quietly studied what niches were left and found themselves impressed by the record of public stations such as WXPN in Philadelphia and KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif. Both have created their own eclectic blend of music. Here, that mix is likely to include blues, country, rock-and-roll, soul and zydeco, among other musical forms.

"We're looking at music as an expression of people's art forms, not just a commercial product thrown out there by the record labels," said Steve Yasko, the former NPR and Pacifica Radio administrator who became the Towson station's general manager in August.

A longtime programming director remains on board, and the station will retain its full complement of Towson University sporting events. Locally produced programs, such as Clear Reception, the media show with University of Maryland professor Sheri Parks as host, and the Sunday lineup of programs devoted to polka music, Irish songs and reggae will also be retained.

Otherwise, everything else is up for grabs."This is a recommitment to the sound and spirit of what radio has been in Baltimore historically before a handful of media companies gobbled up most of the local stations and homogenized their sound," Yasko said. WTMD will broadcast shows syndicated nationally by Public Radio International - such as the critically acclaimed World Cafe, with host David Dye, Sounds Eclectic, and American Routes.

On Monday, the station's airwaves will be given over to an introductory show that allows some of the Baltimore area's favorite sons and daughters to talk about what the region means to them, including Martin O'Malley as the leader of O'Malley's March, and actor Edward Norton.

One nice feature: As with the pre-corporate WHFS-FM, and the Annapolis-based WRNR-FM, the new regime of WTMD intends to play extended excerpts of albums, not simply the most successfully promoted singles.

The station will continue to be run by professionals. But university officials promise that there will be added opportunities for students who pass tough auditions to produce shows and even appear on the air. The station also intends to promote local acts. During the first week of the new format, WTMD will run expansive interviews with three Baltimore-based groups.

Again, for Marylanders who feel their easy listening should be uninterrupted by commercials, we're sorry. But the change in WTMD's song lists sounds a bit like dropping Cliffs Notes in favor of actual books. All in all, that's not a bad thing for a campus-based station to be doing.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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