Making airwaves

It’s that time of year when the air cools, the leaves change color and WDET-101.9 FM asks listeners to fork over some dough to keep the public radio station afloat. But will WDET see fewer dollars this fall pledge drive given the radical program changes it instituted last month?

Some loyal listeners were irked when the Wayne State University-based station cut several national programs, including Car Talk and The Tavis Smiley Show. Beloved local shows also got the ax. Matt Watroba’s Folks Like Us program got the ziggy after airing folk music from noon to 3 p.m. every Saturday for nearly 18 years.

Within the first week or so, the station got about 1,500 complaints about the changes, says WDET Station Manager Caryn Mathes. “Predictably, we received a lot of contact from folks that were upset,” she says.

But so far, the program cuts don’t appear to have cost the station much cash. By Sunday evening, the end of the third day of the station’s fall pledge drive, ’DET had raked in about the same amount of donations it did this time during the spring drive, says Kevin Piotrowski, WDET public relations director. He says the station then had received about $208,000 in donations, compared to about $200,800 this pledge drive.

“We are about $8,000 down at this point, which in the grand scheme of what we are raising is negligible,” Piotrowski says, noting that the current fall pledge goal is $680,000.

Mathes says last month’s changes were based, in large part, on the number of listeners a show attracted and repelled.

Some shows that were cut had a “fair amount” of listeners, such as Watroba’s Folks Like Us program, she says. But Watroba’s show drove away “an equal amount [of listeners] or more.”

Mathes explains that listeners who tuned into Folks Like Us tuned out when the three-hour program concluded. She says that the station’s aim is to have a continuous audience.

WDET has more than 200,000 listeners who tune in at least seven hours a week. Mathes says it’s difficult to convince a listener to make a donation if they tune in for less than seven hours a week.

So, is money the bottom line? After all, the station saved about $150,000 annually by cutting the national programs, according to Mathes.

“We didn’t cut [programs] because of cost,” she says. Mathes says WDET wants to focus on what it does best. And according to recent surveys, the station’s strengths are its “progressive music variety and local NPR news and we decided to focus on that.”

Watroba, who harbors no grudge, says he received about 530 e-mails from upset listeners. He suspects his show will find another outlet.

“I can’t imagine another station not wanting thousands of devoted listeners and contributors,” Watroba says. “There are a bunch of people willing to listen to it, wherever it goes.”

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