Commercial music radio battles new technology, struggles for young listeners
One station, Columbus, Ohio's WWCD-FM, saw changes and tragedy
Industry is concerned about where new talent will come from
The key, say some in radio, is to serve your community
“Do you remember lying in bed
With your covers pulled up over your head
Radio playing so no one can see … “
– The Ramones, “Do You Remember Rock ’n’ Roll Radio?”
In this capital city and college town, there is a shrine to a disc jockey.
His name was Andy Davis, better known as “Andyman,” and he manned the evening drive-time shift at WWCD-FM. He was a bear of a man, a hugger, a backslapper, a preacher’s son who called everybody “brother.” He could carry you along with his enthusiasm.
DJ Brian Phillips recalls Davis’ annual 48-hour fundraising extravaganzas, known as “Andyman-a-Thons,” exhorting callers to outbid one another. “Come on, brother, 10 dollars more!” Andyman would say.
“Our children’s charities meant everything to him,” Phillips says. “By the end of each Andyman-a-Thon, he was drained and everyone was in tears. He had given his all, and yet you’d have to drag him out of that studio.”
He gave everybody a shot. Lesley James was a guest DJ – an enthusiastic listener who once got to do an hour of her favorite songs on-air. When she was done, she nervously handed Davis her resume.
“(I) mentioned that I grew up listening to the radio station and wanted to be a part of it,” she recalls. “He laughed, smiling at me and said, ‘Honey, I don’t need a resume. I like what I heard over the past hour.’ “
He was an evangelist for local music. “I felt like Andy was someone who was looking out for a local musician just getting started and looking out for my best interests,” says musician Brian Epp, who remembers Davis’ support before a show.
“I will never forget his smile and that initial hug. When he announced us and said that he was from CD101, I felt like we were getting some rite of passage.”
That was Andy. He was your friend.
On July 18, 2010, Andy Davis died. He was just 42.
His death hit everybody hard – and shook the station to its core. WWCD was hanging on by its fingernails. The recession had ripped into revenues. The ratings were troubling. The station was going through a complex financial transaction: It had just sold its frequency, 101.1, to Ohio State University and was making arrangements to move up the dial to 102.5 in hopes of expanding its audience. The entire staff had taken a substantial pay cut. Even the lease on its office space was up.
In the midst of all this, here was Andy’s wife, Molly, calling to deliver the awful news.
For a rare bird in an increasingly generic business – a completely independent commercial music station – it was going to be a struggle. WWCD had no safety net: It wasn’t part of a regional “cluster” of stations, it had no TV or newspaper ties, there was no giant conglomerate to move money over from another division’s pockets. Everybody’s lives were wrapped up in the station.
Competition, the economy and now its beating heart: WWCD was at a crossroads, and the path ahead was full of static.
“During all that time, we had to make a decision on whether to keep the radio station,” recalls Wendy Vaughan, wife of owner Roger Vaughan. “And my head said, ‘You need to let it go.’ But my heart said, ‘This is a guy’s life, his legacy, his identity, you can’t let it go.’ “
A medium in flux
“The world is collapsing around our ears
I turned up the radio
But I can’t hear it …”
-- R.E.M., “Radio Song”
It wasn’t just WWCD. Quietly in some markets, loudly in others, music radio has been under siege. Like many media, it’s battling demographics and technology to stay alive, at the same time losing the institutional memory and talent that made it distinctive.
“Radio creates such a powerful connection,” says Randy Malloy, who as general manager was trying to save the station with Roger Vaughan.
“You don’t remember the newspaper article that you read when you had your first kiss or the TV show. It was a song. You remember that song. There’s such a hard-wired connection in our brains to music.”
Which is why people in the industry are worried that old-fashioned AM/FM radio may be drifting off into the ether, as it struggles to attract the young listeners who have been its bedrock for generations.
Sure, broadcast radio’s been the redheaded stepchild of communications media for decades. TV, CDs, satellite, the Internet – they were all supposed to kill it off.
Radio ad man Mark Lipsky jokes that he “keeps a black suit in my closet” for all the funeral announcements he’s seen for the medium. He says radio remains strong and will adjust. It always has.
“AM/FM radio will probably command a smaller slice of the pie,” says Lipsky, president and CEO of the Radio Agency. “But it’s certainly not going to be replaced.”
