Predictably enough -- who am I to try and outfox the demographers? -- I'm a National Public Radio listener. The radio presets in the house and car include an R&B station and C-SPAN radio (laugh if you wish). But the first two slots are dedicated to WAMU, the NPR affiliate that broadcasts out of American University, and WETA, the Arlington-based affiliate. Whenever I plop down in another part of our great nation, I get in the rental car, adjust the seat and mirrors, make for the airport exit lanes, and turn the dial to 90.9, because it's a good bet that almost everywhere in America, 90.9 is an NPR station of some sort. To give you an idea of the company I keep, I actually once impressed someone with this piece of recondite knowledge.
I'm devoted to the Car Talk guys. I adore Brooke Gladstone and On The Media. I esteem Kurt Andersen and Studio 360. I even go in for Garrison Keillor. I do hate that irritating Powdermilk Biscuit song of his, and in fact I readily acknowledge that there's much about NPR that's annoying. There's the overly soothing quality of the overall sound, which you know they've honed and market-tested within an inch of its life; there's the way most of the news hosts just sound so darn … pleased with themselves all the time; there's that air of genteel, tea-service liberalism suffusing the whole enterprise; and perhaps worst of all, there's Susan Stamberg's grandmother's cranberry relish recipe, which sounds completely disgusting -- horseradish?? -- and which annually proves my credo that tradition is the worst reason in the world to keep doing things (but in confirming one of my prejudices, even it is reassuring).
But look -- they're professionals, they're all over the world (as many foreign correspondents as The New York Times), and they almost never talk down to you. That's something in this day and age, especially on radio. Go stream Danny Zwerdling's report on mental health-care for Iraq war veterans. It's as good as journalism in any medium gets.
For my sort, weekend mornings have for years included the ritual of Scott Simon on Saturdays and Liane Hansen on Sundays. I am undoubtedly one of many thousands of Washington-area denizens who, at the very least, have both on in the background as we go about our business. Weekend Edition Sunday, hosted by Liane for 16 years now, is spiced by the regular appearances of Will Shortz, who plays a little puzzle with a lucky listener. His brief weekly segment, I was once told by a friend at WNYC back when I lived in New York, is one of the most popular things on NPR's entire schedule.
Well, if you live in Washington, you may never hear Shortz or Hansen again. WETA, the station that carried Weekend Edition Sunday, has switched to a classical format, and so residents of the nation's capital city, a demographic sweet spot for a seven-day-a-week diet of NPR news like few others in the country, can't hear the basic Sunday news show.
It's fine that WETA has gone classical. Although my knowledge of the genre doesn't come close to rivaling my familiarity with outtakes of The Basement Tapes, even I recognize that a city needs a good classical music station. But really. This is ridiculous. Is there cosmic justice in the fact that people in the hollows of eastern Kentucky and the remote plains of Nebraska can hear a serious couple hours' worth of radio news on Sunday mornings, while those of us who have taken the good time, trouble, and expense to deposit ourselves in the nation's political nerve center -- and even enmesh ourselves in its sordid particulars -- can't?
With escutcheon of righteousness brandished above my head like Hotspur's visor, I put the question to Dan DeVany, the vice-president and senior manager of radio for WETA. He sounds like a really nice fellow. We had several laughs in the course of our conversation. He's the kind of guy you'd like to have a (remembering the medium) chardonnay with. But maybe the title "vice president" does things to people these days. While he was not yet boasting of the "enormous successes" of the new format, my entreaties left him nevertheless unmoved.
"The truth of the matter is, when we were contemplating the switch to classical music, we decided that since we were going to be in sole possession of the classical music dial in Washington, we'd have to make some painful decisions to clear the way to being as close to a full-time classical music station as possible, including Sundays," DeVany told me.
