Let the Atlanta Radio Listeners Eat Cake…and “Call Me Maybe”…
Posted by kitkat37
My senior year of college, as a telecommunications major, involved taking a radio programming class. The semester culminated in a mass project that required the imaginary “reprogramming” of 5 major market radio stations. We were expected to know the ins and outs of that market, including not just the target demographics (with unfortunate considerations such as age, race, gender…because the media honestly believes that you only listen to pop music and nothing else if you are a young white female) but surprisingly, we were also asked to familiarize ourselves with the actual city. Where the locals hung out. Which shows were selling and which ones weren’t. The lifestyles of the residents.
That market, of course, was Atlanta. This was spring 2000. I had missed the day of class when each student was sequestered off into groups to complete the project so, as punishment for my deciding Jacksonville Beach would be much more entertaining on that fine March day, I wound up having to complete my paper alone. The one concession the professor gave me was that the paper could be 5 pages shorter than the required length for the group papers.
Remarkably, I received one of only two “A”s in the class. The other student who got an “A” had also skipped class that day and had to work alone. Funny how you work harder when all the responsibility is on you.
I still have that paper. Back in college, I had a strict programming format for my radio show, “Utopia.” (Hence my business names.) The basic ideas were:
- Give the listeners something that doesn’t already exist in the market. If that’s not possible, take an existing format and tweak it, make it unique – your own. Never copy someone else’s idea.
- If you surround a new, interesting song with two songs the listener already knows and loves, she or he will be more likely to accept the new song.
To this day, I call this particular core value of my format the “airplane method.” If you’re feeding a child something it doesn’t think it would like, such as broccoli, you sandwich the unknown item between two slices of melted cheese. The child likes cheese. It’s more likely to enjoy the good stuff in between the cheese – the broccoli – if the first thing it tastes is familiar – cheese. Just like a parent annoyingly chirping away at her child: “Here comes the airplane!“ Another great example in adult life is beer. Think of the conversation you had with a friend the first time you tried to get him to drink decent beer.
Friend: “I always drink PBR.”
You: “Awesome. Have a PBR.”
Friend: “Thank you! I only listen to ironic music from the early 80s! My skinny jeans have cut off my circulation! I can never have children! Rock on!!”
(15 minutes later.)
Friend: “Can I have another PBR?”
You: “We’re out. Try a Highland Gaelic.”
Friend: “Dammit. Okay, if that’s all you have.”
(Drinks Gaelic. 30 minutes later.)
You: “You’re finished! We found more PBR.”
Friend: “You know, this Gaelic is actually good. Can I have another one of these instead?”
Success! When compared side-by-side surreptitiously with his usual lame beer of choice, he chose the tastier, superior beer of his own free will when offered the lame beer again. The airplane method prevails once more.
This was what I attempted to accomplish on my college radio show. It was 1999. What did the general south Georgia public like? Korn. Sublime. Tonic. If you wanted them to listen to the Cowboy Junkies or Kidneythieves, you would have to sandwich such awesome ditties as “Speaking Confidentially” in between “Blind” and “If You Could Only See.” It’s an extremely easy format, and all it takes is the courage to play a song on the radio listeners might not know right off the bat – but this is a courage most large media corporations don’t possess at the moment.
Why am I blathering on about my personal programming ideas? I don’t believe I am the best radio programmer in the world. In fact, apart from college radio, I’ve never done it. However, I look at my college programming paper and even after over a decade in the business, I can review those 10 pages and realize that a classically-trained cymbal-wielding chimpanzee in a hat could do a better job than these cats running the Atlanta airwaves right now.
Where to even begin? Let’s start with the recent announcement that Dave FM is changing formats in early October.
Dave FM is one of the most unique radio stations this market has ever seen, and their owners – we will call them Larry Radio Group- are flipping it in early October to urban sports, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and All Access. Urban sports. This format doesn’t even exist on Arbitron. We may have to endure 24-7 discussions on a subject that locals are so uninterested in that we actually LOSE franchises, on a frequency that once aired a completely original and exciting mix of rock music. Dear Larry Radio Group: Please don’t inflict this upon us. If Atlantans – black, white, green, or otherwise – liked basketball, we would have started going to the games a long time ago. The Hawks win game after game and all we do is complain that the Falcons can’t win a Super Bowl. Please see also: Attendance, Braves Games That Don’t Involve Chipper Jones’s Last Season. Thank you, drive through.
