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For opera on WVPR, is the fat lady singing?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Starting May 12, radio opera fans will find their favorite spot on the West Virginia Public Radio dial taken over by news and talk programming. With the May 5 season finale of the Metropolitan Opera, WVPR will not pick up the American Opera Series.

James Muhammad, director of Radio Services at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, said it's been a long time coming, but change was almost inevitable.

"Looking at the audience over the past 10 years," he said, "I've noticed a 48 percent decline in the cume and a 57 percent decline in the average quarter-hour audience."

Cume refers to the number of people who tune to a radio station during the course of a day for at least five minutes, but basically put, Muhammad said the audience for opera has been quietly vanishing for years.

"West Virginia Public Radio serves a rural population," he said. "There is no opera company in the state, and what we have is a small pocket of opera listeners."

Muhammad said opera fans are sometimes vocal, but there are fewer of them than there used to be. He expected to hear some complaints about the change, but they probably would pale in comparison to the volume of comments he gets from public radio listeners who don't want the opera --including other classical music fans.

"I've received lots of feedback expressing displeasure with the opera itself," he said. "They're not into the format [operas take several hours to perform] and we have a general complaint from listeners that we air too much classical music to be in West Virginia."

Muhammad said he wasn't ready to go that far, but since he arrived at WVPR in 2001, the station has trimmed back its classical music content -- primarily, the classical music content from the network, and replaced it with programming he said has a broader audience appeal.

He eliminated classical music from Sunday nights and Sunday mornings.

"One of our best-performing programs is 'Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me,' " he said. "I added it on Sunday mornings where we'd had classical music. I received more negative feedback than I received in my entire career."

Muhammad said critics were relentless. He got calls almost daily and, after a year, even though the audience numbers were solid, he decided to cut the program.

He got even more complaints.

"I cross-referenced them with the complaints I got for adding it," he said. "I was getting complaints from some of the same people."

He said WVPR has tried to strike a balance between carrying classical music and carrying what appeals to the average public radio listener.

"We've actually increased our local classical music content," Muhammad said. "We're playing more things that are appealing to a broader base of listeners, fewer harder-to-listen-to contemporary works and we're not shying away from popular works.

"That's helping. Jim Lange is doing a great job with that."

Lange is the host of WVPR's "Music in the Afternoon."

Muhammad said that, while other public radio stations around the country are abandoning classical music in favor of more news and talk programming, he believes WVPR needs to hold onto classical music, for now. In other states and other radio markets, radio listeners have greater access to classical music. In West Virginia, they don't.

However, with the opera, Muhammad said he couldn't justify continuing to broadcast a full year of opera programming -- at least, not with the same schedule.

Muhammad said WVPR would add the Houston Grand Opera from the American Opera Series, beginning in October. The show would be broadcast Tuesday evenings.

"Also, we are working to bring back the West Virginia Symphony series this fall."

Still, Muhammad said he is unsure what the fate would be for the Metropolitan Opera Series on WVPR, which finished May 5 and usually returns in December.

"I've made no decision on the Met," he said, "but the audience for the Met -- it's not doing well."

To contact James Muhammad, director of Radio Services at West Virginia Public Broadcasting call 304-556-4921 or jmuhammad@wvpubcast.org.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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