Shuck and Jive

Friday, February 05, 2010

Format Change at WETS

This past week our public radio station, WETS (89.5 FM), changed its format. I posted about that change here. The station has moved toward a more news and talk oriented format with programs from NPR and the BBC. In doing so, some programs had to be removed including programs featuring Americana and Classical music. These programs are dearly loved by many and will be missed.

As of today about 900 names appeared on a petition that protests the changes and states that those who signed it will not support the station with its new programming. The petition even urges ETSU not to support the station. I know some of the folks who signed the petition. I completely respect their views and empathize with their frustration. I am reasonably sure that most of them wouldn't want to see the station shut down and will continue to support it despite the changes. I am sure that given time, some of them may even appreciate the new programming.

Being a public radio program director can be rough at times. The program director, Wayne Winkler, has received a great deal of criticism for this decision. It reminds me of the worship wars I never quite survived in my last church. Each person is convinced that her favorite hymn is everyone's favorite hymn (or should be). I empathize with Wayne as well as with WETS listeners who lost some of their favorite shows.

It is one thing to shout at a faceless bureaucracy, but WETS is not that. As we express our opinions (and we should), we should see the human side of this.
Wayne's wife, Andrea, wrote a note on her Facebook page and requested that it be shared to explain the decision as well as share some of the vitriol directed at her husband:

I have been (mostly) silent until now, but I can’t stay so any longer. My husband is Wayne Winkler, and for those of you who may not know, he has been at the center of a local firestorm for the past couple of weeks. Wayne is the station manager at WETS-FM, the public radio station owned by ETSU. On Monday, January 25th, WETS announced that it was dropping weekday music programming in order to carry more news and information programs from NPR and the BBC. Several of the new programs, such as the Diane Rehm Show, are ones that many listeners have requested for years. Weekend programming will stay mostly unchanged.

This decision has brought a hail of criticism to WETS, especially to Wayne. I am very sympathetic to people who say they will miss the music on the station. I will miss it, too. However, much of the criticism aimed at Wayne has been grossly unfair, and I can’t keep quiet any longer.

An online petition encouraging listeners to cease supporting the station until the “old” programming is restored has been making the rounds of the community. This petition is a public forum; and while many of the comments have been thoughtful and well-considered, some of them have been genuinely appalling. A number of people have posted links to steer readers to anti-Semitic, anti-Israel websites. Others have made remarks such as these, which are obviously aimed at Wayne, who has made no secret of his multi-ethnic heritage:

Throw the rascals out—including the Melungeon Ambasador (sic)!

Wake up and get to work for a change. We don't need another melungeon book.

It is clear that the station manager hasn’t the cultural nor ethnic (sic) background to appreciate the benefits of the music WETS used to play. He should be fired and returned to whatever jungle he came from. He has ruined a treasure of this region, and ETSU let him do it. For shame!

The first two comments are simply snarky; the third seems downright disturbing to me. And these are only a few of the most blatantly bigoted comments that have appeared on the online petition so far. Other commenters are not bigoted, perhaps—just condescending. For example:

When WETS was founded, classical music could be heard most of the time. However, the current director obviously has no taste for serious music and has deliberately reduced the offerings, first by dropping the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and then reducing the hours of the morning classical program. Afternoon classics were dropped in favor of tasteless music years before.

Comments like this one seem patronizing, not only to Wayne, but to the university and the entire region.

Many people who are lashing out seem to think that the music they loved was somehow played on WETS in spite of, not because of, Wayne. I would like to assure them that nothing could be further from the truth. Wayne hired Jim Blalock twelve years ago because of his commitment to making classical music work. Wayne tended the station’s Americana format for years, trying to make certain that the music was the best available. I would gladly place his record for supporting local musicians against the record of anyone in this region.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. The realities of the marketplace govern what must be done, even in public radio. For many, many years, a large number of listener responses to WETS surveys have contained comments like these:

I don’t contribute because you don’t play enough classical music.

Why must you play hillbilly music for such a large part of the day?

Why do you play music that doesn’t reflect our Appalachian heritage?

WETS has been trying to serve three audiences: people who love news and information, people who love classical music, and people who love Americana music. A large portion of each of these audiences has been increasingly unhappy over the years with their share of the programming. Because of this reality, it has been difficult for WETS to grow. Indeed, for the past couple of years, the station has steadily received fewer pledges, and a greater number of the people who have pledged have failed to honor their commitments. Each audience is convinced that if only the station would commit more strongly to the programming they enjoy, WETS would have much stronger support. (Ironically, many of the most outraged comments on the petition come from people who have either never contributed or stopped contributing years ago.)

