When WAMU 88.5 began its life in the early 1960's as American University’s public radio station, it was a scrappy 4,000-watt operation outfitted with equipment from donations and military surplus stores.
The small outfit still managed to cover big moments, including the United Nations debate on Cuban missiles live, President John F. Kennedy's 1963 speech at AU, and the March on Washington.
Over the years, the station has grown to 50,000 watts and today reaches an estimated 805,000 listeners a week as the only NPR affiliate in Washington, D.C.
WAMU is now the metro area’s most listened to station, according to Arbitron, the radio industry’s primary data collection service.
Of people listening to radio in the region, more tune in to 88.5 FM than any other station, including talk, sports, and commercial music stations like WTOP and Hot 99.5, WAMU’s closest competitors.
But achieving the top spot in the D.C. market didn’t happen overnight, said Caryn Mathes, general manager of WAMU.
"It was the culmination of a lot of years of investment," she said. "We put together a strategic plan and asked how can we be relevant and significant."
Washington, D.C., is the seventh largest radio market, but WAMU is number one nationwide in average quarter hour listenership and number two for the share in average quarter hour, according to the Fall 2012 Arbitron survey. A Corporation for Public Broadcasting survey about public radio stations’ quantitative worth showed that WAMU’s impact was "huge," Mathes said.
"WAMU's success over the past eight years has quite frankly been stunning," said David Taylor, President Neil Kerwin’s chief of staff who oversees WAMU.
In the first seven years of Mathes’ tenure, the station invested $7 million in new content and $500,000 to build out the digital department. She says they are now starting to see the payoff of that investment.
In the digital age, radio stations can no longer only provide terrestrial services. A revamped website, as well as a variety of podcasts, a robust streaming service, and on-demand archives have helped meet listeners where they are.
It’s not just about building up WAMU’s digital services, though. Mathes, who has been the station’s GM for eight years, thinks the station’s success is due in large part to its positioning as a community resource.
Not only does WAMU provide regular traffic and weather updates — utility services that listeners rely on — but that station has also invested resources in its local reporting. When Mathes came on board in 2005, WAMU had only five reporters in its newsroom.
Now, there are 25 covering Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., politics, the environment, coastal affairs, and the federal government, among other beats. The station will also move this summer to a seven-story building, located at 4401 Connecticut Ave., NW, offering WAMU 88.5 more than twice its current operating space.
"One of the bedrock things we try to do is support lifelong learning and make the local to global connection," Mathes said. "We want to cover federal Washington and neighborhood Washington."
To that end, WAMU recently instituted a Public Insight Network, which encourages locals to share stories and knowledge about particular areas. So far, more than 2,000 people have registered and their contributions have led to more than 50 stories.
WAMU also relies on a Community Council, an advisory board made up of a diverse group of people from the station’s coverage area. The council advises the station on programming and helps select a topic for the station to pursue in depth. This year, they decided to focus on the Affordable Care Act and its implications around the D.C. metro area.
WAMU would not be where it is today — the third largest public radio station in the country — without its anchor shows. The Diane Rehm Show and The Kojo Nnamdi Show have been on the air nearly a combined 50 years. NPR and Sirius XM Radio syndicate both shows. NPR Worldwide also broadcasts Rehm’s show. In this year's Washington City Paper Best of D.C. poll, Nnamdi is the readers choice for best radio personality and WAMU is the best radio station.
"We want to continue to be a national syndicator," Mathes said.
To that end, they’ve created Animal House, a show about animal science, pet behavior, and wildlife conservation. The show is broadcast on 30 stations. They recently piloted another show called The Big Fix — a forum for listeners to offer ideas on how to solve the country’s domestic issues. Mathes said they’re hoping to find funding to make that show a regular offering.
More people listening to the syndicated shows potentially means more donors, which is critical since the station is largely listener supported. While hundreds of thousands of people listen to WAMU every week, only about 52,000 are members. This is troubling to Mathes.
"The monetization model still isn’t figured out. Some people still feel that they don’t have to pay for our services," she said.
Still, annual giving keeps going up. That’s a good thing for WAMU, but it’s also a good thing for AU. The better the station does, the more people are exposed to AU’s name when they hear the station ID, "WAMU 88.5 American University radio. Where the mind is our medium."
"When WAMU is strong, thriving, and influential, that represents an extension of AU's role in the nation's capital and beyond," Taylor said. "So it is important for that rapport to be very strong and mutually supportive."
Mathes recalls meeting a listener once who encouraged her child to apply to AU because she was an avid Rehm listener.
"It’s a way to get our name out there and a way to get AU’s name out there," Mathes said of the station’s national and international reach. "It’s a huge advantage for the university to have a public radio station."