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Different Frequencies

Beacons of hope do exist in big-media dominated commercial radio. Dozens of independent and small-network stations are regularly whipping Clear Channel rivals in their markets.
 
 
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Clear Channel is destroying radio. At least, that's the popular mantra these days. Radio consolidation -- which shifted into high gear with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and has been fostered by a pro-big-media majority at the Federal Communications Commission -- has resulted in the Wal-Martification of radio. Across the nation, stations are being gobbled up by huge chains like Clear Channel, which then monocrop their playlists. It's the same fifty mindless cookie-cutter songs played in an endless, soul-numbing loop, the same conservative talk shows, even the same deejays doing the same shows for simultaneous broadcast in a half-dozen markets nationwide. Jockeys are losing their jobs as the big chains consolidate and centralize their work forces. There, in the distance, is the faint swan song of independent radio. Abandon all hope, ye who flip thy radio dial.

That could be true; the recent ruling of the FCC to further deregulate the media, though now under challenge in Congress, is further evidence of the power of the media giants. But for the irrepressibly optimistic, there are beacons of hope: Dozens of independent and small-network stations are regularly whipping the Clear Channel rivals in their markets. If quirky, original, community-oriented music radio is dead, how do these tenacious little outfits keep beating Clear Channel and its ilk at their own game? And what can small-time stations and local radio networks learn from their examples?

Part of what separates these scrappy stations from the competition is a bet they're making that the big consolidators' fundamental philosophy -- that Americans only want to hear familiar music that doesn't challenge them -- is wrong and can't last. Ultimately, the bet goes, the listening public will tire of being underestimated and will seek out alternatives.

Singer-songwriter Dar Williams, who got her first big breaks from independent and college radio, will take that bet. She sticks with her independent label (Razor & Tie) despite overtures from the big boys, regularly plays benefits and fundraisers for independent stations, and has even written a song about the deejays who spoke to her from her childhood transistor radio. Williams regularly plugs local independents at her shows. "You can tell the ones that are getting it right. When I mention them from the stage, the audiences cheer for them," she says. "Those stations that have a very corporate way of doing things, they don't command that kind of allegiance. Those stations that allow themselves the flexibility to be genuinely involved in their communities, to play local artists and to respect their audiences -- that sows a vibrant kind of loyalty."

One Popular Pig

KPIG, near Santa Cruz, Calif., is one station already reaping the rewards of Clear Channel exhaustion. By its own admission, KPIG has one of the weakest signals in its market. Yet it consistently ranks in the top five against all formats in all demographics in its market, and first in the 25-54 demographic and in the Triple-A (adult album alternative) format. It has owned the ratings charts there for six years. What makes KPIG unique is that in an age of format consultants and universal playlists, live deejays at KPIG still pull records off the shelves and play practically whatever occurs to them, whenever they feel like it. They even answer the phone. This is old-school rock radio. "You scan the dial and you know when it's the PIG. You may not know the song, or even the artist. You know it's us because you've never heard it before and it's good," says program director Laura Hopper. "That's our strength. There is no one else like us out there."

Hopper has been with the station for all of its fourteen years, and through three ownership changes. "We have survived intact, which is a minor miracle," she says. The credit for the station's longevity goes in large part to its fiercely loyal listeners. Five years ago, then-new owners New Wave Broadcasting tried to switch the station's format to classic rock, air "canned" shows and pare down the staff. In a popular uprising Hopper dubbed "The Revolution," Santa Cruz residents stood on street corners handing out fliers of protest -- complete with New Wave executives' home phone numbers. New Wave backed down. "People consider KPIG a part of the community," says Hopper. "When you have that kind of loyalty, and ratings like ours, [the owners] are afraid to mess with you." The Chamber of Commerce in Santa Cruz includes KPIG in its tourist brochures of things to see and do (and hear) in the area.

KPIG is now owned by Mapleton Communications, which recently bought out New Wave. Mapleton owns more than a dozen stations in Central California. That's chicken feed compared with Clear Channel, which owns more than 1,200 stations, including seven in KPIG's market alone. Hopper says she feels relatively good about KPIG's future, despite the climate of deregulation and consolidation. But she does feel like she's always looking over her shoulder. "I'd be stupid not to look around and worry. My friends [in the industry] are clinging on desperately or gone."