Next we have Journey 97.9. Ah, the 80’s and 90’s. The music of our youth. We will call these station owners Curly Radio Group. Curly Radio Group has purchased nearly a dozen Atlanta radio stations in the past 8 years, and they seemingly chose 97.9 to test if radio could run fully functionally without a single live DJ. Curly Radio Group has predominantly owned stations in small-to-medium-sized markets (think Columbia, SC and Indianapolis) up until recently, and they truly believe that top 10 market stations can successfully be run like smaller market stations – with little to no human interaction. (The ratings on all but one of their stations indicate Atlanta listeners are onto their trick and are not amused, but that’s another blog.) I will admit: the music itself was a lot of fun. However, I would have preferred to hear a live, local DJ discussing the events and times surrounding the songs. That’s what music is about – the human memories that go along with it. Curly Radio Group seems to have missed that memo. Journey lasted about a year. It wasn’t a station you listened to 24-7 because there were no human beings. No contests, no hilariously-freaking-out winners. Nothing that made you keep listening, nothing you could relate to. With that kind of a personality-less format, you might as well listen to Sirius or XM. Fast-forward to yesterday. I wasn’t surprised that Journey went under, but the shock of the century came from what Curly Radio Group decided to do with the frequency. As of Tuesday afternoon, Atlanta listeners were affronted with…wait for it, because it isn’t even Top 40. It’s TOP 20. 20 songs, on a station without advertisements, doesn’t even fill up an entire hour. Let the “Call Me Maybe Power Hour” begin! The genius (ahem) of this format flip is that Curly Radio Group also owns Q100 – a powerhouse in the ratings due to a strong signal and our only successful Top 40 station. So Curly decided to create a radio station that is essentially COMPETING WITH ITSELF. Not to mention this unfortunate turn of events has our defenseless eardrums assaulted by the exact same songs every hour on multiple stations. The Atlanta population ticker on Peachtree Road plummeted as locals threw themselves to their deaths off the Bank of America building, screaming nonsensical garble about post-production overload and horrific Canadian singers.
Which brings us to this laughable embarrassment to the radio industry called “Power 96.1.” We will call these owners Moe Radio Group. Moe Radio Group (based out of Texas) made the executive decision (from Texas) that a frequency Atlantans (who are not from Texas) had associated with rock music literally since 1974 no longer deserved that distinction, presumptuously due to advertiser concern. Suddenly, the local active rock staton, “Project 96.1,” disappeared and a glaring pink logo boasting the likes of Pitbull and Katy Perry appeared, arrogantly assuming locals would need to change their shorts over the arrival of yet another pop station in an already-saturated market. (See previous paragraph.) Oh, locals needed to change their shorts, but it wasn’t out of excitement. To this day, I have never seen such antagonistic pushback against a station format change in my life. Within 24 hours, no less than 10 Facebook pages had been created in an attempt to save the beloved rock station, and the new page proudly promoting the new “Power 961” had less than 500 “likes.” The “Save Project 96-1” page had over 1000 in that same time frame. While I seriously doubt the corporate types will change their minds – after all, listeners are merely pesky flies that interfere with the main course that is the hefty check from the advertisers – I thoroughly enjoy this vitriol being spewed in an effort to save their radio station and their music. This rebellion and youth is what radio is all about – it makes me proud to have been part of an industry that had such devoted fans. Fight the power, y’all.
