By Bill McGraw
After program host Liz Copeland Warner left WDET-FM during a tumultuous period at the station in 2007, fans besieged the management, demanding that she be rehired.
Sometime soon, those fans will get their wish – nearly 17 years later.
Warner is slated to rejoin WDET, at 101.9 on the dial, to host a music show as Detroit’s listener-supported public radio station undergoes a major overhaul of its program schedule in an effort to boost its audience.
The new schedule will feature more local shows, especially those devoted to music, and fewer programs from National Public Radio.
The overhaul comes after the station conducted a survey last year in which listeners made it clear they value WDET’s “unique local content,” said General Manager Mary Zatina.
“We got good insight from our listeners and we’re following their feedback,” she said.
Over the weekend, Zatina declined to be specific about the changes, saying they’ll be announced in the coming weeks. A gag order prevented WDET staffers from speaking on the record about the new schedule.
Then, on Monday, Zatina posted a press release on the WDET website announcing the new format.
People knowledgeable about the station’s plans said that in addition to Warner, WDET is adding a couple of additional music programs, though it’s killing “Culture Shift,” a two-hour midday show that is heavy on music and includes news and interviews on local arts topics, plus a rollicking call-in hour each Wednesday.
Under the new format, one of the “Culture Shift” hosts, Ryan Patrick Hooper, will host a three-hour daily music show on weekday afternoons. Another host, Tia Graham, will join Nick Austin in a current-events call-in program weekday mornings. Amanda LeClaire, the founding producer of “Culture Shift,” will rejoin the news department.
“Detroit Today,” one of the station’s signature shows, will be renamed "Created Equal" and repurposed to explore questions of race and inequality. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stephen Henderson will continue as host.
In doubling down on its music offerings, WDET, which is owned by Wayne State University, will further distinguish itself from the more than 1,000 local stations across the country that broadcast NPR programs. Many of those stations specialize in news, current affairs and talk, and if they play music, it’s often only classical.
WDET’s rival public radio station in Ann Arbor, which recently rebranded itself as Michigan Public -- dropping “Radio” to reflect its growing digital presence -- has no music shows on its schedule.
In addition to “Culture Shift,” WDET currently carries several weekend music programs on genres ranging from soul to international. The shows are helmed by knowledgeable hosts who create their own playlists. Most are likely to continue, though at new times and days.
The veteran Ann Delisi, one of the station’s most popular deejays, has her own weekend show and co-hosts an eclectic Friday night music program with Detroit-born Don Was, president of Blue Note Records and a Grammy-winning producer who has worked with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Brian Wilson. That show will remain on the schedule.
The return of deejay Liz
Warner developed a fervent fan base from 1995 to 2007 when she played a wide range of music on WDET’s overnight shift. She also appeared as a deejay at such local clubs as the Buddha Lounge on West 8 Mile Road and the downtown techno festivals.
On her website, lizwarnerprojects.com, she describes having “built a community around the notion that the airwaves are not just a place on the dial, but a state of mind.” Each show, she says, offered “the opportunity for deep music and arts exploration alongside a space for celebrations, discussions, collaborations and the sharing of ideas.”
In 2007, when a former WDET management ended her show, the station was going in the opposite direction, cutting music and emphasizing public affairs and information. Listeners rebelled, withholding donations and even staging protests. Over the years, a lot of the music returned.
WDET is unique in Detroit radio, with its mix of sophisticated music shows on top of news and local and national programming, plus podcasts on subjects from cooking to Lansing politics.
But it needs more listeners, whose contributions account for 50 percent of the station’s revenue. The rest comes from business underwriting of programs, corporate grants, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, endowments, events, other earned income and a small subsidy from WSU.
Zatina said about 150,000 people listen to WDET each week. That’s down from several years ago, partially, she believes, because fewer people are commuting to work, when they listened to the radio.
The station will celebrate its 75th anniversary February 13. Many listeners are just as old; the average age of the WDET audience is 57. And while the station has donors who live in every state and 40 countries, fewer than 10 percent of listeners overall open their wallets during pledge periods.
Said Zatina: “Any changes we make are designed to get our listener numbers back up and also to give a better service for those who are currently listening.”