College Radio Grows Up

WTMD reflects the profound changes happening at college and public radio stations.

If you went to college before the mid-1980s, you probably remember your campus radio station as a student-run affair—most likely long on individuality and short on professionalism. There might have been a weekly blues show as well as a weekly polka show, with lots of obscure rock bands sprinkled in between.

Unless you memorized its crazy-quilt schedule, you never knew what kind of music would come out of the speakers when you dialed in, but you had a good chance of hearing a song you'd never heard before—whether or not you ever wanted to hear it again. And as you drove away from your school, it didn't take very long for the signal to die out altogether.

Over the past two decades, however, colleges realized that a frequency on the FM band was a valuable thing to own, and it might be devoted to something other than marijuana-fogged discourse on the importance of the band Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. As a result, tiny college stations have been transformed into mid-sized public-radio operations, often sacrificing quirky individualism for polished professionalism. But is it possible to have both?

Towson University's radio station—a successor to the student-run WCVT (the "College Voice of Towson") and the smooth-jazz WTMD ("The Breeze")—thinks so. With its blend of alternative rock and singer/songwriter favorites, the current incarnation of WTMD strikes a balance between college and public radio, local and national music, surprise and reliability.

Stephen Yasko, WTMD's general manager since the 2002 switch from "The Breeze," leans back in a swivel chair behind his rounded black desk. He may be in charge of one of Maryland's four major public-radio stations, but he dresses comfortably in faded jeans and hiking boots.

"When I worked at National Public Radio in Washington," says the 47-year-old Yasko, "I learned that listeners really loved the NPR news format because it respected their intelligence. I wanted to apply that model to a music format by hiring jocks who knew a lot about the music, by bringing the artists into the studio as often as possible, and by treating both listeners and artists with respect." 

Yasko applied that NPR model to the station and, at the same time, initiated a vigorous kind of outreach to engage listeners and the local music community. With the station sponsoring concerts, forging alliances with other media outlets, launching innovative digital content, floating a proposal to turn The Senator Theatre into a media and cultural center, and even turning up in Laura Lippman's novel Another Thing To Fall, WTMD seems to be everywhere these days. And it bares little resemblance to the insular college station of the past.

In 1990, Towson University decided to professionalize its radio station. The decision was as much economic as philosophical. Like most schools, Towson wanted its radio station to be self-supporting. It may seem counter-intuitive, but to do that, the station's budget had to get bigger, not smaller. And it needed a focused format.

"If you're not getting funded by the university," explains Towson faculty member Barry Moore, "you have to raise funds on the air, and if you're going to raise funds, you have to have a format that people will contribute to."

So WTMD adopted the moniker of "The Breeze" and relaunched itself as a smooth-jazz and new age station. It was a format that was popular elsewhere, but it failed to strike a chord with the students and faculty on campus and struggled to build a membership base and respectable ratings.

In the summer of 2000, the university created the Electronic Media and Film department and gave it control of WTMD. Moore, the new department's chairperson, was not happy with the station's format. "The turning point," he recalls, "was when I went to my dentist and I thought they were playing Muzak. Then I realized they were playing WTMD, my station. I complained to my wife Colleen and she said, 'You ought to listen to WXPN.'"

When he did tune in to the University of Pennsylvania station—which is known for playing an eclectic mix of rock, blues, and folk music and syndicating its popular World Cafe program—Moore had what he calls "my eureka moment." The station exuded professionalism and played compelling music that, Moore believed, would appeal to students, faculty, and the community at large. He remembers thinking: "Here's what a college radio station should sound like, and it would be a unique format for Baltimore listeners."

Moore headed up a search committee that hired Yasko as the station's general manager. Yasko, a Jersey native who grew up listening to Bruce Springsteen, had plenty of experience in public radio. He had helped transform The Diane Rehm Show from a Washington program into a nationally syndicated show and had worked on NPR's national launch of its all-day news/talk package. But he had never lost his youthful love of music radio.

In retooling and rebranding WTMD, Yasko faced countless challenges, but perhaps his most crucial early decisions were becoming an NPR affiliate and defining the station's sound. Yasko insisted that WTMD join the NPR network, even though the all-music format would use only two of the network's syndicated offerings—the top-of-the-hour, five-minute newscast and World Cafe. Yasko wanted the connection mostly for the shine that the NPR brand lends to fundraising and promotion.

