passes a milestone

Bluegrass Country on WAMUWith a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the help of many volunteers who digitized tracks from CDs and vinyl, Dick Cassidy put WAMU Radio’s on the Internet in 2001. There were no hosts and the schedule was sporadic. “It was,” he recalled the other day, “a computer playing music to a schedule.”

Ten years later, and its on-air HD radio programs are bluegrass staples. Its hosts have won five IBMA broadcaster of the year statues and top bands go out of their way to perform live from the Washington, D.C., station’s studios. The music is reaching an ever-expanding audience.

In the May Arbitron report, Katy Daley’s weekday morning drive show on WAMU 88.5-2, attracted 10,400 weekly listeners and Ray Davis’ afternoon drive program drew 12,900. While those numbers might seem small, they were enough to make the bluegrass channel the first HD programming to crack the Top 50 shows in the competitive Washington market and just the second to chart in the country. On top of that, there are 60,000 unique visitors per month for and additional listeners on seven community stations that broadcast WAMU’s offerings. (The unique visitors numbers are from 2009 so they may be somewhat higher by now.)

The HD bluegrass channel went on the air in 2007. Katy, who instantly owns any room she walks into, remembers being razzed by broadcast friends from mainstream radio about her “little Internet station.” But with consolidation and automation cutting radio opportunities in recent years, she’s probably having the last laugh.

“It’s as exciting as my first day on the radio,” Katy told me.

The 10th anniversary of web programming was marked by Saturday night’s WAMU Stars at the State concert at the State Theatre in Falls Church, Va., featuring the Boxcars, the Steep Canyon Rangers and Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen. The theater sold out and the music was terrific, but the hosts and others from WAMU aren’t about to sit back and rest on their laurels.

The station’s general manager, Caryn Mathes, said the decision to invest more than $400,000 in a 24/7 HD radio channel was easy to make. “I’d seen the loyalty and passion of the bluegrass community,” she said. “It’s paying off more and more every year.”

In the short run, the next step is using an experimental license from the Federal Communications Commission to expand the HD signal to reach a bigger audience. Longer term, she said the challenge was “to honor and preserve the tradition but figure out where the music is heading.”

There is also a need to keep pace with continuing changes in technology. WAMU has apps for iPhones and tablet computers such as the iPad and is ready to pursue whatever is next.

The bluegrass world will be watching closely, because it has a stake in what happens. As traditional radio programming leaves less room for bluegrass, and as the genre’s primary audience ages, technology may be a lifeline. “Whatever new platform comes along, we’re going to take a close look,” Caryn said. “You never know where you’ll find your new audience.”