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Small signal gets WSMR's classical music on the airwaves

After more than a month of delays, hundreds of angry phone calls from listeners and the embarrassment of postponing the long-planned debut of WSMR-FM 89.1, the Tampa Bay area's classical music public radio station began broadcasting Friday.

But most fans in the market still won't hear their Beethoven or Mozart on its airwaves just yet.

WSMR is currently broadcasting at low power — just 5 kilowatts of a planned 55-kilowatt signal — because owner WUSF Public Media still hasn't worked out all the interference and antenna problems.

WUSF is using a borrowed antenna from Clear Channel Radio to broadcast; it won't switch to full power until its new antenna is ready in another eight weeks, said WUSF public media general manager JoAnn Urofsky. She couldn't say how many listeners could hear the station's broadcasts from its Sarasota tower, though scratchy reception in South Tampa and St. Petersburg seems to be most likely.

Urofsky said the current solution wasn't possible until WUSF completed its $1.2 million purchase of the station, which was finalized Friday.

"We are now in control of everything that goes on, and we weren't before," said Urofsky, who cautioned that Clear Channel could still retake control of the antenna airing WSMR in an emergency. "We could give advice, but we couldn't do anything ourselves."

WSMR was supposed to debut on Sept. 15, the same day WUSF-FM 89.7 adopted a news-public affairs-jazz format featuring loads of new National Public Radio shows, shifting the station's daytime music audience to a new, 24-hour classical broadcast. But WSMR could not begin transmitting; first, officials blamed new permits needed because the station had to place its antenna in a different spot, then Urofsky cited interference created by moving the antenna to a new spot.

Now, Urofsky said, the station's previous owners, Northwestern College Media, mistakenly believed WSMR's antenna would fit on a certain spot of a new broadcast tower. When it didn't, WUSF was forced to purchase a new antenna and borrow Clear Channel's equipment for the short term.

The confusion doesn't seem to have affected the station's fall membership drive, which ended Friday after collecting $420,000 and adding 1,400 new members — setting station records in both categories, Urofsky said.

Even when the controversy over NPR's firing of analyst Juan Williams brought lots of calls, the general manager said many of them came from people who did not seem to be donors. "In some ways, it's hard to tell how well we did," Urofsky said, reached by phone in Atlanta, where NPR president Vivian Schiller apologized to executives from stations nationwide for handling Williams' firing badly. "We had an awesome pledge drive … but I wonder how much better it might have been if we would have had the classical station up and running."

Small signal gets WSMR's classical music on the airwaves 10/25/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 12:31am]

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