News » News Feature

COMMENTARY: NO RADIO STATION LEFT BEHIND

COMMENTARY: NO RADIO STATION LEFT BEHIND

by

comment
Last week I wrote about the coming battle between internet/satellite radio and broadcast commercial radio. The investment world seems to be betting on the future of satellite radio as Barrons reports the combined market value of the as yet unprofitable companies XM and Sirius is up to $14 billion vs. $19 billion for 30 year old and profitable Clear Channel, the number one broadcast radio owner. Keep in mind XM and Sirius have not come close to breaking even. Sirius is bleeding cash so badly that they took their Howard Stern moment to re-capitalize with a $321 million convertible stock offering, which will buy them time to add more subscribers and increase their program offerings such as this week’s announced Shade 45 hip hop station hosted by Eminem. Obviously the street feels good enough about the future of pay radio to give such a tremendously high value for anticipated future growth. Where will that leave “local” radio? As I hinted at last week, the future looks bleak for the average commercial radio program. The really strong ones will survive and do well as they have provided superior programming for the local market (many were mentioned in this column last week) and will continue to have a strong local audience as well as the potential to increase their audience with increasingly affordable internet broadcasting. The inferior ones will either meander on with fewer advertising dollars (see Old Highway 78 for the transportation equivalent of these programs) or be bought up and improved. The middling ones will disappear or throw away all pretense of entertainment and become full-flung infomercials a la The Good Times Show gambling promo on Saturday mornings WMC-790. In general, Memphis is one of the most highly respected and sought out musical hotbeds in the world. Music fans look to Memphis for musical heros and icons. Many of the current Memphis music icons--Elvis, Isaac Hayes, B.B. King, Sam the Sham et al--were created by more promiscuous playlists of the 1950s and 1960s: WDIA, WLOK, WHBQ, WMPS, and even, gasp, FM-100 in its infancy. On the occasions in the last twenty-five years when Memphis radio has supported Memphis acts, it has ghettoized the music in a “locals only” hour-long type format. The excuse that the quality of Memphis music is not up to snuff of “national” acts is a bogus copout by program directors on the take. Meanwhile the same Memphis music is played on other radio stations all over the world. Here are programming fixes for Memphis radio which would allow a brighter future for both listeners and their stations’ owners. Rock 103. I grew up listening to the zany morning crew in carpool in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s: base humor, bad fake laugh-track, and Bad Company songs. Twenty-five years later, nothing has changed in this format. Nothing perhaps except that the homophobic, sexist, and racist humor is far more politically incorrect these days. This station could have (and should have) created a growing reputation by breaking bands like Lucero, the North Mississippi All-Stars, Reigning Sound, Harlan T. Bobo, Snowglobe, and the dozens of others who have made it beyond the Memphis marketplace in spite of no help nor airplay from this city’s biggest rock and roll station. Think about Boston radio and one envisions WBCN breaking bands from Aerosmith to Del Fuegos to the Pixies. Rock 103 even employs a member of one of the Memphis’ best bands, the Reigning Sound, (who has received maximum airplay on Little Steven’s Underground Garage nationally syndicated show) as a weekend dj but will not play the Reigning Sound’s music in their rotation. Go figure. WDIA‘s Bobby O’Jay has long created a radio personality that combines Dear Abby with Jerry Springer. The mis-information doled out by this program to the mostly African-American listener-ship is pandering and damaging to the community. I understand why it is done--to shock listeners and create a stir, of course--but that does not make it good programming. In math they call it LCD. WDIA can do much better and has in previous days. Other “alternative” commercial radio. Since Nirvana broke as a commercial commodity in the early 1990s, there have been several “alternative” incarnations on the radio dial between 92 and 94 FM. While the airplay has been great for Pearl Jam, Blink 182, and a couple of other bands, the slim programming choices made by the computer at the top of these conglomerates has helped to kill rock ‘n roll for a generation. The same complaint can be made of Hot 107.1‘s hip hop selections: too few. The job of filling in the vast holes of programming created in commercial radio by the Clear Channel (et al) consolidation has fallen to public, college, and community radio. Since Rhodes College President Daughdrill unwittingly gave up WLYX Radio Rhodes’ valuable frequency in the early 1990s, Memphis’ alternative music and community programming has fallen at the feet of WEVL FM-90. WEVL has expanded its horizons greatly in the last 15 years by moving into the South Main district and helping to create the artsy environment that surrounds the area today. Unfortunately during its growth, WEVL has actually contracted its programming and does not broadcast 20% of the week. It is difficult to believe that in this 24 hour economy (Fed Ex packs several thousand folks a night into their Memphis hub) that WEVL cannot find seven volunteer programmers a week to fill the night shifts. There are also automation programs available if manpower is a problem. During WKNO 91.1‘s pledge drive last week, the programmer berated his listeners for not financially supporting the classical music programming. He went on to say that listeners supported the NPR news programming but were not stepping up to the table for the classical music. He explained that WKNO needed the funding to buy classical cds for on-air broadcast. I have always thought that classical music was programmed and paid for by rich long-hairs who would rather go broke than listen to other forms of music. Well, apparently the long-hairs are dying out, and no one is listening to Memphis’ only public radio station format. Memo to WKNO: time for a programming change. (Note to WKNO: if you are currently buying cds to play on the air, fire your program director as every other station in the world gets their cds for free or at least figures out how to swap promo cds for ones that cost money). This station, which broadcasts from the University of Memphis campus on Getwell, does not come close to meeting the demands of Memphis’ public radio needs. Their format during the week is 65% classical music and 0% other music--not exactly a broad spectrum of music for Memphis’ listeners to choose from. WUMR 91.7, which is the University of Memphis’ official station, broadcasts an almost 100% jazz format (a wee 1.5 hours of blues a week). While having great jazz programming is something a well-rounded college radio station should aspire to, neglecting all other genres of music is not so laudable. WUMR may be the only college station in the country which limits itself to one music format. How does the U. of M. expect to graduate students well-versed in all music genres with such a narrow focus in its radio format? I ask rhetorically when was the last time (if ever) you as a listener were moved by programming from this college radio station? Between these two radio stations affiliated with the University of Memphis, listeners receive a very narrow selection of music choices in but two music formats. WUMR and WKNO could be serving the Memphis radio community far more broadly if they went beyond the formats of classical and jazz. Given Memphis’ vast history and current pedigree of gospel, blues, soul, r&b, rap, indie rock, garage, and pop, one would hope for much more diversity in these two radio stations subsidized by taxpayer money. Ladies and gentlemen, the world of radio is wide open out there right now with new found competition from internet and satellite radio. As the 18th century economist Adam Smith said best, “May the best radio program win!”

Add a comment