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WEXT radio finding its audience

WEXT radio finding its audience

Alternative format radio station WEXT-FM 97.7, which is owned by WMHT, has seen its support base gra
WEXT radio finding its audience
Chris Wienk, WEXT 97.7 vice president of radio for WMHT, right, and WMHT President Robert Altman work the airwaves for donations in the studio at WMHT recently.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

For almost a year and a half, WEXT-FM, Exit 97.7, has relied on listener donations, an unusual concept for a radio station playing largely alternative and indie music, including tunes by Capital Region bands.

However, it’s not a new one. Public broadcasting stations operating under the Triple-A (adult album alternative) format, which WEXT-FM fits, exist throughout the country, including stations such as WXPN-FM in Philadelphia and KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif.

The concept, so far, seems to be finding success in the Capital Region.

“Every week they tell us we’ve been getting anywhere between five and 20 people signing up,” said Chris Wienk, afternoon announcer and vice president of radio for WMHT Public Broadcasting, which owns WEXT-FM. “We’re always mentioning on the air that we’re listener-supported, and if people want to help out, to go to the Web site, those kind of things.”

Since going on the air in July 2007, the station has raised $44,145 from 633 contributions, most of which WMHT states are from individual, unique donors. Most of the donations have come during the station’s five pledge drives, the most recent of which occurred in October. According to Robert Altman, president and general manager of WMHT, each time the station has done a pledge drive, the amount of money raised has increased.

“I think we’ve been pleased with the numbers so far,” Altman said during a recent phone interview. “What we watch is the trend line — if it keeps pointing in the right direction. It doesn’t happen overnight, but this is a good start.”

For the most part, the weeklong pledge drives have occurred in June and October, although a shorter, three-day drive is planned for Jan. 14 to 16 as a prelude to the station’s Local 518 concert on Jan. 30 at WMHT-TV studios. The concert will feature performances from Matthew Loiacono, Bryan Thomas, Railbird featuring Sarah Pedinotti and 28N, all Capital Region artists who have been receiving airplay on the station.

During the pledges, programming on the station is geared to support the drive; the most recent pledge drive was “My Exit” week, when the station aired clips from its “My Exit” listener shows.

This show, which has listeners come into the studio to play an hourlong block of music from their own collections, is one example of WEXT-FM’s more local approach to radio. The station’s “Local 518” program, founded on the goal of playing at least one local artist per hour on the station, likewise fits into the station’s focus. All the local programming seems to have struck a chord with listeners.

For Susan Taylor, a 47-year-old bookseller at Book House in Albany and Market Block Books in Troy, the local music was the main attraction to WEXT-FM. Taylor first heard about the station during a Capital District Local First board meeting, which she presides over. She has since recorded a “My Exit” show, which aired on Aug. 25.

“I’d rather give money directly to [musicians] than going through a big concert promoter,” Taylor said. “That’s what WEXT is all about: Trying to get the little guy out there, to get the little guy noticed. They’re not shoving it down your throat; it’s about what the listeners actually like.”

Spreading the word

The local-oriented programming also helps with support for the station. Aaron Wey, 37, a veterinarian in Latham, recorded a “My Exit” show for the station in September. The show is a great idea for building listenership, he said.

“It’s a fantastic marketing strategy,” Wey said during a recent phone interview. “Every person [doing the show] will tell at least 20 more people, ‘Hey, listen to my show.’ For a listener-supported station, obviously that’s crucial.”

WMHT first purchased WEXT-FM, formerly a commercial classical station, in late 2005. Initially, because of staff constraints, the station remained classical, although WMHT already owned a classical station, WMHT-FM, Classical 89.1. In the spring of 2007, the station changed to the Triple-A format, at first following the lead of other East Coast stations and focusing on classic artists such as Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn, according to Wienk.

“We’ve been sort of bringing in newer, fresher sounds, a lot of indie sounds like the Black Kids, Santogold,” Wienk said. “Once we crossed over into modern rock land, we started to get bigger.”

Getting listeners to donate money to the cause has often been a matter of education.

“Mostly because of it being in this market, people of a certain age in this market, if they haven’t gone to college somewhere else, are not going to be familiar with the process,” Wienk said.

All ages contribute

To solicit donations, the station has developed incentives, such as monthly spotlight CDs and a “Local 518” compilation CD given away to listeners who donate a certain amount. According to Altman, most donations have fallen within the $50 to $100 range, with the majority of donors being active listeners. The station has received donations from all age brackets, Wienk said.

“It’s all anecdotal, but we’ve been hearing from people as young as in their teens,” Wienk said. “They usually tell us, ‘Hey, I’m giving you my allowance,’ or, ‘I work a part-time job and this is what I can give you.’ And it’s great, every single dollar really makes a difference.”

The upward trajectory of the donation numbers has given WMHT reason to be optimistic about WEXT-FM, even with the economy in recession. Although the weakened economy has caused some concern, the hope is that WEXT-FM will continue to grow, especially in its local connections and programming.

“I think, not just for EXT but for all of our services, we’re entering a period of relatively unknown territory, with the economy going through things it hasn’t gone through for a while,” Altman said. “Historically, people listen to free media at home a lot during these times, both TV and radio, so the use of the service is going to remain strong. We’re hopeful that people continue to think of this as a valuable, extraordinarily inexpensive service that gives access to great kinds of music.”

By this point, both Altman and Wienk agree that WEXT-FM has carved out a niche with listeners.

“I think people who listen have a clear idea of what to expect, although sometimes that means to expect the unexpected,” Altman said.

“We have a clear musical footprint, unlike any one that I know of in this market.”

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