Let the Atlanta Radio Listeners Eat Cake…and “Call Me Maybe”…

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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Welcome to my blog! I love photography and typically have an opinion on everything - particularly music - so please take a look around and hopefully find something that amuses you!

Posted on September 5, 2012, in I'm Just Saying...!. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Right on! I work for another radio group in town, not mentioned above. We’ve been shaking our heads at these decisions for weeks. Well said.

    • 99x was indeed awesome! So was Project 9-6-1. Now it seems any decent rock station in the area doesn’t exist. 98.9, which is what 99x eventually got pushed to, switched over to “the bone” and started playing music similar to what 96.1 was playing. unfortunately I can’t even get that station on the radio where I live. finally the other day Project 9-6-1, of some form at least, was put back on the air waves in the form of the HD station 96.1-2. Which is cool and all but the “DJ” seems to be pre-recordings… while listening I never heard them reference the time or up-coming events. Also, you need an HD radio, or stream it online, to listen to the Project now,… which a lot of people still can’t do, since this requires either being home at the computer, having a really good data plan and in a spot with decent data coverage, or upgrading your radio to an HD radio.

      The biggest clue for me that things were about to go downhill was when the popular hip hop station in the area, 95.5 the beat, was suddenly moved to streaming only and started to simulcast the local news station which already had a dedicated AM station. Had 95.5 stayed the way it was these other stations probably would have been left alone.

  2. Funny you say “I AM 99X” I still have my 99x card in my wallet. XD Its a shame what they did to the Project as well. Even though I dont live in Atlanta, I listened to the project everyday via Iheartradio. Not to sure how I will like the “prerecorded” shows now. =(

  3. Damn right! That is awesomely said!

  4. Atlanta radio fan

    You have a standing ovation from me. This was very well written and pulled me into your thoughts!
    I am an Atlanta native. I grew up listening to
    Z-93. In the 1980’s it was Power 99. During the 1990’s it was a little bit of Album 88 out of Athens and a lot of 96 Rock. Then I began a steady rotation of 96 Rock and 99X.
    All of the above have now disappeared and quite frankly its difficult to find a home on the radio dial. A station that drawls me in and makes me laugh, disagree with and turn up loud on my way to work at 4:30am!
    Gone are the radio stations that entice me to roll down my window and turn the music up loud on a warm afternoon!
    If its too loud, you’re too old! I also live loud and play hard!

  5. I’m going to begin this comment with a cliche’……I have never commented on a blog before. Seriously. Ok….so I usually don’t read blogs. Seriously. I was directed to this blog by a link on the Save Project 961 Facebook page.

    I was listening to the radio the night the station was flipped. Like thousands of other Atlantan’s, I have had 96.1 on my preset since I was 13 years old. I went through high school listening to 96 Rock. And, when “Grunge”, (Pearl Jam, Nirvana, etc..) arrived and uncerimoniously killed 80’s hair metal bands, and 96 Rock changd to 99X, I somewhat reluctantly embraced it and went on with life.

    When I graduated from High School, my plan was to go to college and major in Mass Communications, eventually landing my dream job in radio. I also wanted my first car to be a Mazda Rx7 and also vowed to never miss a rock concert at The Omni, but I digress….I wanted to work in radio because I was a music fan. Thoughts of playing cutting edge music, free concert tickets and meeting rock stars danced through my head. I wanted to be a radio DJ more then anything in the world. Marriage, 2 kids and a dog later, that dream was forgotten. Reading your blog, and realizing that unfortunately, radio stations are now mostly a few repetitive songs played between advertisements, I’m not as meloncholy about that dream as I once was….

    After the Project was flipped, I felt a strangely overwhelming sense of betrayal. Like many have pointed out, 96,1 had been a rock station since 1974. Now, it was suddenly this nauseating, cookie-cutter, “Top 40″ station. What the Hell?

    I started seeing numerous pages in Facebook’s news feed asking to “Save Project 9-6-1″. And those pages grew….and grew…..Reading the comments posted on these pages, I noticed a recurring theme of shock, anger, and ….betryal. Out of everything I have seen and read over the past week, your blog says it best….you should definately submit it for publication in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, or as commentary on a local news cast, or at the very least, required reading for all newly hired radio station managers. If only the Powers That Be would do what 96.1’s fans have done for over 38 years and LISTEN……

  6. Wow. Very well said. That pretty much sums it all up. Now I need to find a program so I can figure out what stations are which since they’re flipping them all different directions. I know we’re probably never getting Project 96.1 back, but I must continue fighting until that miracle happens or the 96.1 building goes into foreclosure.