Others are less optimistic. The business is in flux. Rock music has fallen out of fashion. Format changes are common. The 12- to 24-year-olds who are the radio listeners (and employees) of the future are gravitating toward the Internet or iDevices. Three of the biggest hits of the last year – “Call Me Maybe,” “Gangnam Style” and “Harlem Shake” – were driven by YouTube and social media. Billboard magazine, the chart bible, just added YouTube to its pop chart sources.
Clear Channel and Cumulus – the two dominant radio broadcasters, each with hundreds of stations – are struggling to pay off mountains of debt and have laid off thousands of workers, including many DJs.
And the heart of terrestrial radio – its emphasis on the local – has drifted. Hometown DJs, once the central voice of it all, increasingly find themselves marginalized in favor of syndicated voices and formulaic presentations.
That’s a concern, says Lipsky. “Anybody can play Bruno Mars and Pink, but nothing’s going to replace the sound of having a local jock tune you in to when (those artists are) coming to town – things that make you part of your community.”
Industry analyst Jerry Del Colliano, publisher of “Inside Music Media,” says he believes the future is dim.
Radio, he warns, is no longer appealing to young people. “They don’t like it, don’t use it that much, don’t know the stations, and at the same time the radio companies are shooting themselves in the foot by cutting back and getting rid of personalities.”
He looks at the landscape and wonders about the attraction.
“If any of this is true, why would you want to be in this business?”
Ed Levine, whose Galaxy Communications owns a handful of stations in central New York State, puts it more bluntly.
“If we’re not proactive, we’ll be newspapers.”
’God, disc jockeys, then parents’
“I’m in love with the radio on
It helps me from being alone late at night …”
– Jonathan Richman, “Roadrunner”
Andyman always wanted to be in radio.
A native of rural Ohio, he got the bug early, going to broadcasting school and working as an overnight jock at a country station. But WWCD was where he wanted to be, and he called the station incessantly, volunteering to work any shift, do any job.
“He finally wore them down,” says Molly Davis, his widow.
He worked his way up from overnights and random shifts to become music director – the person who manages the station’s song selection – and then program director, a job that oversees the station’s entire on-air output, including DJs, music and commercials.
He was always sincere and passionate, says Tom Butler, one of his many protégés.
At the end of a summer festival, Butler recalls, “Andy was still standing at the gates, shaking hands with every single person who walked through. He just genuinely wanted to meet and connect with every single listener, every single fan.”
It’s the sort of enthusiasm one might associate with a different generation, when DJs were the “pied pipers of rock ’n’ roll,” and their distinctive voices were ubiquitous – and powerful. In 1966, a Hollywood teen fair asked visitors about the biggest influences in their lives. The order: “God, disc jockeys, then parents,” the late Robert W. Morgan, the leading voice of Los Angeles’ KHJ, once recalled.
Of course, that was a different time, when Top 40 ruled and “everybody listened to the same stuff,” says Allan Sniffen, who runs a website dedicated to New York’s old WABC-AM back when it was “Musicradio 77.”
Nowadays, radio is more corporate and buttoned up, which has made DJing and programming a harder job. On the one hand, people complain that radio sucks – it’s generic and boring and the DJs all sound the same, the music all sounds the same, even the manic car commercials all sound the same.
On the other hand, new music and creativity can be tough sells. People like the familiar. The familiar is dependable, and dependable is easier to sell. The pressure at music stations is to stick with the tried and true, to run focus groups and test out the wazoo.
Margot Chobanian, former music director of Atlanta’s now-defunct DaveFM, says the trend has been to cut back on DJs and their patter because ratings show that people don’t like chatter.
She doesn’t agree with that interpretation of the data though. What corporations don’t understand, she says, is that the amount of DJ chatter has nothing do with tuning out – it’s the quality of what the DJs say.
“(People) were engaged by the DJs,” Chobanian says.
Though Chobanian’s bosses at CBS Radio gave the adult-alternative station a longer run than she expected, last fall, when the ratings declined, the station switched to sports talk and much of the staff got the ax.
Chobanian is leaving terrestrial radio behind. She now has a website called eavradio.com, a new-music station with an emphasis on the Atlanta scene.
“I see it as an extension of what DaveFM could have been,” she says.
