WASHINGTON, D.C. – On July 3, 1967, with FM radio still in its infancy, American University brought a piece of musical Americana to listeners across the metropolitan area for the very first time.
With American musicologist Dick Spottswood behind the mic, “Bluegrass Unlimited” made its debut on the school’s noncommercial WAMU-FM 88.5.
By 1977, more than 20 hours of bluegrass music could be heard on WAMU. The music carried into the 1990s, but the desire for increased NPR talk programming – fueled by the nationally distributed Diane Rehm Show – led WAMU to gradually phase out all of its bluegrass programming.
In 2001, a largely automated BluegrassCountry.org was created to satisfy fans of the music. They weren’t pleased, and three years later pre-recorded shows were replaced with live personalities.
In September 2007, thanks to the rollout of HD Radio, Bluegrass Country returned to the FM dial – by way of WAMU-HD2.
With HD receivers still limited, a further step was taken to bring Bluegrass Country back on the D.C. airwaves. In 2008, American University nabbed W288BS, a translator licensed to Reston, Va., at 105.5 MHz expressly for the use of Bluegrass Country.
Fans of the music rejoiced. But, by 2015, American University was running it at a deficit, with donations pale in comparison to its top-rated WAMU. In July 2016, AU announced it could no longer run Bluegrass Country. It announced it was no longer seeking donations for the operation, and put W288BS – along with translators at 93.5 MHz in both Frederick and Hagerstown, Md., acquired in March 2012, up for sale.
But the Reston-licensed translator, now on a River Road tower in Chevy Chase, Md., became the target of the nonprofit Bluegrass Country Foundation. It talked to AU about assuming control of the station, and the foundation raised some $150,000 to help put a deal together to acquire W288BS and keep the bluegrass flowing.
On Feb. 6, the Foundation will have its wish come true … and more. WAMU and the Foundation have come to terms that would allow Bluegrass Country to be operated by the Foundation, while American University retains the translator’s license.
The money raised will be used toward the station’s day-to-day expenses, as WAMU agreed to the deal with no cash consideration, The Washington Post reports.
It’s a two-year agreement, for starters, giving the Foundation permission to use the Bluegrass Country name and logo, and the music library WAMU has amassed since converting its vinyl to digital music files.
For the next year, Bluegrass Country will continue to operate out of WAMU’s Van Ness Square facility, which it moved to in 2013 after many years in a much-smaller Tenleytown facility near AU’s main campus.
Now, Spottswood will continue to get behind the mic and play the sounds of Appalachia that he first brought to listeners in time for his 50th anniversary on D.C.’s FM dial.
But the donations from listeners will still be necessary to keep Spottswood and his fellow Bluegrass Country hosts on the air in the long-term, as Foundation Director Randy Barrett tells the Post it costs some $325,000 to keep Bluegrass Country on the air.
In a message appearing at BluegrassCountryFoundation.org, Foundation President Jeffrey Ludin said, “We have raised enough funds to operate the station for the next six months and are cautiously confident that we will be able to earn enough from underwriting and from the generous donations of our listeners to keep the station going.”
The initial objective of the Bluegrass Country Foundation’s team will be to continue programming without interruption at a reduced cost, he added. “Much of the savings will come from modernizing the systems used to produce the programming, which will lower costs labor for administration and production,” says Ludin. “Once we meet our first objective, we intend to announce a new sustaining membership program designed to create substantial value for the members, while ensuring the financial viability of Bluegrass Country radio.”
RBR + TVBR OBSERVATION: Our Editor-in-Chief, Adam R Jacobson, is a graduate of American University and notes that he is pleased that bluegrass music will continue to air on 105.5 MHz. As a member of the community, the “new AU” has become a much more active participant in Tenleytown and all of Northwest Washington under soon-to-retire President Neil Kerwin. Meanwhile, WAMU-FM is a giant among NPR giants, and giving back to fans of Americana is a fitting way for Kerwin to end his tenure at the helm of American University.