WABE to cut daytime classical programming; expand news, talk, and arts coverage

I can’t tell you GPB’s entry into Atlanta’s market had no effect...But this is not a knee-jerk reaction.’

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Atlanta’s public radio battle is about to get interesting as WABE 90.1 FM, which for years has relied on a heavy rotation of daytime classical music, plans to expand its news programming in part to compete with Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Multiple WABE sources tell CL its classical music-focused programming on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. will be replaced with several news, talk, and arts shows. For years, station officials have contemplated dialing up its news programming. Over the past four years, they have conducted extensive research including focus groups, surveys, and strategic planning. But those plans were ramped up once GPB controversially entered Atlanta’s radio market by taking over daytime programming on WRAS 88.5 FM this past summer.

“There is a significant appetite of more news and information as well as the diversification of music,” WABE Chief Operating Officer John Weatherford tells CL. “...To be frank, I can’t tell you GPB’s entry into Atlanta’s market had no effect. It did something that hadn’t been done before. There was a public radio competitor with WABE as of late June. But this is not a knee-jerk reaction.”

Weatherford says the programming shift will occur sometime in late 2014 or early 2015. The time slot between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. will include a combination of local news reports from WABE journalists and national segments from NPR’s Morning Edition.

At 10 a.m., longtime Second Cup Concert host Lois Reitzes will oversee a two-hour arts and culture talk show that will have a greater focus on interviews with artists. WABE contributors Mara Davis, H. Johnson, and Scott Stewart will be heavily featured during those hours. According to Weatherford, Second Cup Concerts will be available on WABE’s HD 2 “Classics” stream from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day. The show, though shifting away from her classical expertise, will embrace Reitzes “in a new kind of style,” one source says.

Reitzes’ fundraising abilities have long been considered one of the reasons why the station didn’t flip formats years ago. But WABE staffers say the demand for news could no longer be ignored.

Following Reitzes’ new show, WABE reporters will produce a news and talk show that multiple WABE employees say will attract a similar audience to that of GPB Host Celeste Headlee’s new morning show, “On Second Thought.” Weatherford says the station will nearly double the size of its news staff to help with the increased programming. We’re told that WABE has already made 3 new hires and could hire up to 8 additional journalists. Station officials are figuring out whether the news and talk program will be one or two hours long, sources say.

WABE is also still determining what the mid-afternoon programming will look like following the local news and talk show. Weatherford says station execs are making final decisions about programming for the time slot. But he says that it would likely be a nationally-syndicated show from either American Public Media or BBC.

GPB CEO and President Teya Ryan, who recently told CL that most major Americans cities have two competing public radio stations, says in a statement that she supports WABE’s decision to expand its news programming.

“We have great respect for our colleagues at WABE, and wish them luck as they embark on this new journey,” Ryan said. “Obviously, we agree with their assessment that Atlantans are in need of good, quality public radio news and information. That’s why we did it first.”