Not Dead…But Maybe on Life Support

I recently spoke to the Interact club at Washington High School.  Interact is the high school extension of Rotary, and it’s been my pleasure to have visited this club several times as a member of Cedar Rapids Rotary West.  On this day, however, I was there to talk about my day job.

A lot of us are worried about the radio business, particularly stations like KCCK that specialize in music.  The consolidation and homogenization of radio formats by big corporate owners happened just as technology gave consumers (particularly young, early adopters) the means to bypass the traditional radio and records arbiters of taste and discover music on their own.
Just when new media offered creative people new audio and video platforms to re-invent and re-imagine how to entertaintheir local audiences, companies like Clear Channel and Cumulus started cutting back on staff and relying on syndicated voices from out of town, figuring listeners either didn’t care or couldn’t tell the difference.
So, it’s with no small amount of trepidation that I take a speaking engagement with any group whose members are under 40.  Is radio still relevant?  Is there room in their busy, online lives for any station, let alone our little jazz outfit?
Well, I took a deep breath and toward the end of my talk, asked them about radio.  The results were a mixed bag.  What I observed during my decidedly unscientific poll?
  • About 3/4 of them said they listened to the radio frequently, but none indicated they used it to discover new music.  Recommendations from friends and Pandora were the methods identified to find new favorites.
  • What’s wrong with the radio?  Too many commercials, no new music, play the same things over and over again.  Too much talk.
  • What could radio do better?  More variety in music, take some chances.
Ironically, these are the EXACT SAME COMPLAINTS people have had about radio for years.  The only difference is that before, the audience was more captive.  If you wanted to hear music, you either had to carry a case of cassettes or CDs with you everywhere.  Or, you found a station that tended to play types of music that you liked, knowing that you’d have to sit through talk, commercials and songs that didn’t appeal to you on the way to your favorite.  That was just the way it was.
Today, your entire music collections resides in a little box smaller than the little box that controls your TV.  Looking for new music?  Go to Pandora and if the “station” the site creates for you plays a song you don’t like, you can banish it forever, along with anything that sounds like it.
So yeah, I was a little surprised when 3/4 of my teenage audience reported they listened to the radio.  What I said was, “Hey, that’s great!”
What I was thinking was, “in Heaven’s name, Why?”
Now, this sounds like I’m pretty down on my business, and in a way that’s true.  I think radio has totally missed the boat with the post-Boomer audience, and station Facebook pages and contests that can be entered via text message are too little, too late.
I’d like to think we’re doing a little better at KCCK.  As a true local station, we can be responsive to our audience in ways most stations can’t.  And there’s no consultant telling us what to play.  Our producers have the freedom to play what they think is cool.  But no station can provide the customization and instant gratification a Pandora or Ipod can.
So, is radio dead?  Not yet, but we certainly need a flu shot.

Gone Country

It was with “mixed” feelings I read the news that my radio alma mater,  “Mix 96. 5” WMT-FM has switched formats to country.

Now, radio format changes are nothing new, and not limited to the corporations that now control much of what you hear.  Even in the days when most stations were locally owned, demographic and market changes often dictated a switch.In fact, one of the biggest format-change firestorms I can remember also involved WMT-FM.Way back in 1982, my friend and mentor Rick Sellers (who now owns KMRY) changed WMT-FM’s format from Beautiful Music to Soft Adult Contemporary to attract the Baby Boom audience.

Rick soon discovered that Hell hath no fury like an Andre Kostellanetz fan scorned. Letters and phone calls poured into WMT, and dozens of angry letters to the editor were printed. WMT engineers even went so far as to purchase and install external antennas for the most vocal complainers so they could more easily listen to the area’s remaining Beautiful Music station, KFMW in Waterloo.

A few months later, when KFMW became Rock 108, the shit hit the fan all over again, but that’s another story.

The original “96FM” was largely automated. They literally just switched out a set of Beautiful Music tapes for AC tapes.  But WMT was founded on personality, and Rick intended that his FM station have the same kind of air personalities that made WMT-AM a community institution.

Yes, at one time my hair was brown
Yes, at one time my hair was brown

Unfortunately, local legends like Jerry Carr, Steve Carpenter, Gary Edwards  and Rick himself already had jobs, so Rick had to work with the material at hand.

And his first acquisition was a punk kid working across the street at KQCR (now Z102.9).

