Bye Bye Classic Rock: DC Radio Goes Green
The dominos keep toppling on Washington radio. The death of classical WGMS last month brought the area George 104, the third FM station in the area playing some form of classic rock (Sunday's Listener column is a closer look at George--for a preview of the column, see the jump of this blog item.)
Today, the area's pure classic rocker, 94.7 The Arrow, was killed off to make way for something called 94.7 The Globe, the first station in Washington since WHFS to adopt an alternative rock sound. The new station itself is explicitly making the comparison to the region's once-beloved alternative rocker, telling listeners in an on-air promotion that the new Globe will sound like "WHFS circa 1985."
In radio industry parlance, the new station is a blend of two formats--Triple A, or Adult Album Alternative (like the old WHFS), and Modern Adult Contemporary (like Mix 107.3)--with a smattering of the old 60s and 70s classic rock. What does that sound like? Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dave Mathews Band, Talking Heads, The Clash, U2, Gnarls Barkley. Station manager Michael Hughes says The Globe's playlist is three times as long as The Arrow's was. And in an on-air promotion, Hughes promises that the new station will eschew "cheesy music" such as Madonna and Boy George--a direct slap at George 104, which sports a mix of rock and pop from the 70s and 80s, with a smattering of dance and R&B tunes.
The CBS-owned station is going without deejays for a week, but some of its former voices will then return: Cerphe, Weasel, Schelby and Mark Stevens.
The new station's big gimmick is the notion that it is radio's first "green" station. The station will be "part of the solution," deejay Cerphe says in an on-air promo. "Radio's changed and not always for the better." So The Globe seeks to attract a younger, environmentally-conscious generation with a green message, a longer playlist, music that hasn't until now played on Washington radio, and rhetoric that rejects corporate radio's emphasis on heavily-researched formats. (Corporate radio periodically has some success in coopting social rebellion, though sometimes the corporate version makes you wince: In the early 70s, ABC responded to the flowering of underground FM rock stations by creating something called LOVE, a network of stations featuring the album rock of the time as deejayed by a minister-turned-spacey poet dubbed Brother Love. It didn't exactly fly.)
The station's nascent web site announces the new emphasis, and a statement from the station lists some measures The Globe is taking to show its commitment to environmental health:
--Using renewable energy to supply power to the station's 50,000 watt signal and using hybrid station vehicles;
--In-studio artists will perform in The Globe's Custom Greenhouse outfitted with low voltage lighting and recycled flooring;
--Annual Earth Day concert event;
--Station will create promotional campaigns around socially-conscious events such as Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Coachella;
--Station appearances will be branded "Go Green With The Globe" and provide listeners with information on environmental leadership and energy conservation; WARW will also host events encouraging recycling, tree planting and use of green products.
The green theme immediately drew fire from public radio executives, who in many cities have been more supportive of the Triple A format than commercial radio. The closest such station to Washington is WTMD in Towson, Md., which can be heard on 89.7 FM up toward Baltimore or, for those few who have HD digital radios, on WAMU's second channel at 88.5 FM in Washington. WTMD's manager, Stephen Yasko, argues that "Public radio is the authentic green radio network and not the corporate hacks at CBS." He wonders if CBS isn't just "pandering to the liberal Washington crowd."
A public station in Pittsburgh stakes its place as the nation's first certifiably "green" voice. WYEP's building is entirely powered by wind, with flooring made from recycled material or a combination of linseed oil and flour. Almost all of the "lumber" in the building is actually made of wheat and many of the sound panels in the studios are made of recycled blue jeans. In addition, the station has aired a locally produced program on the environment, the Allegheny Front, for 15 years.
Whatever station wins the title of greenest, the trend is clear: Embracing environmental consciousness is good business.
And a switch in classical stations has pushed Washington FM stations into a new era, pushing out the sounds of the 60s and early 70s as stations try to capture the ears of listeners who grew up in the 80s and 90s.
Below is an advance look at Sunday's The Listener column:
George is a 44-year-old white guy who lives in the suburbs and likes Foreigner, Journey, Billy Idol and David Bowie. When George was in high school, he loathed disco and the soft soul sounds of the '70s.
Our mythical George and people like him have themselves a new radio station. "George 104" took the place of classical WGMS last month and bills itself as the sounds of "the '70s, '80s and whatever we want." If the music now playing on 104.1 FM sounds similar to what's on three other stations in town, that's because, well, it is.
George, like stations elsewhere that go by names such as Jack, Bob, Ben and even Doug, is the radio industry's attempt to rise to the challenge posed by iPods, downloading and the fact that young people don't rely on their radios to hear their favorite songs anymore.
