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Classical music fans sing blues over reception of WSMR

For five months, opera and classical music fan Nancy Preis looked forward to the moment organizers would work out their problems and get 24-hour Sarasota classical music station WSMR-FM 89.1 on the air at full power.

Her wait ended last week when owner WUSF Public Media resolved WSMR's interference problems with the Coast Guard and cranked the station up to full strength.

There was one problem. Living in Seminole and working in the Tyrone Square Mall area, Preis — who sits on the board of the Florida Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Opera — couldn't hear the station without fighting unappealing bursts of static. Now she has given up on ever hearing WSMR conventionally, convinced that WUSF has bungled the transition beyond salvation.

"All the publicity on this (told fans) to 'Just wait until we're up to full power,' " said Preis, 61. "I consider this to be a major screwup. You don't announce that you're going to do something and not follow through."

Preis' sentiments mirror those of other classical music fans in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties who complain that WSMR's full power signal still doesn't reach them from the station's antenna near Venice. Plans to install a "translator" to extend WSMR's broadcast to North Tampa may not help parts south, leaving an area that once was the core listenership of classical music broadcasts on WUSF-FM 89.7 without the means to hear WSMR's broadcasts through regular, terrestrial radio.

Tampa-based WUSF bought WSMR for $1.2 million last year to shift its classical music to the Sarasota station and offer daytime programming filled with NPR shows. Technical delays, interference issues and the decision to build a new antenna delayed the station's full power debut from Sept. 15 to Feb. 22, forcing fans outside the Sarasota area to listen online or on HD radio.

Anthony Witlin, 62, also has trouble hearing WSMR's broadcasts in his St. Petersburg home, where he works as an online trader. He felt WUSF's repeated on-air announcements, which assured listeners that full power broadcasts were coming after a few technical adjustments, didn't address his fear that listeners in North Pinellas and South Tampa may never hear the station clearly.

"I trusted the station, and we got 'station spin,' " he said. "The listening audience for classical music was declining, so they seemed to accept they would lose a large part of the audience in this move."

JoAnn Urofsky, general manager for WUSF public media, resisted some of the criticism, saying the station can't know for sure how the reception issues will play out until federal officials approve the use of the translator antenna. She denied assuming large parts of Tampa and St. Petersburg wouldn't receive the station, blaming delays on WSMR's original owners, Northwestern Media.

Urofsky said the initial delays in September emerged when information provided by the station's original owners turned out to be incorrect. As it became clear WUSF would have to build a new antenna for WSMR and handle interference issues with the Coast Guard, the time needed to complete the project swelled beyond expectations, she said.

So why didn't she tell the public who was causing the delays? "Had we said anything, we would have jeopardized the business deal," said Urofsky, noting WUSF didn't finalize the sale until Oct. 22. "We had to redesign a station almost from scratch because of the condition we found it."

Now Urofsky is taking flak for a transition that never seems to end. Preis said, "If this were a corporate situation, JoAnn would be unemployed." Urofsky points out that WUSF's news and information audience is larger and the station is still working to improve the signal for classical music fans.

Brian Kelly, a 55-year-old information technology manager in St. Petersburg, decided to drop his $100 WUSF membership and invest in an HD radio for his car. "This all has the feel of a project that wasn't planned properly," he said. "That, coupled with the lack of information, has made me very angry."

Classical music fans sing blues over reception of WSMR 03/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 4, 2011 10:28pm]
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