Yesterday, 1/4/06, media conglomerate Bonneville swapped frequencies and changed formats at several of it's DC-market's stations. Z104, which played Adult-Alternative music along with Washington Nationals' baseball broadcasts, is now Classical WGMS. WGMS' old frequency, 103.5, is now all-news WTOP, which was broadcast on 1500 AM and 107.7 FM. Those two frequencies will become Washington Post Radio in March.
A few years ago, the popular mantra was to not waste a highly profitable FM signal in the DC market with news or sports - those formats could live nicely on lower-sound-quality AM. Even religious, ethnic and classic standards broadcasting was considered a disaster. Some even considered 106.7's talk format a waste of a music frequency. And, now, in one fell swoop, Bonneville has changed the rules by littering FM with news and sports.
I'm actually excited to see how the Washington Post Radio turns out. Long-form news stories - longer than a short news blurb, much like a NPR story - were common before the popularity of talk radio took off in the late '80s and early '90s. The Post, despite its history as a major newspaper, has made incredible progress in getting newspaper content to the web, and further distinguishes their website with tons of web-only content. Various writers were made available to other media for commentary and features, so it only seems fitting that they'd eventually get into radio. It'll be interesting to see what they do with the radio station. Call-in shows with the writers? Have the editors do a roundtable? A Gene Weingarten morning show? Carolyn Hax doing a "Loveline"-style advice show?
However, the comments on local media sites like dcrtv.com have been assailing the death of yet another music outlet in the local market. Z104 wasn't a great radio station - and I'm not just saying that because they turned me down for a job in 1996 - but they were generally pleasant enough. Like the young couple three doors down in your neighborhood - they always smile, never stay up all night being loud, but never make much of an impression for you to remember their names.
Local radio should be just that - local. Bonneville is operated out of Salt Lake City - hardly a hot bed of progressive thought. Probably the reason Z104 never crossed the line of taste like a DC101 does is somewhat due to the slightly older demo they shot for, and a corporate mindset that values modesty. Rearranging frequencies and eliminating formats isn't as much of a big deal when you have a 2,000 mile buffer zone.
The sad state of local radio is EXACTLY what we deserve for allowing Congress, the FCC and big business to take over local radio stations relatively unchecked for the past 15 years. Corporate butchers like Bonneville, Clear Channel and Infinity are responsible for the dearth of decent local programming and personalities.
When I was a baby deejay, the average DC station employed about 40 people, between engineering, sales, support staff, promotions and air talent. Some stations had more; others less, but the general rule was 40. Once the FCC started relaxing a couple of ownership rules, it was all over. Welcome to the world of consolidation. Suddenly, a group of radio stations could combine sales staff, engineering, promotions folks and even air talent. When I worked in Ocean City after college in 1995, I was on the 95.9 morning show, and then changed my voice and walked across the hall to do Froggy 99.9 's middays or overnights. Sadly, this also happened in bigger cities too. Suddenly, a group of stations could hire 100 folks to run 4 or 5 stations.
With fewer jobs available, salaries went down. Long time DC/Baltimore residents might remember Big Don O'Brien, formerly of WPGC and WAVA in their top 40 days, and B104 in Baltimore. In 1984, Big Don was the cohost of the highest rated morning show in Baltimore, a smaller market than DC. He made 250,000 in a year by being funny for four hours a day.
Conversely, when Will Pendarvis was the morning show host at DC101 in 1996, he made 140,000. Now, that's still great money, but Don made more 10 years earlier at a smaller station. Even more ridiculous was the old WHFS Morning Product with Aq, Kath and Rob. They were ranked #3 in DC and #8 in Baltimore. Between the two cities, over 250,000 people listened to them every hour, every morning. WHFS was kicking DC101's ass.
Aq made 70,000, I think. It might have been less, now that I think about it. In either case, that's not what highly-rated, major market morning shows used to make. Now, I'm not going to turn down 70-large for doing an easy job. Still...that's a massive pay disparity. Smaller market guys or folks who didn't do mornings had a similar pay cut. Mix 106.5 in Baltimore paid 32,000 to it's night jocks as recently as the 2000 - for a full-time major market gig at an FM station, that's essentially a slap in the face.
The problem is that there are SO many people who want to be broadcasters now - much more so than 30 years ago. As the businesses started taking over, they eliminated much of the local personalities with syndicated programming or automated systems that don't even need a local voice to operate. As a result, there are too many people and not enough jobs.
And, as the battle over decency in broadcasting flared up, these large corporations rolled over and let the FCC run roughshod over them. After all, they can't bite the hand that feeds it, can it? It boggles my mind that INDIVIDUAL CBS AFFILIATES can be fined over a NETWORK-PROVIDED FEED of a frickin' nanosecond of Janet Jacksons' deflated passenger-side airbag, yet Pat Robertson can call for the assassination of a foreign leader on his TV show and not get a penny in fines. Maybe I'm the one who has bad priorities, but when is a nipple more offensive than murder? Michael Powell and his ilk at the FCC deserve a huge steaming cat-shit sandwich for scaring affiliates from airing Saving Private Ryan - one of the most important movies ever made - because of four-letter words and scenes that might get them fined.
Yet MTV can have a show where people get radical makeovers and plastic surgery just so they can look like some two-bit celebrity. That's offensive!!!
Combine that with the shifting demographics of the market, plus other technologies, and you get the situation radio is in now. Most people in my demo (25 - 45, college educated) have iPods or a pretty big CD collection. We can download songs we like. We can burn DVD's full of media. We don't need the radio for music as much as we need it for traffic and weather information. Some of our cars are prewired for satellite radio. Many of us spend an hour or two a day in the Metro where the radio is mostly useless. We can listen to streaming audio at work or at home if we have a good internet connection. We can go to clubs that play exactly what music we like. Many of us have very specific tastes in music, and we want to hear what we want, when we want. Stations like Z104 and the old WHFS were marketed to a demo that simply doesn't need them.
Stations like WHUR and WPGC have a similar age and income demo, but are able to market themselves much better into the community. They make their broadcasts sound like a hot party you need to be at. And while hip-hop and R&B have made great strides in bridging technology gaps, it's still has a large audience who depends on the radio for listening to music. And, the new 99.1, with its mix of Latin beats, while not as highly rated as anticipated, has become a fixture in the community already. Z104 completely failed to make that kind of impression.
It was predicted that when Stern left Infinity/CBS that the whole radio world would change. Sure enough...don't be surprised to see other changes (94.7, 107.3, this means you). Sure, Sirius is giving Stern a huge contract, but it's still pretty amazing to see how low traditional radio is falling when it's biggest star would leave.
Personally, I've fallen in love with XM. Their selection of alt-rock and indie selections, plus good dance, soul, sports, classical and news/talk/traffic/weather stations is INFINITELY better than anything available on regular broadcast. Sirius is not as good musically, but has better talk stations, plus Howard Stern, but XM also has more stations. Sat Radio's a vastly superior service, no matter which provider you chose, and if I have to skip three Starbuck's coffees a month to pay for it, I will. My birthday gift from myself to myself will be the portable unit, and I will consider it an investment and a a big fat middle finger at the suits, lawyers and politicians who ruined the medium I once loved.