But to raise money, the station needed a strong identity. Most listeners want to know what they're going to get when they punch the car-radio button for a particular station: news and talk on WYPR, classical music on WBJC, hip-hop on 92Q, etc. In today's radio, such focused programming is almost mandatory. "Very few people can be successful at 94 different professions at one time," Yasko says. "If you ask them to be a doctor, a baker, a candlestick maker, and a nuclear physicist, they can't do it. Something suffers. Most public radio stations realized the same thing.     

"Four formats have proven themselves in public radio: news/talk, classical, urban, and AAA. WYPR, WBJC, and WEAA got the first three; WTMD got the last one."

Yasko relaunched WTMD as a AAA radio station with a professional staff and a few student interns. The triple-A format is so nebulous that people can't even agree what the three A's stand for. It officially stands for "Adult Album Alternative" radio, but it's also known as "Adult Acoustic Alternative" and "Adult Americana Alternative."

The best AAA model that everyone points to is WXPN, which won a loyal audience in Philadelphia with a mix of melodic alt-rock and rhythmic singer-songwriters. It was a station more likely to play U2 than Metallica, Ani Di Franco than Joan Baez, the Avett Brothers than the Stanley Brothers. Although it focuses on contemporary music, XPN solidified its standing with boomers by adding classic artists and songs to the mix.

WTMD, which increased its audience by 20 to 30 percent since making the switch to AAA, does something similar. "A lot of people of different ages listen to the station," says disc jockey Erik Deatherage. "Some people older than me—I'm 41—may not know who Animal Collective is, and people who are younger than me, who think Animal Collective is the greatest thing ever, may not know about The Moody Blues. By playing the two bands together, it allows both groups of listeners to connect the bands sonically, which is something great radio can do. A new song can give an older song a new sheen. The old song gives the new song some cred."

But what can truly distinguish one AAA station from another is a connection to the local music scene, because each market has different bands with a different sound. WTMD takes advantage of this by playing local acts not only on the weekly Baltimore Unsigned show but also in its regular rotation alongside the likes of Dave Matthews and Radiohead. And when WTMD switched to a high-definition transmitter last November, the station started broadcasting a second signal—which can be picked up on HD receivers or via the Web—that plays Baltimore Unsigned acts 24 hours a day.

The host of Baltimore Unsigned since the fall of 2006 has been The Baltimore Sun arts writer Sam Sessa. In a media environment where traditional vehicles such as newspapers and radio are scrambling for audience share, such partnerships are increasingly common.

"There's a great synergy between what I do at The Sun and at TMD," Sessa says. "If I develop a relationship with a band writing about them for The Sun, it's easier to bring them on Baltimore Unsigned, and vice versa. Baltimore has one of the best music scenes in the country. I think it would be insulting to ignore that."

A lot of public radio can sound a bit dry, as if the stations were conducting graduate-school seminars. By contrast, there's a rambunctiousness to WTMD that's refreshing. Whether it's a listener sending in a three-song mix tape to be played on the air, a local band being interviewed in the studio, a collaborative recording project between folkie Caleb Stine and rapper Saleem, or 3,000 people milling about on the Mt. Vernon Square grass in the shadow of the Washington Monument for one of WTMD's free, First Thursday concerts, the station boasts an air of possibility that's stimulating.

But it comes with a cost. WTMD's budget was $120,000 when Yasko came on board in 2002; now it's over $800,000. About $450,000 of that comes from listener contributions and fund-raising drives.

Because they don't accept paid advertising, NPR stations have fund drives where programming is constantly interrupted with requests for money. At 89.7 FM, there's a different strategy.

"We know listeners don't like fund drives," Yasko admits. "They say, 'Oh, I'll give them some money, but I won't listen till it's over. I'm always amazed that people in public radio accept that. I take the opposite approach: Why not create programming during fund drives that's so compelling that people want to listen? That should be when you showcase your best programming.

"What we do are countdowns—the 897 best albums of all time, the 897 best songs of all time, the 897 best artists of all time. The traffic on our website just jumps when we do these countdowns, because listeners get into it."

It pays off, too. The June fundraiser brought in $180,000, about what Yasko anticipated from listeners less inclined to turn the dial. "These days, our audience expects high-quality programming, even during fundraisers," he says. "They should expect that. And we'll keep doing everything we can to exceed those expectations."

Issue date: September, 2009
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