I wish there were some way for the station to please all three audiences, but it simply isn’t possible. Some change is unavoidable so that support won’t continue to decline until the station is forced to close its doors. Across the country and at WETS, the strongest support has always come for news and information programming. Thus, the decision was made to commit to this format in order to appeal to the broadest potential audience. WETS will still carry local programming on the weekends, and I know that Wayne will continue in his commitment to serve the community, including local musicians.

Again, I will miss the weekday music terribly. I can assure you that Wayne will, too. However, WETS did not make this decision lightly or frivolously. Many people have said that the station’s dual format made it completely unique among radio stations. This statement is absolutely true, and it is true for a reason: Stations across the country have stopped attempting multiple formats because they restrict growth. If WETS doesn’t continue to grow, it will wither and die—and that, it seems to me, would be truly shameful.
No one likes change. I was feeling snarky because Democracy Now! was moved from 6 pm to 1 pm. I am getting used to it already. I am liking some the new programs and I will continue to support the station actively and avidly. If you have suggestions about the programming (or to make a donation) you can contact WETS. I know Wayne and the staff would love to hear reasoned and respectful comments as well as explain the decision itself.


  1. No Comments??? Maybe y'all are too busy enjoying the increasing amounts of snow that are beginning to blanket the region . . .

    If I had extra money, I'd send it to WETS.

    As I've posted before, West Virginia Public Broadcasting has also scaled back its daytime music programming. It's the sign of the times. WETA in Washington, D.C. (where I lived for 35 years, so still pay attention) dropped all talk and news programming and went all classical music all the time, but WAMU (the American University station) picked up Garrison Keillor, and has local talk and the Diane Rehm show daily, with no music except bluegrass and folk on Saturday nights. But that's a rich region.

    I sincerely hope that East Tennessee does not abandon public radio. I can easily foresee a time when there is no liberal-moderate voice left on the airways.

    When WV Public Radio turns on all talk/news at 3 p.m. every day, I turn it off and play my CDs . . . but I continue to send in my membership pledge every year.

    Don't give it up. Buy Indie CD music and keep listening.

  2. We are getting the rain, actually wind at the moment. We might dodge the snow this time around. We'll get freezing rain instead. Yum.

    Tell you the truth, I would gladly trade one of the countless religious stations we have around here for another public radio station.

    What has happened at WETS is pretty much a done deal as far as I can tell. But if those who want music will pay for it, we could have it. If those 900 signatories gave $100 per year for public radio you'd have $90,000 to buy some substantial airtime.

    You get what you pay for.

  3. Philly was already almost all news and talk shows when I arrived here. Garrison Keillor is still there and Car Talk, which I think is a scream. There is some music in the later evenings.

    You've got some serious sickies writing letters down there. But then they are everywhere.

    And (gasp, shock) I don't listen to religious broadcasting. I used to listen for some of the music but was shocked back in the 70s and early 80s at the British Israel (now known as Aryan Nation) crap out in the heartland. My poor wife had to listen to me yelling at the radio about glaringly bad interpretation of the Bible as we drove across the plains.

    Now I listen to NPR (news, science Friday) or CDs. And I like the Christian music I have on CDs more than the stuff that comes out on religious stations today.

    And we are supposed to get 12 to 18 inches. That will cancel worship on Sunday. Wouldn't have in Utica Presbytery, right John?

  4. Enjoy your Sunday, Bob! I only remember canceling once when I was in Lowville after a pretty heavy storm, and folks came anyway. After that, I decided have church regardless and let people decide on their own if they wanted to come out.

    It as actually been more of a struggle here. I haven't canceled although some churches have. Many people refuse to drive in the snow (and I'm rather grateful for that!)

  5. I'm sorry this has gotten so nasty for Wayne; totally uncalled for. Thanks for being the calm voice of reason, as usual.

  6. Interesting ... in Nashville, our NPR station used to carry classical music almost exclusively, except for a handful of talk programs (Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Fresh Air and a few of the weekend shows like Prairie Home Companion). But a couple of months ago they went to an almost entirely all-talk format.

    I have to say I love it. I love the NPR programs which are different from Air America or conservative radio programs in that there is very little opinion, it's mostly news and discussion of current events.

    I expected there to be a backlash related to this change but if there was I never heard about it. Perhaps it helps that they kept their classical music programming in the evenings.