  7. Awesome article! I am passionate about my music genre and wish to have 96.1 back! They can bring back 96 Rock or the Project 9-6-1 either will do! One would think that the radio entrepreneurs would think about what they are doing and how many people are against this change! They really need to change back to the rock and roll/ heavy metal radio station that so many consumers wish to have.

  8. This is so well said. I am 99X and Project 96.1. Both Stations I listened to From a teenage and I miss them dearly. I personally live in Texas. I wish I was back home so I could be out there letting my friends from school know what is going on. With Research I’m sure you’ll discover if not personally know these groups are doing the same thing all across the country. I know they did the same thing in Boston. These types of companies as already mentioned on the Project Pages are turning out even our Art Culture. To me this is way past music now this is our heritage and how dare they as a corporation take away our values and what makes us human beings. Mess with our Rock and you’ll find out, but take that away and our local art galleries and local arts, you good companies have messed with a following in more than Atlanta!. Live Loud, Rock Hard and Be Life! Rock till we drop!

  9. LOVED your article….You should forward this to the AJC to see if they would publish it..WELL said as Sara said above!

  10. Well spoken and so very true. Unfortunately i think all the protests have fallen on… well no ears at all.. they arent listening, all they do is block us from posting on their site, (I have been blocked with three dummy fb accounts i created just to harrass @poweratl… The concept of the listeners get what they want is dead in Atlanta.. back to streaming on the smartphone or buying cds.. I honestly dont even turn my radio on anymore. 961 was the only rock station other than 97,1 that came through where i live.. I will keep fighting but i am not dillusional to think that they are listening for one second as they sit in their fat cat chairs and shoot puppies flung into the air by skeet throwers.. Live Loud, Play Hard, Fight Harder!!

  11. hey: i’m a former 99X dj (for 15 years) and you should check out EX99 on facebook…several of the original djs will be contributing :-)

  12. THANK YOU!!! from my heartsick, radio playing 24/7 soul…..

  13. Thank you all for your kind comments! I am actually a former DJ – albeit a part-timer – from here in Atlanta (full time in other markets), and it was always my dream to work for a station that I grew up listening to. I am blessed enough to have gotten that opportunity a few years ago, before all of this corporate takeover. It kills me that the opportunity now to even listen to those stations we grew up listening to has been taken away by businesses who don’t understand that radio is, was, and should always be about the community it serves. The listeners. I had the best listeners in the world in every market I was in, and Atlanta is no exception. You guys ARE the reason we radio DJs do what we do. We all love the music, we love the radio stations, and if you don’t, you shouldn’t be in the business of music. Period. So again – thank you so much for your comments. It gives me hope that the industry I love so much still has a future….and other than that, I have no opinion ;)

  14. Right on man. The radio corps don’t care in the slightest about what actual people want to listen to, they just do what the advert and ratings companies tell them to. That’s why there is no longer anything on the radio, and why I have not turned mine on since “moe” killed the project.

  15. Hi!

    If I’m a radio station, I’m 96rock, though I was never really satisfied with them, either. People were complaining about “corporate rock radio” back in the late ’70s, a time people now talk about as if it was this golden age, and that was one reason punk and new wave had a ready-made audience–they were ready for at least something that didn’t sound like “corporate rock”, even if that was all it had going for it. One thing I notice about 97.1 “The River”, though, is that it’s essentially the station 96rock once was (though their playlist is smaller, not larger, than it was back then). It makes you wonder why anyone bothered to change anything in the first place.

    I, alas, am not99X. I don’t know of a single band who I enjoy enough to buy their music that 99X would’ve played, though I understand the relationship people had with them (which makes me feel even more left out, but I guess that’s just me). Both 96rock and 99X, in their day, played a whole lot of OK music; by the time 99X came along, the rock industry had figured out that people wanted Something Real and had figured out what the signals that indicated Something Real were. And it worked. I’m also not Project 96.1 either; the first time I heard one of their “real guy” station tags, I think I turned the radio OFF. Not to another station–OFF. I have less than no interest in supporting that kind of thing.

    One more thing: For me, music stands on its own, just as it did when I was a little kid. As time goes on, “memories” enter into it, but if I don’t like the music, memories aren’t really gonna get it over the top. Surely there can be a rock station that plays everything, or close to it.

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