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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Another View of WVTF

By Larry Hincker, director, University Relations

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 31 - May 9, 1996

This is in response to the article in the "Forum" section of the April 25 issue of Spectrum titled "Concerns Expressed about WVTF by Demetri Telionis." While we are grateful for the opinions of Dr. Telionis, it is important to point out some errors in his conclusions about the funding for WVTF and to shed some light on the programming issues he raised.

Dr. Telionis states that while many state agencies and private industries have been cutting their budgets during lean times, "WVTF's budget has been increasing by leaps and bounds."

Not true. WVTF's budgets for this fiscal year and the one approved for next year are both less than the station operating budget for fiscal year 1994-95. Support from the Virginia Tech Foundation, the station's owner, is now less than it was in 1982 when WVTF was acquired. However, listener giving-one indicator of listener satisfaction-is growing steadily

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting recently coordinated a self-assessment survey so that public radio stations could determine their ability to survive in the event federal financial support for public broadcasting is eliminated. WVTF scored better than the national average on all factors measured. Among peer public radio stations licensed to colleges and universities, WVTF raises nearly twice as much revenue from private-sector sources as the average station, and is far less dependent upon institutional support. Although the station may not be able to serve the personal tastes of all listeners all the time, WVTF's excellent fundraising results and its consistent ranking at the top among peer stations for total listening indicate the station serves the general public well.

The central focus of Dr. Telionis' concerns seem to be the perception that news programming preempts classical-music programming. Unfortunately, that perception is not supported by the facts. "Morning Edition" premiered in 1980 as a two-hour program on WVTF, and was increased to the present three hours in 1982. In 1988, WVTF added a fourth hour of morning news programming at 5 a.m., replacing only dead air.

"All Things Considered" has been on the air since 1973 and was never less than 90 minutes long. Although WVTF is now carrying three hours of the recently expanded "All Things Considered," its growth replaced another news-and-information program and in no way altered the amount of classical music broadcast.

The only change involving classical programming in recent years occurred last fall when WVTF dropped the evening concerts that had previously aired from 8-10 p.m., Monday through Thursday. This was a difficult decision for the staff to make because they knew it would upset some people, but the audience statistics were very clear. The classical-music concerts were attracting an increasingly smaller audience and never produced good fund-raising results (a clear indicator of listenership).

The audience measurements showed an increase in listening to WVTF as soon as the classical music went off at 10 P.M., even though general radio use throughout the market was declining at that hour. WVTF, along with many other public radio stations, is troubled by the declining audience for classical music in this country.

Simply put, classical music listeners are dying off faster than they are being replaced. The staff of WVTF worries about the trend. Some people say it is the station's duty to educate the public, by playing more classical music or airing educational programs. But we must remember that WVTF is a radio station, not a conservatory, music-appreciation class, or guardian of cultural mores. One listener recently wrote, "your mission is to give the public what it needs (fine-arts programming), not merely what it wants (schlocky music)."

While a nice thought, these suggestions don't work in WVTF's environment. Indeed, such a notion is clearly unworkable and plainly patronizing. People vote their likes and dislikes faster with radio than any other communication medium; they zap a button-switching stations or turning off the radio. When was the last time that you, or anyone you know said, "I really don't like this music, but I'm going to listen to it anyway because I know it's good for me."

What really happens in these situations is the person either switches stations or cuts off the radio entirely.

Public radio first began as "alternative" programming different from traditional commercial offerings. But the world of radio is much different today than just two decades ago. While public radio will still attempt to fill certain niches not offered by commercial radio, its formats will be largely determined by the listening public.

It is important to note that news and music programming decisions belong to the WVTF staff and are made in response to listener data and public-radio trends.

University administrators are not involved. A surefire way to undermine the station's credibility would be to allow the station to be seen as a mouthpiece or pet project of the administration.

Dr. Telionis states that programs like "Car Talk" and "A Prairie Home Companion" don't belong on public radio, yet they are two of the most popular programs with listeners nation-wide. While WVTF exists for reasons other than generating high audience numbers, the station's ability to raise private dollars from listeners and corporations will necessarily be driven by audience size and loyalty.

WVTF radio works hard to achieve a balance between mission and radio reality. As public broadcasting moves away from taxpayer support, it must be prepared to make it on its own or perish. WVTF will serve no one if it goes under.