CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Dangerous Liaisons at WDAV

Joel Kaplan

September 9, 2013

WDAV is the 24-hour classical music public radio station in Davidson, North Carolina and licensed to the trustees of Davidson College.

The station began as a student-run operation in 1969 and became a full-service professional operation in 1978. Its mission statement is to provide classical music and cultural arts programming for an area that reaches into Charlotte. It has approximately 100,000 weekly listeners.

One of those listeners is Scott Gibbons, who says he "has been listening to WDAV most hours of the day and night for more years than I can remember and as a result, can monitor changes in programming."

Mr. Gibbons has two major complaints about what he sees as some of those changes at WDAV:

One has to do with the choices and quality of programming that the station has recently been running. The second is an underwriting credit for a local theater production of Dangerous Liaisons. He relayed both of his complaints to station management and was unhappy with its response.

Here is what he had to say about the underwriting credit to Dangerous Liaisons:

"For the past several days you have been promoting the Queen City Theatre Company's performance of Dangerous Liaisons. The uncensored description on (its) website calls it 'a modern exploration of decadent sexuality, morals and manipulations played out as the ultimate game of lust and revenge. A web filled with deceit, lies and sexual manipulation.' Does WDAV management think that promoting such an offensive program is appropriate?"

And here is what Mr. Gibbons had to say about the programming at WDAV:

"I would also like to raise again after several years the apparent increasing entertainment, promotion, and subtle political aspects of the programming. Recently I was surprised at the increased play of film music and more repetitive play of a central core of traditional pieces when there is a lifetime's worth of authentic and varied classical music available that appears to be little touched by the station."

He is also upset at the programming that WDAV runs via NPR:

"Years ago WDAV used to say that its sole purpose was to promote classical music. That has changed in the past few years partly due to the influence of NPR and modern urban elite thought and agenda. I had earlier objected to the so-called 'Latin' program, and promotion of personalities, and cultural and political agenda through From the Top and other programs."

Finally, Mr. Gibbons complained about the station's Facebook policy, specifically why it does not use its Facebook page to entertain complaints and suggestions from listeners.

Frank Dominguez, general manager and content director for WDAV, responded directly to Mr. Gibbons about all his complaints:

Thank you for taking the trouble to write with your observations about WDAV's programming and Facebook policy, and for giving me the opportunity to respond directly to your concerns.

With regard to the underwriting credit for Queen City Theater's production of Dangerous Liaisons, we don't believe it's inappropriate for WDAV to carry that announcement. Undoubtedly there are many listeners who agree with you about the content of that play, but there are also many others who would not be offended by it and would be interested in seeing it. Our responsibility is to acknowledge the support from the underwriter and to keep the language within the accepted restrictions for underwriting copy. Beyond that we expect listeners to decide for themselves whether the event is appropriate for them or not.

As for not discussing our policies in detail on Facebook, we are under no obligation to use our Facebook page as a public forum, and don't feel it's an effective venue for that. Any member of the public can get in touch with us to voice his or her opinion in any number of convenient ways, and will be treated with the same respect. If we ignore the preferences of the majority of our listeners, we will feel the sting of lost listening and support. In my opinion that's the most effective public forum of all.

We do have open meetings of our Community Advisory Board during which we provide opportunities for public comment. You are welcome to do so.

Now, on to your broader observation about the "increasing entertainment, promotion and subtle political aspects of the programming" as well as "increased play of film music and more repetitive play of a central core of traditional pieces:"

We are not consciously aware of any political aspects to our programming, but we are definitely interested in increasing the entertainment value of it, and in promoting it to our listeners as effectively as possible. That's why we've introduced film music into the rotation, and increased the repetition of familiar works. The objective is to grow the audience for WDAV in particular and for classical music in general. The strategy is based on extensive audience research.

We know from monthly Arbitron surveys that on average our listeners tune in for a total of an hour and a half a day, usually in snatches of 10 or 15 minutes at a time. There are exceptions like you, of course, but the likelihood of most listeners finding the programming as repetitive as you do is relatively slim because of the reality of how most listeners use radio. In addition, music testing of classical radio listeners conducted nationally over the last two decades has repeatedly demonstrated that listeners like to hear the familiar favorites often, and that film music appeals to a significant portion of them. Since adopting this strategy we've seen growth in audience and membership contributions, and recent focus groups we conducted revealed unprecedented approval for the station's musical programming and the role we play in the community.

But I must also add that the strategy does not represent all of our programming. We use it for peak listening times, roughly 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. But we recognize that our format also provides interested listeners with the opportunity to explore the range of classical music in more depth. So we also have programs such as Performance Today; the Symphony at 7; concert series such as Carolina Live; specials from music festivals such as Spoleto and Brevard; series for niche genres such as opera, choral and organ music; and Sunday Evening with Tom Burge, all of which offer a much broader range of classical music.

Finally, let me address your remarks about the influence of NPR and some specific programs on WDAV. Our relationship to NPR is simply as a customer of its programming; the network does not dictate our local programming guidelines or strategy. Currently we acquire only two programs from NPR: occasional three-minute newscasts and the series From the Top.

If we heard significant objections from listeners to the newscasts or their content, we wouldn't carry them, but that has not been the case. From the Top has been on WDAV since the late 90s. Our sole objective in carrying it is to showcase young classical musicians, which we feel demonstrates that the future of classical music is bright. Overall listeners seem to find it inspiring and refreshing in a culture where classical music can seem marginalized.

Our bilingual program Concierto was the idea of a former General Manager who saw it as a way to appeal to the largest and fastest growing ethnic group in the country, and realized that since I am Hispanic WDAV was in a position to try out his concept. For my part, I share with listeners some of the composers and performers who come from Spanish-speaking countries, with no political commentary or stance intended by my presentation. The bilingual aspect of the show sets it apart and hopefully makes Spanish speakers feel welcome tuning to our station. The response to the program, from English speakers as well as Latinos, has been overwhelmingly positive, and ironically (given your complaint about the amount of repetition on our station) the most common praise given to the show is that it acquaints listeners with music, artists and composers they had never heard before.

I don't imagine these explanations will make you like the changes you've perceived at WDAV, but I felt it was important to reply in detail. Given all of the other options that are available for classical music lovers in this digital age, we appreciate your continued listening in spite of your dissatisfaction with us, and the trouble you've taken to voice your opinions.

Mr. Gibbons also complained to Davidson College President Carol Quillen, who responded:

"Thank you for sharing this with me and for your interest in WDAV. I am appreciative of Frank responding to your concerns. I hope you will continue to enjoy the amazing music on WDAV."

While WDAV is a relatively small public radio station that focuses on classical music, the response of its general manager to Mr. Gibbons' complaint is exactly the kind of accountability and thoroughness that more media organizations should follow when responding to complaints from its listeners, viewers and readers.

While I do not agree with everything Mr. Dominguez writes—the station's Facebook policy for example—I think his willingness to explain and defend the station's point of view is admirable and I applaud him for doing so.

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