Mom & Pop

WOXY near Cincinnati is an anachronism, inasmuch as it's quite literally a mom-and-pop operation in one of the biggest radio markets in the country. Doug and Linda Balogh have owned this indy modern-rock station since 1981. Doug Balogh says there are good reasons they have managed not only to stay alive but to thrive and even innovate in this era of bully megabroadcasters: They provide a real alternative in an increasingly uniform field of competitors.

WOXY is the last independently owned alternative radio station in a top-twenty-five market anywhere in the United States. It ranks near the middle in its market, according to the latest Arbitron ratings, but above at least three Clear Channel rivals. The only reason WOXY exists at all, says Balogh, is that he got in at the right time (before the Telecom Act of 1996), with what was then a completely new and original format -- modern rock. He also credits the family-business atmosphere he cultivates in the studio. "We all live in this community. There are real live people walking in our halls and answering our phones. We take pride in our product," he says.

Balogh doesn't worry about being forced out of business by Clear Channel, but he is bitter about consolidation. He says the real problem isn't the megabroadcasters so much as those in Congress who made them possible, and less visible monopolists like Arbitron, which audits radio audience share nationwide. Balogh questions whether Arbitron's measurement methods really reflect listening tastes. He contends that the rise in shock-jock radio is the result of brief, fleeting spikes in listenership in less-than-representative samples, and not of long-term consumer trends. "There used to be two constituencies in this business: advertisers and listeners. Now with this concentration there are three: Wall Street, stockholders and the fraction of 1 percent of the population who actually fill out [Arbitron listening] diaries."

Balogh is a technophile who recognized the potential of the Internet early. Now WOXY is streamed live on the Internet, and featured on proprietary services through contracts with AOL, Netscape and iTunes, a subsidiary of Apple Computer. It is currently the highest-rated modern-rock station on the Internet. WOXY is profitable, but Balogh isn't satisfied. He is writing a book titled Killing the American Dream , about how consolidation has eliminated the opportunity for any future entrepreneur to do what he has done at WOXY.

Going Public

Thanks to the few FCC regulations not yet pillaged by the current Administration, public radio is still the only permanent alternative to commercial-laden, variety-starved popular radio. For music lovers, the crown jewel of public radio is WNCW in Spindale, North Carolina, where in a single set you may hear Flatt and Scruggs followed by Jimi Hendrix followed by Edith Piaf followed by Omara Portuondo. Eclectic doesn't begin to describe it. The programmers at WNCW seemed like cultural geniuses two years ago, when the sleeper hit "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" spawned a smash, Grammy-winning soundtrack packed full of the same roots music -- primarily Americana and bluegrass -- that had been WNCW's staple for years. "We've been 'O Brother' forever," laughs recent program director Mark Keefe. "To us, Doc Watson is a cultural icon. Maybe to someone somewhere else, he's just some guy in the emergency room."

It's about celebrating diversity, says Keefe. His role was not to mollify his audience but to challenge it. And to be of service to the music itself. "I may not put Ibrahim Ferrer's new album in heavy rotation, but you can be damn sure I'm going to play it, because it broadens our listeners' horizons and our jocks' horizons, and it keeps music alive. The only way to keep music alive is to play it." Keefe is also unafraid to take chances, including risking offending the more conservative among his listeners. The week the war on Iraq began, Keefe had Dan Bern's "Talking Al Kida Blues" -- a song that could make the Dixie Chicks blush -- in heavy rotation. Let's not forget that an overzealous Clear Channel official circulated a list of more than 150 songs with "questionable" lyrics affiliates might have wanted to avoid playing immediately after September 11, most of them -- like Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets" -- a hundred times tamer than Bern's ditty.

But complaints at the more daring WNCW are few and kudos frequent. In the past six years, WNCW's listenership and budget have both doubled. Keefe estimated that he had a weekly total of 100,000 unique listeners over 12 (the biggest segment is males 40-45). The annual operating budget for the current year is a healthy $1 million -- 78 percent of it raised through membership drives and underwriting. Keefe says the station is consistently in the top ten in its market (by his estimation, the thirty-sixth-largest market in the country) and regularly beats commercial stations in various demographics and times throughout the week. WNCW is so successful, in fact, that the owner of a small chain of commercial stations based in Wilmington has just hired Keefe away from WNCW to recreate the magic further up the dial.

