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Will New Sounds Awaken Towson University's Slumbering Radio Station?

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 1/15/2003

A nutshell take on the recent changes at Towson University's public radio station, WTMD-FM 89.7, might run like this: Yanni, Kenny G, and John Tesh are out; Lucinda Williams, Beck, and Tom Petty are in.

On Dec. 3 WTMD--a 10,000-watt station whose signal covers the Baltimore metro area and beyond--switched formats from "new adult contemporary" (a mixture of new age and smooth jazz) to "adult album alternative." Commonly referred to as "triple-A," this increasingly popular format offers a decade-spanning mixture of mellower alternative rock, singer/songwriters, folk rock, blues, alternative country, and world music.

"We want to recapture the sound and spirit of radio in Baltimore from the mid-'80s," says Stephen Yasko, a former National Public Radio program-operations manager who was hired as WTMD's first full-time manager in August. "We want to create desire to learn more about music. The brilliant thing about this format is that it gives you a very wide circle to operate."

The triple-A circle includes the "modern rock" of Coldplay and Matchbox Twenty, classic rockers such as Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen, and veteran genre artists like Koko Taylor and Johnny Cash, together with old and new singer/songwriters, from Joni Mitchell to Aimee Mann. India.Arie's acoustic soul and the downtempo electronic stylings of Thievery Corporation have also found their way into the mix. Yasko says the station builds its playlist "based on the sound of the music, regardless of the artist's normal genre." He adds that local and regional acts are programmed into the mix as well: Jonasay, Carbon Leaf, and Cathy Fink are among a dozen or so local performers currently in WTMD's rotation. The station's Sunday programming--an eclectic mix of specialty shows dedicated to everything from polka to reggae--remains largely unchanged. The station will also continue to carry select Towson sports events.

The roots of the change go back two years when, Yasko says, "the university started to look at how the station could make a better public-service contribution to the city and grow its audience. The station had very few listeners, and there was no upward trend."

The university hired a public-radio consultant, and also met with officials from Philadelphia's WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania radio station widely credited with pioneering the triple-A format in the late '80s. With Baltimore public-radio stations already programming jazz (WEAA), classical (WBJC), and NPR news and talk (WYPR), triple-A seemed the right niche for WTMD.

"There is a trend for public radio to adopt this format," says Jack Barton, who reports on triple-A radio for the Cherry Hill, N.J.-based broadcasting trade journal FMQB. "You can be playing popular music, but most of it--at least not in the mix these stations offer--isn't available anywhere else on the dial."

Barton says that 30 of the 80 triple-A stations he monitors across the country are public stations, "but there are probably about 15 more" listener-supported stations using the format. WXPN's success is one reason. Barton says the station's early adoption of the format allowed "a small college radio station, primarily supported by the university, to grow into a self-sustaining entity with a $4 million-plus budget that's all coming from membership and underwriting. It creates a passionate listener base which is then willing to reach into their pockets to support their radio station."

WTMD, which has five paid staff members, currently operates on an annual budget of $200,000, 75 percent of which comes from listeners and underwriters. (The university picks up the rest.) The station receives no grant money from the increasingly parsimonious Corporation for Public Broadcasting, though Yasko hopes to seek such monies in the future. His first priority is to acquire a $30,000 satellite dish to allow for direct access to nationally distributed programming; at present, he says, Morgan State University's WEAA is "very kindly" taping the satellite-distributed, WXPN-produced music/interview program World Café for WTMD. Long-range goals for WTMD include becoming an NPR affiliate, though Yasko says they are primarily interested in airing NPR news, not programs such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, which currently air on WYPR.

While it's too soon to see how WTMD's new format will impact the Baltimore radio market, Barry Moore, who chairs Towson's department of electronic media and film, doesn't foresee a "ratings war" developing between WTMD and the existing public-radio stations. "I don't see it as an issue of taking away an audience as much as developing a new public-radio listenership," he says.

WYPR's Marc Steiner, on-air host and vice president of the nonprofit group that acquired the former WJHU from Johns Hopkins University last year, is "not worried at all" about the potential for fund-raising competition with WTMD. "I'm very glad they made the change," he says. "It's an important sound that appeals to many people. I think we have a strong public-radio community in this region, and there's room for all of us."

Barton figures the only area radio station that may be "negatively impacted" by WTMD is WRNR (103.1 FM), the Annapolis-based commercial station that programs a self-styled triple-A format; the station's presence in the Baltimore market is already hampered by a relatively weak signal. (Calls to WRNR for comment were not returned by press time.)

The 27-year-old Towson station last switched format in 1991. Up until then, the call letters were WCVT and it broadcast an eclectic musical mix summed up by the station slogan "From Bach to Rock." The station adopted the "new adult contemporary" format in an effort to target a more distinct audience. Under this format, the station had some 3,500 financially supporting members. Yasko says they are "sure to lose most of them" as a result of the change. A significant shuffling of corporate underwriters will likely occur as well. (Disclosure: City Paper has recently entered into an underwriting agreement with WTMD.)

"I thought the strength of WTMD was that it played eclectic, quality instrumental music that was not available anywhere else in this market," a disgruntled WTMD listener from Timonium wrote in an online response to a university newspaper article on the changes. "Now it will be indistinguishable from half of the commercial stations throughout a major portion of its playlist. And this is somehow providing a greater choice to listeners?"

Though Yasko fielded a number of negative calls early on, he characterizes public response to the new format as "overwhelmingly supportive and positive." The new sounds have already netted more than 100 new member-listeners, and the goal is to add 300 new members a month through June.

"I couldn't be happier," Moore says. "I think the new format is needed in this market. WXPN became more than just a radio station to Philadelphia--it became a lightning rod for the local-music and cultural scene. I would love to think their success could be duplicated at WTMD, if maybe not on the same scale."

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