A lot of the vitriol spewage, however, is aimed directly at Moe Radio Group. I do feel the need to point out that Moe Radio Group wasn’t the one who first came in and took a beloved station from us. In the fall of 1992, one of the first alternative stations in the country, called 99X, was born in Atlanta – and it shaped the way we listened to radio for 20 years. Listeners were completely, insanely, devoted to the 99X “brand.” They carried the cards, they wore the T-shirts. 99X boasted live DJs 24-7. If a fan called at 3:37am, there was a live human DJ there to chat and take the request. Listeners were not just devoted to the music – they were devoted to the personalities, the concerts…the lifestyle. 99X became the little station that could – a quirky, personality-driven radio station that morphed into a local empire, a station respected by both locals and the bands (might I point out that 99X was the only station outside of NYC where the Beastie Boys would play a live set?) It wasn’t just an edgy station that sounded cool – it was Atlanta’s station. Completely ours, local, dedicated to Atlanta just as we were devoted to them.
Until 2005. 99X and its sister station, Q100, were purchased by a radio group specializing in smaller-market stations called Curly Radio Group. Not understanding how to handle the type and level of audience 99X drew, Curly immediately dumped 99X and placed the safer and easier-to-manage station of Q100 on the stronger signal. That left an extra signal. Classic rock? That’s simple, too. Completely non-offensive. That format wound up on Q’s former signal, 100.5, which left Atlanta’s beloved 99X, the city’s station, out to dry. What they weren’t counting on, however, was the anger from the former listeners. Such anger, in fact, that Curly was forced to bring 99X back. The only available frequency at the time was so weak, however, that no one could hear it. Ratings plummeted, and, a few days ago, Curly Radio Group finally got what they longed for – an excuse to dump the ginger stepchild of their business.
And, after all that, we have come full circle to what Larry, Curly, and Moe Radio Groups aren’t wrapping their heads around. When all you see are dollar signs, you miss out on what the music, the station brands, actually represent. What message are you sending to listeners when you take away the station they grew up listening to and change the music to exactly what the other guys are playing? You honestly believe Atlanta doesn’t want variety? That a truly great radio station isn’t more than music – it’s live human interaction…a brand, a lifestyle? That just because your best buddy who paid to advertise his bar says the frat boys aren’t coming out to his pub enough, that your format isn’t working? Has anyone stopped to pay attention to what the locals are saying?
So yes, I still feel passionately about this industry. I never worked for Larry or Curly Radio Groups – I can honestly say that Moe Radio Group was very good to me as an employee while I was with them in another market. All I know is when I was deeply rooted in the industry, my father said something one day that stuck with me. I was frustrated with the play list restrictions at my current gig and was contemplating quitting, getting out altogether and redeeming what I felt were “pure radio ideals.” (I swear I didn‘t have black-rimmed glasses or drink PBR at the time.) My dad said to me, “You shouldn’t quit. There needs to at least be one or two people left who are in it for the right reasons.” This from a man who managed a paint company. He wasn’t in the music industry. He was a working-class guy who was nothing more than a true music and radio fan. That’s who radio should be about. Not the ad dollars. Not what the other stations are playing. Listeners like my dad – true fans. The brand and lifestyle a great station creates. And trust me: numbers can’t calculate that. Listening to what the fans say, talking to them, getting feedback – that will calculate what you need to know.
In spring 2000, I wrote that paper, fictionally flipping 5 radio stations. At the time, Atlanta had so many various formats covered that I had to get creative. For instance, I chose “retro hip-hop” like Tribe Called Quest and Sugar Hill Gang. Another concept I had that stands out to me because it was the one that earned me that “A”: I didn’t change a thing on 96 Rock. I showed the numbers – from local eateries, concert venues, and core demographics – that proved 96.1 was an existing station that deserved to stay the same. It was a brand, with devoted listeners who came to the events, bought the merchandise, touted the stickers. There will always be a market for rock stations in Atlanta, if you look beyond the raw numbers that fly across your desk at mach speed at 8am by sales reps who are petrified of selling something that doesn’t involve the word “Autotune.”
I refuse to give up on local radio. For every person who has satellite, I know 10 more who listen locally. Or, who used to listen locally. The Atlanta listeners have spoken loud and clear. If you Google “What’s going on with Atlanta radio,” 10 pages worth of recent articles come up. Protests are popping up all over town. News stations are covering the chaos. One would think Larry, Curly, and Moe Radio Groups would pay attention.
Until then, I will rock on in memory of Radio Free Lunches. I will Live Loud and Play Hard.
Oh, and I AM 99X.