Susan Clampitt: Helping Your Listeners Tune into Change

Susan Clampitt: Helping Your Listeners Tune into Change

Susan Clampitt is executive director and general manager of WAMU 88.5 FM. Since joining Washington D.C.'s WAMU in 2000, Susan has taken the station to the number one spot for capital-area news radio, and has increased its audience by 34 percent. Here is a rough transcript of her remarks:

I was at the very first RealTime gathering in Monterrey. I was a charter subscriber and have been collecting Fast Company ever since. And soon I think I may have to move. Alan said that we had some change. We did some focus groups and asked people, "If you could describe WAMU the station as a car, what kind of car would we be?" We were a BMW. Today, we might be a Mini. But the best thing was that they described our main competitor as a beige Ford. I think that was really good.

This is a story about how we were basically two stations and how we solved some problems. What can the business world learn from public radio? You try to sell things. And we try to get money for something that everyone basically gets for free. You sell. We persuade. We all try to stay ahead of the times. What's the next big thing? Are we going to join it? Or are we going to create it?

Are we a radio station? Do we provide music? Are we on the Internet? Are we in the entertainment business? Do we keep people company? Do we keep people from going crazy while they're stuck in traffic? How do we take a radio station that has a 30-mile broadcast radius and move it around the world?

I was hired because I knew the station as a consumer and as a listener. But I couldn't understand why in the nation's capital during drive time in the nation's capital, the capital of the free world, we were playing bluegrass music. We had news around the clock. But between 3-6 p.m., we played bluegrass. We had two kinds of listeners. The people who listened from 3-6 p.m. were hardcore bluegrass fans. But they only listened for three hours. We really were running two stations. I was really concerned about loyalty.

When O Brother came on the scene, bluegrass was really gaining some traction. You might ask, "Why bluegrass in Washington, DC?" There was a widespread exodus from Appalachia to Washington, DC, to get jobs. The music followed the people. In those days it was called country, but it was Bill Monroe who changed the name. People in Washington loved it. This is what they said, "Bluegrass music reminds me of memories I wish I had."

The station started in 1952 on the campus of American University. Eventually, WAMU became an NPR station. It was news and bluegrass, and it stayed that way for 30 years. We did some research to find out how people felt about who we were. I felt we needed to move to news and talk in the afternoon. But to be the responsible person, you need to do the research. That was less than two years ago.

We moved the bluegrass to Sundays and Saturdays. We were news and talk and culture the rest of the week. Right now we are the No. 1 radio station in Washington, DC, and that is for news. We've had a 34% increase in listenership. And we're the No. 4 public radio station in the country.

But let's rewind and think about those loyal bluegrass listeners! This must have been painful for them. Well, it was. "With a name like Clampitt, how can you take bluegrass off the air?" I got three death threats that had to be investigated. I got calls at home in the middle of the night, but we were prepared because months ago we'd had the conversation about how can you take something away without putting something back?

We applied to the National Endowment for the Arts and asked for money so we could put up a 24-hour bluegrass music stream on the Net. That's how BluegrassCountry.org got its start. In just over a year, it's the fourth largest music only Internet site on the Web. But it's not cheap, and costs are escalating. What are we doing about it?

Well, we're doing what you do in public radio. We call for members. We have underwriters. That's code for advertisers. We have partners. We play on the guilt factor. We started an e-zine. We offer on-demand concerts.

We used the power of the Web to grow a small, loyal radio audience into a worldwide audience, and we've used the Web to export a very unique form of American music and culture. I love the emails we get from all over the world, every single continent. We get so many emails from troops overseas.

Loyalty is a very important business value. If you build it, they will come. That's usually a lousy business strategy, but for us it worked. And initial success needs to be backed up with a solid business plan. We hope to secure a spot in the Internet music winners' circle, but until then, we're glad to be known as the little station that could.

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