Wednesday, January 10, 2018


Today we are traveling to Delmarva, a peninsula on the East Coast that includes the state of Delaware and small portions of Maryland and Virginia. It is a beautiful place popular with tourists, sports enthusiasts, environmentalists and beach bums like me.

In recent years portions of Delmarva have become exurbs of Washington, DC and Baltimore, an hour west of the peninsula. Big city folks bring big city media preferences. This fact of life has made it a tough place for local media.

Delmarva Public Radio (DPR) is located in Salisbury, a small city with around 50,000 residents. DPR [link] operates two stations WSCL (NPR News & Classical) and WSDL (NPR News and soon-to-be Triple A music).  

We decided to feature DPR today because we received a press release saying WSDL is changing its format as of February 1st to Triple A. We are big fans of noncom Triple A and we welcome DPR to the party. However, we want to point out that there are problems ahead for DPR.


It was almost impossible to find basic operating information about DPR because they don't make put their audited financial report available on their website. This disclosure is required by CPB [link]. I know folks from CPB read this blog, so DPR will likely get a call from them soon.

One of DPR’s attributes immediately got our attention: There is almost NO local programming on the two stations.

Most of the information we could find comes from a 2012 report authored by Dennis Hamilton from then Public Radio Capital, now called the Public Media Company. Hamilton, who retired last year, is one of the best media consultants in the nation.

The reason Hamilton was involved was a existential change that happened in 2011. WAMU put a full-time repeater signal into the market. It immediately zapped the audience for NPR on WSCL and WSDL. Hamilton provided DPR with a couple of options: Sell the licenses or establish a local marketing agreement with a bigger station. DPR did neither. They kept things the same and it hasn’t and isn’t working.


A quick look at coverage maps shows DPR’s dilemma. On the right is the map for WSCL FM 89.5 FM. 

This is a decent coverage area. WSCL has a dual format of NPR News magazines and Classical music.


The next map on the right is the coverage map for WSDL 90.7 FM, a dual format station featuring the NPR News magazines and, soon, Triple A music. 

It barely puts a local-grade signal into Salisbury.

WRAU/WAMU Coverage

Now look at the coverage area WAMU’s repeater WRAU 88.3 FM. 

This is the “killer” signal that changed how people in central Delmarva list to NPR News/Talk programming.


The chart on the left shows the impact on listening caused by the entry of WRAU/WAMU into the market. 

The estimated weekly listeners to Classical WSCL has remained fairly steady over the years. But WSDL barely shows a pulse.

WAMU, via WRAU, typically has 20,000 to 30,000 weekly listeners. They now own the “NPR News brand” in central Delmarva.


The chart on the left exposes the heart of the problem. DPR’s announcement about “changing the format” is the addition of WKSU’s Folk Alley between the tent poles. Folk Alley [link] is a fine production that has evolved into a streaming music service. Though quite a few stations air Folk Alley as a weekly specialty program, the service was not developed to be a wall-to-wall radio format.

Folk Alley is produced in Kent, Ohio. During key hours – when the most people listen to the radio – WSDL has NO LOCAL PROGRAMMING during weekdays. On WSDL, after the upcoming format change, you won’t hear all of thethe things that have made “music discovery” so popular these days: NO local music. NO tie to area’s music scene. NO local, live hosts curating and playing the music they love. By not changing to local, live, 24/7 music programming, WSDL will likely remain a dithering compromise.

During Saturday’s key hours, thing are actually worse. The entire daypart has NO local programming. 

Everything is beamed in from somewhere else.

DPR violates my Prime Directive, the reason I am doing this blog: Terrestrial radio will succeed only if it gives listeners the hottest, highest quality programming. 

Stations have to provide content that listeners will passionately value for noncommercial radio to stay competitive.


  1. Without condemning nor condoning DPR's actions, it's worth pointing out that the Delmarva pennisula is an interesting (albeit depressing) case study in income inequality. There is a large population of the pennisula that is very poor, and then there's populations...mostly at the coasts...that are extremely wealthy. There's not a whole lot inbetween.

    And a lot of that wealthy population is people who have a direct connection back to Washington DC...summer homes, retirees, etc. So the WAMU repeater was a real DPR-killer. All those wealthy people could suddenly get the same NPR news they get back in DC. It's a lot like how many people on Cape Cod are big listeners to WBUR's repeaters down there; there's no "local" content but that's not what those people want; they want the content local to their "main lives" back in the city.

    I won't go so far as to suggest a course of action because I don't know enough about DPR's specific situation to make any intelligent recommendations. But from the outside looking in they sure are in a hard spot.

  2. My first real world job post-college was at WSCL. It was a part-time position, but it was a foot in the door.

    Mark Handley, who went on to New Hampshire Public Radio, founded the station with Salisbury State University. At the time, it was an area of the country unserved by public radio. (I never worked with Mark.) Presumably, the university has a stake in making the service viable, and creating a shared partnership. In hindsight, it's probably reasonable to point out there were some bad decisions made along the way from both the university and the station.

    I distinctly recall meetings where it was mentioned the station could be at risk for another signal coming into the market, or at least encroaching on our fringe. At minimum, at this time, someone this should have been a wake-up call and should have been laying the groundwork for a long-term strategic plan. Perhaps it had started as my position was part-time announcer, so I don't know exactly. This was 1991-92.

    During my time there, we had a group of dedicated, enthusiastic, loyal volunteers who were on-air. I see nothing on the website now soliciting volunteers, for anything. This is community.

    Expanding your broadcast footprint is a double-edged sword. While it's great to give your audience more options, think of the time, resources and energy that went into putting that signal on the air and maintaining that signal. I understand there can be a limited window for available non-commercial frequencies, but it's worth asking, was this the best use of resources at the time, or should they have been poured into WSCL to make it the best Delmarva public radio station possible?

    As for local programming, the station had a three hour folk show. I trained the volunteer. While it took a while for him to find his radio legs, from the beginning, it was and remained the best curated folk show I've ever heard. It was live and local. After 20 years, the program went away. (Presumably because the host wanted some minor compensation for his time over the years -- but I have limited first hand knowledge of this.) I streamed the final show, and it was very bittersweet. I also jotted down the names of some musicians. Similarly, there was a monthly variety show in the same vein as A Prairie Home Companion. The point is, these were live and local. And it was community. Both shows went away.

    Becoming more than just a relay for network programming is a challenge we all face to varying degrees. But there are certainly stations who have figured this out, and stations (mine included) who are making good progress along the way. Quality local programming is expensive. Turning everything over to satellite will certainly save money. But in this case, what has it got you? Two radio stations dying on the vine.

  3. The word "ultracrepidarian" comes to mind.