Arts Desk

WAMU Moves Mary Cliff’s Traditions Show to Low-Power Station Bluegrass Country

Looking for music on WAMU? Thanks to a recent shift at the D.C. NPR affiliate, that just got tougher. Last weekend, amid major changes to WAMU 88.5.'s weekend schedule, the American University-based station moved Mary Cliff's Saturday night Traditions program to the significantly tinier Bluegrass Country 105.5 FM.

Last weekend the 50,000-watt station began a transition to a new weekend schedule that shuffled around a big chunk of its regular programming, including Cliff’s folk, roots, and ethnic-music show, which now airs exclusively on WAMU's 99-watt station as well as its WAMU HD digital radio channel, the Internet, and the similarly lower-power stations 93.5 FM in Frederick and Hagerstown, Md. In Cliff’s place, WAMU now offers the syndicated hourlong interview program Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired and the BBC World Service news. Now, WAMU’s only remaining music-intensive programs are Saturday night's Prairie Home Companion (which no longer re-airs on Sundays) and Hot Jazz Saturday Night.

WAMU once aired a lot more music. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the station presented prog rock and other unusual stuff after midnights on weekends. It regularly aired bluegrass until 2001, and featured folk, an acclaimed old-school country program, and various types of acoustic music on weekends until the station jettisoned or moved some of those shows online in 2007. That same year, when the station added Cliff's Traditions program to Saturday night's lineup, the decision suggested that WAMU was still interested in preserving at least part of its musical tradition. But not anymore.

Cliff’s Traditions was first heard on WETA radio in 1970 and continued there until that public radio station went all-classical in 2007. In recent years, Cliff's two-hour show broadcast Saturday nights on WAMU and a three-hour show played on Bluegrass Country on Saturday afternoons. With this new schedule change, Traditions will be heard on Bluegrass Country from 9 p.m. to midnight. (Cliff did not respond to a request for comment.)

On her Bluegrass Country-exclusive debut Saturday, Cliff sounded like she always does—talkative and not remotely slick, much more like a college radio DJ than an NPR broadcaster. On air, she noted that changing frequencies was like adjusting to "a new guitar." Sounding nervous at times, Cliff awkwardly recited the various means by which her listeners can now hear the show. Otherwise, she delivered the type of eclectic, well-researched program she has long hosted, playing music by veteran folkies like Tom Paxton and Tom Rush alongside bluegrass, blues, and international sounds including Mongolian Tuva vocalists. Periodically she reached into her comprehensive concert calendar to rattle off announcements for various local concerts—everything from a Pakistani festival in Manassas to gigs at Falls Church hole-in-the-wall J.V.'s.

WAMU Marketing Director Kathleen Allenbaugh says the programming changes were made to bring in "new shows that WAMU is excited about," and that Bluegrass Country is a "good fit" for Cliff's show. Acknowledging that 105.5's wattage is significantly lower and can't be heard in many parts of the D.C. area, she says Bluegrass Country's FM, digital, and Internet outlets demonstrate WAMU's ongoing commitment to programming like Cliff's show.

Not everyone is convinced of that. Marty Summerour, programming chair for the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, writes in an email to Washington City Paper that she's "devastated by this change in programming. I have stayed home to listen to Mary's show for years." Summerour says less tech-savvy people—most likely a major share of Traditions' audience—"won’t know where to find the show." With Traditions now mostly out of range, Summerour says, "our community has suffered a major blow."

Photo: Mary Cliff via

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  • It’s OK

    Mary Cliff has tormented me for so long. Yes, I've heard some excellent music on her shows but I can't take her yabbering. The worst is when she reads the concert calendar as if the internet hadn't taken care of this many years ago. She'd be more of a community service if she just built spotify lists.

  • DC

    I'd probably be more disappointed if it weren't Cliff's show that forced American Routes off the local airways.

    The shakeup after WETA went classical hurt primarily WAMU's audience. Hot Jazz got pushed back an hour to make room for the dreadful Prairie Home Companion. And American Routes, which was an awesome show that fit perfectly in after Hot Jazz, was tossed for Cliff's show, which doesn't fit in next to Hot Jazz at all. And this was right around the time WAMU axed the Sunday bluegrass lineup for, wait for it, fucking replays of Prairie Home Companion.

    I used to listen to WAMU all weekend, but ever since Caryn Mathes took over, it's been bad decision after bad decision.

  • Rob

    Thanks for the article, have been surprised over the years as WAMU and WPFW have chosen to program less music and more talk. Who wants to listen to all that talk? what a waste.

  • Frank Whalen

    Our long Washington nightmare of Garrison Keillor may be coming to a close: WAMU has pulled Sunday repeats of "Prairie Home Companion" and at least all summer the station has not aired, during prime morning time (7:35-7:40, Keillor's way-too-precious five-minute "Writers Almanac." Please let that hiatus be permanent.

    With the Internet, fans can find Mr. Keillor on so many outlets but I'm going to injure myself if again I have to start slamming the alarm radio off at 7:34.

  • Frank Whalen

    Make that 6:35-6:40 for Keillor's (now on hold) Monday-Friday radio torture.

  • jp

    Yet another reason why terrestrial radio in DC is dying - the continual erosion of excellent music programming. And PDs wonder where their audiences are going