Myelita Melton goes on air in the WDAV broadcasting studio. Molly Mathis mmathis@charlotteobserver.com
Myelita Melton goes on air in the WDAV broadcasting studio. Molly Mathis mmathis@charlotteobserver.com

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What’s put WDAV among nation’s top classical stations?

By Mark Washburn

April 20, 2017 12:10 PM

Mozart, dead 226 years, is trending in Charlotte. So is Bach, gone 267 years.

So are the other classical composers, along with contemporary artists, orchestras and symphonies engaged in creating music at its highest level.

So says Nielsen Media Research, which measures the habits of radio listeners. It has found that in the last two years, WDAV-FM (89.9) has surged to the top ranks of public classical stations nationwide.

Last August, the Davidson College-based station was No. 1 in audience share among its national peers, the best performance of its 38-year history. And it has remained in the top three nationally since then. In February, it had a 3.2 percent average-quarter-hour share among all radio stations in the Charlotte area – just behind heritage news-talk station WBT-AM (1110), which came in at 3.4.

What accounts for the rising popularity of Charlotte’s classical voice?

A key decision?

Perhaps it’s the “oasis effect”: offering a gentle, non-contentious listening experience for people whose media diet is being increasingly filled with political and social rancor.

“Part of it is probably the times we live in,” says Frank Dominguez, WDAV’s general manager, who has been at the station 23 years. “It causes people to seek an oasis that they might not have sought two years ago. Everyone needs an oasis to decompress or recharge.”

Another possibility: In January 2015, WDAV decided to drop NPR newscasts on the hour after carrying them for 20 years.

An audience study had found that most listeners were there for the music. And there was anecdotal evidence that when the newscast came on, listeners who wanted local news switched to WBT-AM or WFAE-FM (NPR, 90.7) and listeners who wanted music switched elsewhere.

Overall audience ratings immediately began to rise – without the interruption, listeners stayed put as the music played on.

Dominguez braced for negative feedback. But, he said, about 90 percent of those expressing an opinion liked the change.

Still, in a digital world with so many other options to get music, the station had to find other ways to thrive.

Competitive pace

It was one of the nation’s first classical stations to stream its broadcasts on the web and recently redesigned its web site, WDAV.org, with more on-demand content. Its app has about 10,000 subscribers.

And WDAV has two advantages over satellite radio and streaming services like Pandora, Dominguez says.

First, its music mix is geared to the time of day – upbeat, inspirational compositions dominate the morning and relaxing, kick-back orchestrations are aimed at the end of the day. Services that appear in all time zones at the same time can’t necessarily match the music to the mood.

Second, the station is tightly focused on a local audience. It plays local and regional symphonies and other artists, does Spoleto broadcasts, carries at 9 a.m. weekdays “A Minute with Miles” – clever segments demystifying classical music with Miles Hoffman of S.C. Public Radio – and airs visiting artists from its performance studio.

About 22 hours of broadcasting is locally originated each day and by longtime hosts that the audience has come to know like Ted Weiner, the music director who has been at WDAV for 31 years. Other well-known hosts with years of service at WDAV include morning host Mike McKay, Myelita Melton, Matt Rogers, Rachel Stewart and Joe Brant.

People knowledgeable about classical music with a passion for its energy are the muscle behind the station’s brand, Dominguez said.

“It’s a curated experience you can’t get from Spotify and an experience you can’t match in the local area,” he said. “We want to be the connection between the listeners and the classical music of the region.”

WDAV also produces “Concierto,” narrated by Dominguez in English and Spanish, featuring music by Latin American and Spanish composers and musicians, and carried on 45 public radio stations nationally.

Up from the Bronx

Dominguez, 57, is the son of Cuban immigrants who came to New York in 1948 in search of opportunity. He grew up in the Bronx, doing chores – mopping floors, taking out the trash – with his father who was an apartment building superintendent.

He went to public schools, then Adelphi University in Long Island and got a graduate degree from the University of New Orleans. He’d planned to be a theater professor, but in the back of his mind he harbored a desire to be an announcer for a classical music station.

He found a job doing weekends at WFAE-FM (NPR 90.7) when it had a classical format but lost that gig when the station went to smooth jazz. He wound up doing fund-raising at WFAE, then moved up to announcer at WDAV and eventually general manager.

Chugging along well

WDAV gets administrative support like human resources and information technology services from Davidson College, but the station raises its own $1.8 million budget from listeners and corporate donors.

It has begun its work on next year’s budget -- dicey this year, because the Trump administration has proposed eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which underwrites about 10 percent of the station’s budget. (That’s roughly the equivalent of one of the station’s nine-day, on-air membership campaigns.)

Fundraising has been going strong – the station added Jay Ahuja, veteran Charlotte public broadcasting fundraiser, to its corporate support staff in February – and its spring campaign exceeded its $200,000 goal.

When Dominguez arrived two decades ago, the fear was that WDAV’s audience was too old – that when they died, no one would come along and take their place.

That concern has never changed, but the demographics have never looked better. Yes, half the audience is over 55 years old, but a quarter of it is under 35.

“For us, the future is doing what WDAV has done for almost 40 years,” said Dominguez. “Change with the times and try to keep ahead of the changes.”

No

Frank Dominguez, general manager at WDAV. Molly Mathis mmathis@charlotteobserver.com

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