The operative words there are "as close to." Why? Because WETA broadcasts classical music only 163 hours a week (minus the five-minute, top-of-the-hour NPR news feeds, which it has continued). The remaining five hours go to the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, aired five nights a week at 7:00. (Further demography-is-destiny note: I still call it MacNeill-Lehrer).
So this raises the next question: If the panjandrums at WETA were willing to forgo the format for a few hours a week, why choose Lehrer's show, which after all is available to Washingtonians via another medium, television, over Hansen's, which is not?
DeVany described 7:00 PM as a "transitional time of day" that possesses "a certain uniqueness." Could be. But he also noted that the Lehrer show is "produced by WETA," which means it's an in-house product -- which means that he doesn't have to pay for it, as he would for Wee-Sun (as the mothership calls Hansen's show).
A word here about Hansen. She can be -- what's the right word? -- cloying. Like a too-sweet breakfast cereal. I consider leaving the room every Sunday when she gushes to a Shortz gamer that he or she just performed marvelously on an absurdly easy word game. But this is exactly the point of her charm: She sheds the self-seriousness of some of NPR's other news hosts. She's like your favorite aunt. The one who slipped you an Abe Lincoln on every visit. She's interested in you. Great radio hosts, for my money, are people who are just endlessly interested in their guests and make them sound interesting to you. That's a very hard thing to do, week after week, year after year. It comes so naturally to Liane that it would be creepy -- if it weren't, tautologically, so natural.
Andi Sporkin, the vice president (that again!) for communications at NPR, seemed oddly resigned to the problem. "It is our hometown," she allowed. "But we deal with 800 stations that may or may not carry our programming." I think she's upset about this. The first sentence of her quote -- with her italics, I promise you, not mine, on the "is" -- is vaguely off-message, I think. But she's a good NPR person. A few attempts on my part to goad her into denunciation of the philistines at WETA were for naught.
Finally, you may be wondering: Well, why doesn't WAMU just pick up Hansen's show? Here, my friend, is the Aberdeen Proving Ground, as Ralph Kramden would say, of public-radio programming. During the week and into Saturday, WAMU is the liberal cultural elitist's blue heaven -- news, news, news, and views, views, views. Diane Rehm, Kojo Nnamdi, Brooke, Kurt, Click'n'Clack, everything; even, crushingly, Liane's husband, Neal Conan, who hosts Talk of the Nation.
But on Sundays. Sigh. On Sundays, WAMU is bluegrass country. Now, I was raised in West Virginia, and my tolerance of bluegrass extents to a good four minutes. But WAMU plays bluegrass from -- get this -- 1:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Sixteen hours. Upon the seventeenth hour, is there respite? There is Irish music! I almost called WAMU to discuss these questions, but there would have been no point, because it's obvious to anyone that the station rakes in big dollars from the bluegrass aficionados, who invest in the station for the express purpose of ensuring that their beloved form of music (and God bless them; this is capitalism -- of a sort, anyway) stays on the air unperturbed. Stained Glass Bluegrass, the show that runs on Sunday mornings, is sacrosanct.
So I'm stuck. I have to imagine that there are thousands like me in the Washington area. DeVany acknowledges "dozens" of complaints on the first Sunday sans the Hansen show. (She is currently on leave; I have no doubt that had she been on the air when the hammer fell, the dozens would have transmuted into thousands.) If he's telling the truth, well, dozens do not a riot make.
Rise up, brie-eaters of Washington! Sharon Percy Rockefeller, CEO of WETA and my fellow (sort of) West Virginian: Heed the call of your people! Will Shortz -- do something! I, and thousands like me, have heard plenty of Mendelssohn, and we still have many other hours during the week to hear the Violin Concerto in E-minor! Susan Stamberg: You are excellent the other 364 days of the year, and I may even try cranberries with horseradish! Just bring Liane Hansen back to her rightful place. I'm confident the blue moon of Kentucky will keep on shinin' on WAMU. The rest of us will sing an ode to joy.
Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's editor-at-large. He writes a column most Wednesdays for TAP Online.
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