Detroit Public Radio, or WDET, has long valued its ability to provide listeners with local programming and a variety of music that would never make it to commercial stations – or even most public radio stations. After the station faced a six-figure deficit as of September and its fall fundraising efforts fell $100,000 short of its goal, however, its managers revamped its format last month. The new WDET preserves some local and music programming, but the daytime hours primarily feature nationally syndicated NPR programs – a move that has enraged many listeners. At a time when what the station needs most is cooperation with its listeners, there appears to be only anger and miscommunication – a combination that could leave WDET in an even more trying situation.
The format change came with little warning from the station, catching everyone from station deejays to jazz lovers off guard and leaving them frustrated that the station did not leave time for input. From station management’s perspective, the decision seemed obvious – facing a $300,000 deficit, the station could not afford to keep its music-centered format.
Outraged listeners organized to start the Save Detroit Radio campaign, calling for the station to hold a last-chance fundraiser to raise enough private donations to save the station’s format. Such a fundraising drive succeeded in 2003, when the station found itself in a similar financial situation. A handful of listeners went a step further on Dec. 19: They filed a class-action lawsuit against the station for fraud, claiming the station deceived them by taking donations from listeners who were contributing toward programs that would soon be cut from the schedule.
The campaign argues that the station should have informed the public about the changes prior to the last fundraiser, enabling listeners to understand the new format before offering donations. Save Detroit Radio members complain that altering the station robs it of the unique focus listeners have grown to love and appreciate and makes the station identical to every other public radio station in the country. Although public radio stations stand apart from most stations on the dial for their informative and original programming, the damage to WDET’s local identity merits valid concern and action.
The petitioners’ complaints are persuasive. But a lawsuit against WDET will only exacerbate its current financial crisis, making the return of beloved shows less likely. As a nonprofit, listener-supported radio station, WDET cannot promise “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” on its radio lineup – especially when there is no money to give back. WDET cannot afford to refund listeners’ donations, nor should it have to – requesting the return of a donation from a public radio station is both classless and counterproductive.
By voicing constructive suggestions, the Save Detroit Radio campaign has the power to work with WDET and bring music back to its daytime lineup. Campaign representatives and the station should engage in discussion and compromise to best help WDET retain its identity, financial stability and listeners. The dedication of WDET’s listeners demonstrates the importance of the station’s original music content in an age when media conglomerates like Clear Channel keep most radio stations under their fist. Upset listeners should do everything in their power to find a way for the station to restore more local music programming – except sue the station.