A! Magazine for the Arts

 Dan Gawthrop

Dan Gawthrop

Former NPR Announcer/Producer Discusses WETS Program Changes

February 9, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: Dan Gawthrop is a resident of Jonesborough, Tenn., and a nationally recognized full-time composer with more than 100 commissions to his credit. Premiers of his works have been presented at such locations as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; the Washington Cathedral; and the Salt Lake City Mormon Tabernacle.

Gawthrop recently corresponded with a member of the A! Magazine editorial committee (who is also a member along with Gawthrop of the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists) concerning an online petition objecting to the programming changes at WETS-FM.

(Related article click HERE.)

Following is what Gawthrop had to say:

Petitions will have little impact. In fact, the historical evidence is quite clear on this: once station management has reached the point of making a public announcement, the decision has long since been set in concrete and absolutely nothing, literally including rioting in the streets, will make the slightest difference. By the time they let us in on their secret, they have completed their "research" and are utterly convinced that the new talk format will yield both better "numbers" (as they call their listener ratings) and financial support. Accordingly, threats of withholding your money don't bother them in the slightest because they already know exactly how many of you they will lose, and that your dollars will be more than replaced by new ones from the news/talk fans. You are therefore completely expendable and can be sacrificed without a moment's concern.

Prior to leaving public radio to become a full-time commissioned composer about 12 years ago, I had spent well over a decade as a full-time announcer-producer for two different NPR stations. The last 12 years of that time was spent at WETA-FM in Washington, D.C., which is widely perceived to be the flagship station of the public radio network. During my tenure in the field, I was in a position to closely observe the behavior of a variety of stations, both as an insider at a major station and as a reader of the various trade publications (official and unofficial) which reported and commented upon the activities of management teams around the system. I saw a number of stations make this exact same switch over a period of years. Indeed, WETS is a bit behind the times as most affiliates made this move some years back.

The bottom line here is fairly simple: this is a done deal and will not be reversed no matter how many petitions are gathered. Although you may think of yourself as the public in "public radio," you may be certain that this change was carefully pondered and decided in absolute secrecy.

The very LAST thing management wants is for its listeners to be aware that they're about to lose the only thing that made the station unique, i.e., classical music. High culture is considered elitist and politically incorrect; news/talk is perceived by these apparatchiks as much more appealing to the chattering classes, who have both the wealth and the cultural influence to maintain the ratings and status which they crave above all.

The public radio system was originally conceived as a media outlet for the niche genres which could not easily count on garnering sufficient listenership to support themselves from advertising as was done in commercial radio. Thus, by forbidding advertising and offering a combination of government and public support instead, there would be no need for these stations to chase the general public; and the perpetuation of things like classical music was thereby guaranteed.

Sadly, the entire system has been taken over by people who have abrogated their commitment to these cultural treasures in favor of following the numbers. In other words, they have transformed themselves into a copy of commercial radio, chasing whatever format seems most popular at the moment in the mass market and turning their backs on the specialized cultural niches they were intended to preserve and protect. Even advertising has crept back in, and with a vengeance, in the form of what are politely called "underwriting announcements." (If you can tell the difference between an advertisement and an underwriting announcement, there's a job for you in public broadcasting.)

I've been in touch with Michael Barone to be certain that he was aware of the loss of WETS to the list of stations carrying PIPEDREAMS. He was not aware, in fact, that the change had occurred. He shared that PIPEDREAMS is available online at www.pipedreams.org, with new material added every week. Donations formerly directed at WETS could possibly now be made to support the online service of PIPEDREAMS [a radio music program featuring organ music, hosted by Barone].

Michael has it right: I know where my next check will be going.

Editor's Note: To learn more about Dan Gawthrop, including audio clips and PDFs of his music, visit his website at www.dunstanhouse.com.