These stations -- using a format known in the radio industry as adult hits -- offer a greatly expanded playlist as an enticement to listeners who've already downloaded the songs they know they like. "You can listen all day and we'll never repeat a song. No corporate playlists, no rules, it's nice," say the canned announcements on George. (The station, for now, has no deejays, just wall-to-wall music.)
But George is very much a corporate product, created by the same people who built similar stations in Phoenix, St. Louis and San Francisco for the same owner, Bonneville International Corp. (The Washington Post has an agreement to provide programming to Bonneville's station WTWP.)
"This has been a proven format for us," says Joel Grey, architect of the "George" sound and vice president and program director of the Peak, Bonneville's first adult-hits station, in Phoenix. "Some of these songs can be heard on a variety of other stations in Washington, but our box is bigger: This is a 1,500-song library" instead of the 300 or so songs played on George's primary competitors.
George is trying to win listeners in the 35-54 age bracket, which is also the target demographic of two other stations that play similar music, classic rock 94.7 the Arrow (owned by CBS) and classic hits BIG 100.3 (Clear Channel). Mix 107.3 (ABC), which traffics in '80s and '90s hits as well as current songs, aims at a similar but slightly younger audience.
So why add another station with a similar format in the same market, when there are so many other genres of music that can't be heard on the radio? George is aimed at the demographic that advertisers most covet, and Bonneville believes the larger playlist offers enough of a distinction to beat the competition.
"If you took BIG, Arrow, Mix and WASH and threw them in a blender, that would be George," Grey says. "We'll go from James Taylor from the early '70s to Daniel Powter from 2005. The other stations will play ZZ Top like us, but they won't also play Madonna or Prince like we will."
Each station also seeks a different blend of men and women in its audience: Arrow appeals to a more heavily male listener base, BIG aims at an equal split between the sexes, and George is promising advertisers an audience that will have somewhat more women.
Two years ago, Mix made a move similar to what George is doing, greatly expanding its playlist to include about 1,000 songs from the 1970s through the '90s and calling its new approach "the best of . . . everything." But Mix went only halfway toward adopting the concept known as "Jack," which started in Canada in 2003 and eschewed deejays to give listeners the sense that the station was a music machine, delivering discoveries from the vaults of pop history.
Mix instead retained its personalities, such as morning man Jack Diamond. And over time, Mix has moved back toward where it started, with a greater emphasis on current hits.
That opened the way for both George and Big 100.3, which dropped its oldies format last April to focus on the '70s and '80s songs that mean so much to today's 40-somethings.
In a several-hour period during George's first week on the air, the station played songs that debuted from 1973 to 2005, but by far the largest number of songs were from between 1979 and 1981.
"Twenty-five-to-34-year-olds didn't grow up with that music, and they may decide after a while that they've heard enough of 'Jessie's Girl,' " the 1981 Rick Springfield hit, says Sean Ross, vice president of Edison Media Research and a close observer of the Washington radio scene. "But 35-to-44-year-olds may never get sick of hearing 'Living on a Prayer' [Bon Jovi, 1986] or '1999' [Prince, 1983]."
Actually, it's not likely that "1999" will air very often on George, which so far has played very few R&B hits or dance tunes. Grey says the George format does include some crossover and dance hits, but executives at other radio companies say what they've heard of George so far sounds as though it's been designed to emphasize rock.
"D.C. was very much a rock town for a while in the early '80s," Ross says, "so there's a reason for this emphasis. You can do this format with or without disco and R&B." Some Jack-like stations mix "More Than a Feeling" (Boston, 1976) with "Got to Be Real" (Cheryl Lynn, 1978), while others are programmed on the assumption that that blend would drive away white suburbanites who grew up despising disco.
The new George 104 and similar stations "get a lot of attention for their variety, but it's really classic rock for people who grew up between Boston and Guns N' Roses," says Ross, who graduated from Maryland's Sandy Spring Friends School in 1979, when "there was a big Pat Benatar and AC/DC thing going on in Washington."
Radio executives say it's not likely that Arrow, Big and George will all thrive in their current formats. In many cities, the deeper playlist approach scores well in the ratings for a year or two, then fades as listeners tire of the music.
If any of the classic rock stations here falters, the next version of oldies radio is waiting in the wings: Some Clear Channel stations are experimenting with a new twist on old hits: the greatest party hits, a collection of songs stretching from the early '60s through today, but focused on the 1970s.
By Marc Fisher |
February 2, 2007; 5:41 PM ET
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