I arrived at WMT-FM in April of 1983. A few months later, Tim Boyle was summoned from crosstown KCRG-AM (now KGYM, see what I mean about format changes not being anything new?). By the late 80s, Wayne Johnson, Brian Schellberg and Lonnie Levine solidified a memorable lineup.

Later, 96 1/2 would be the home of great personalities like Tom Cook, Carla Davis, Eric Walker and current residents Randy Lee and Kathryn Foxx, both of whom were originally hired by me.  (Clear Channel-You’re welcome). But that’s another post.

Actually, Cedar Rapids was a pretty-happening radio market at the time.  Up and down the dial, cool people were doing fun things on the air. Mark & Glen (Those Guys in the Morning) at KRNA, which was also the rock and roll home of current KCCK jazzer Bob Stewart. Gary & Todd at Q103, whose radio descendants are Z’s Schulte & Swann. And the Bears (both of them) at KHAK.

Even more than a quarter-century later, the things I did as a 96 1/2 FM DJ form the core of my radio bio.

WMT-FM “jocks” circa 1986. Clockwise from front: Wayne Johnson, Tim Boyle, Dann Collum, Dennis Green, Brian Schellberg. Thanks to Brian for the photo!

Broadcasting live from a hot-air balloon (“People of Cedar Rapids… My Name is Frosty Mitchell, and I’m Not Wearing Pants!”), doing my show live via satellite from underwater at Disney’s Epcot Center, tossing typewriters out of a cherry picker in Greene Square Park.

One April Fool’s day, we pretended WMT-FM was a 60’s era “Boss” Top 40 station, complete with period music, jingles, commercials and news from the spring of 1963 (“Scientists predict flying cars by 1987!”)

Buck Wheeler’s Traffic Chopper, Uncle Wayne’s Noontime Oldies Challenge, Lonnie’s Night Veggies, the Rock & Roll Weekend Oldies Show; the list goes on and on.

But the primary product of 96 1/2 was music. Eschewing consultants, our format was a potpourri of 60s and 70s oldies, pop currents and the occasional independent release that struck our fancy.The record industry actually took some notice for what was happening in little Cedar Rapids, honoring us for the small part we played in launching the careers of artists like Luther Vandross, Tracy Chapman, Bonnie Raitt and others. I proudly display those Gold and Platinum records in my KCCK office to this day.

Unfortunately, not much of the above would be possible in today’s environment. The local music director is no more.  Songs are all programmed from the corporate office, and thirty minute commercial-free music sweeps don’t leave much room for fun antics.

But for me, the greatest disappointment in the new radio model is the disappearance of the music personality.  Once, a DJ who could deliver interesting content in the 20 seconds between the end of the song and the beginning of the commercial was a valued commodity.

Today, not so much. The trend is more Ryan Seacrest, less Carla Davis.

Clear Channel is upfront about replacing local announcers with out-of-town voice tracking, saying the product is better. Imagine how different our local stations would sound, however, if their corporate owners used their resources to train local announcers and help them get better, rather than replace them, also providing pipeline of future talent. Professional sports understands the benefits of a farm system, but broadcasting doesn’t seem to get it.

Now, local talk radio is still alive, although it tends to be a little “angry white guy stirring the pot” for my taste. And, I would be remiss to not mention the quality and entertaining work being done locally by the great folks at KMRY, Z102.9 and KCJJ.

Another friend and mentor who taught me a lot, Mary Quass, along with Jeff Winfield and much of their 90’s-era KHAK team are also keeping the spirit alive in a variety of midwest markets in their NRG Media group.

Meanwhile, at the public radio end of the dial, both statewide Iowa Public Radio and local stations like KCCK are prospering, despite threats against NPR and CPB funding.

And the good people still at our local Clear Channel and Cumulus operations try hard to make good radio within the restrictions and budgets laid down by their higher ups. But by and large, decisions affecting the media licensed to serve our community are made by people who will never live here.

Fortunately, local radio is by no means dead in the Cultural Corridor.  KMRY, Z102.9 and KCJJ are energetic operations serving audience and community well.

Times change, and as I said previously, format changes are the rule, not the exception.

I hope that the model of a creative person sitting in a room, interspersing a little wit in between cool songs, will continue to be something people want to have in their town.

As for Mix 96.5, the 2011 version bore little resemblance to the one I worked at.

But I’ll miss it just the same.