But WNCW is a rarity in public radio. Even on the left end of the dial, homogenization is a problem. Most public stations hew to three basic formats, or a combination thereof: news-talk (dominated in the extreme by National Public Radio programming), jazz and classical. And while in the news-talk segment NPR provides unquestionably more objective fare than programs offered by Clear Channel's Premier Radio Networks (which licenses Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger's shows, among others), it is also guilty of perpetuating the same type of uniformity that critics chastise Clear Channel for. So some who flee the sameness of corporate radio for public stations find themselves in a different kind of sameness. In some significant markets -- namely New York (WFUV), Philadelphia (WXPN), Los Angeles (KCRW) and Louisville (WFPK) -- program directors haved jettisoned most if not all of their NPR and jazz/classical programming for post-baby-boomer eclectic music programming and locally produced news.

Rita Houston, music director for New York City's WFUV, airs NPR news headlines but none of its longer programs. She says she believes there's room -- and even a civic need -- for public stations that aren't NPR clones. "NPR has grown so much as a brand that more Americans know what NPR is than know what Clear Channel is. Is that saturation creating a lack of regional access? Absolutely."

WNCW's signal reaches five different states and overlaps a half-dozen other public radio stations, all of which broadcast NPR programs during at least part of the day. Homogenization, even noncommercial homogenization, makes for boring radio, according to WNCW's Keefe. "In the narrowcast model, you can't break new artists," he says. "We played John Mayer and Jack Johnson, artists like that, long before they broke with big recording contracts and the marketing machines behind them. We're like, 'Why are people so surprised, wondering where they came from all of a sudden?'"

Not Waiting for Congress

There are indications of a changing tide in Congress. The FCC vote in June may have served as a kind of final straw. The struggle to persuade Michael Powell's commission to retain existing restrictions on ownership brought together an impressive -- if unlikely -- cast of media populists, from the National Organization for Women to the National Rifle Association. That caught the attention of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. On July 23, the House voted overwhelmingly against Powell's effort to increase the number of television stations a single media company may own. But even if the Senate follows the House's lead, that action would address only one aspect of consolidation. (There are, however, some radio initiatives in early legislative stages.)

People like Keefe at WNCW suspect the public will demand better before the government gets around to mandating it. "What we do flies in the face of conventional wisdom about radio," he says. "We play the music they say nobody listens to, and yet we have a rabid audience that can't get enough of it. We are living proof that it really does work."

Rita Houston of New York's WFUV says that even if not all of these iconoclastic stations are clobbering Clear Channel, overall listening trends don't bode well for the corporate formulaic approach. Houston says listenership is up at WFUV, WNCW and comparable stations like WXPN in Philadelphia, even as overall radio audiences are shrinking. Arbitron confirms both trends. "We've been doing the same thing for the past ten years, and our numbers have always been healthy, but we have never seen numbers like the last couple of years," she says. While WFUV is not breathing down Clear Channel's neck in the country's biggest radio market, it is an oasis for the clonecast weary.

In this sense, Clear Channel's clone approach is the best thing that's happened to independent radio. "When the mainstream grows, the underground grows with it," says Houston. "People are getting tired of mainstream radio, and they find us," says Houston. "We call ourselves 'refugee radio,'" says Keefe. "A lot of our listeners come to us because they are so fed up with corporate radio in general. I've always said our slogan should be 'We remember to play what you forgot you liked.'" WOXY's Balogh has some advice to smaller stations that don't want to be swallowed up or squashed by the corporate radio giants: Recognize that you can't compete on the basis of money or marketing muscle. "Be original. If you're playing what everyone else is playing, you're vulnerable. Nothing's stopping anyone from flipping to the other guy."

Brooke Shelby Biggs, a journalist living in San Francisco, is the author of "Brave Hearts, Rebel Spirits: A Spiritual Activist's Handbook" (Anita Roddick Books).