And old-fashioned broadcast radio? She’s done – done with the numbers, the restrictions, the suits.
“I’ll never program for a corporate radio station again,” she says.
Remaking the business
“Life is a rock
But the radio rolled me …”
– Reunion, “Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)”
At 15, Bob Pittman started as a DJ in his hometown of Brookhaven, Mississippi. It was not his first choice.
“I really wanted the high-paying job in town, which was bagging groceries at the Piggly Wiggly,” he says.
Radio was, however, the right choice.
He was quickly promoted to positions up the line. By 1974, when he was 20, the “Boy Wonder” was the program director of WMAQ-AM in Chicago. Within three years, he was running WNBC-AM in New York, one of the biggest stations in the country.
Over the next three decades, he helped found MTV, became a successful producer, headed Time Warner’s Six Flags theme parks division, ran the Century 21 real estate company, took over AOL in its formative years and was chief operating officer of the merged AOL Time Warner.
And then, three years ago, the famed media entrepreneur returned to his radio roots, investing $5 million in Clear Channel. Today he’s head of the nation’s largest radio company, becoming the symbol of “corporate radio.”
While he was gone, there were plenty of changes. When Pittman started, music radio mainly used to be AM Top 40; over the years, it moved to FM on a continually splintering array of formats.
But the big sea change in the business came 17 years ago when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Gone were restrictions on the number of stations a company could own in a market; suddenly corporations went on a buying spree. The two biggest, Clear Channel and Cumulus, started dominating markets by purchasing several stations in the same city.
At its peak, Clear Channel owned more than 1,200 stations, a concert promotion company, a billboard division and a variety of other interests. (Before 1996, it owned 43 stations.) It’s since sold off the concert firm, but still owns about 850 stations. Cumulus has about 570.
With Clear Channel’s aggressive tactics and formidable clout, others in the business took to calling the company the “Evil Empire.” Eric Boehlert wrote a number of stories for Salon about its power plays, calling it “radio’s big bully.”
For a decade, the big companies thrived, but the recession hit them hard. In 2008, Bain Capital helped lead a leveraged buyout of Clear Channel. The company now has $20 billion in long-term debt, and according to a 2012 article in Forbes, “barely earns enough to cover its interest payments and capital expenditures.” Cumulus posted a huge loss last year thanks to its debt load.
In 2010, Pittman bought into Clear Channel, telling The Wall Street Journal he’d agreed to “help out part-time.” A year later, he became CEO. He’s been trying to remake it ever since.
It hasn’t been easy. The company has been on a cost-cutting binge for several years, shedding stations, cutting jobs and consolidating operations. One of its practices, voice-tracking – in which a DJ in one city can broadcast his or her show to several others, giving the appearance of a local broadcast in each market – has been particularly criticized as emphasizing the national (and generic) over the local.
The cutbacks have taken a toll: Rick Wright, a longtime radio veteran and communications professor at Syracuse University, does a weekend show at a Clear Channel station. He says the building’s local studios are like a ghost town when he visits.
Pittman dismisses the criticisms. The company still believes in local, he says, only now it’s tapping into national talent – the way local TV stations replaced their self-produced talk shows with “The Oprah Winfrey Show” nearly three decades ago. And the company’s head count, he maintains, is still healthy.
“We have cutbacks, but you don’t look at the other side of the equation, which is, how many people have we hired?” he says, his Southern accent mixing smoothly with his rat-a-tat-tat, statistic-laden delivery. “Our head count has not gone down as a company, and the reason it has not gone down is because we’re constantly rebalancing.”
Creating a ‘trusted friend’
“There goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play …”
-- Tom Petty, “The Last DJ”
Roger Vaughan got the idea for WWCD after living in Denver in the 1980s while working in real estate.
He was inspired by KBCO, a station in nearby Boulder, Colorado, that played new music with the energy of old radio.
“I’ve had this love of both radio and music my whole life,” he says. “I considered both businesses ‘magical’ and never even dreamed I might work in either. You needed some sort of special talent or something, right?”
Vaughan wondered if he could replicate something like KBCO in Columbus, where, he says, “radio sucked.”
“I … convinced myself that Denver and Columbus were similar demographically, that a radio adventure like this could both sound unique and be profitable and that I should try to do this,” he says.
WWCD – then CD101 – went on the air in 1990.
Randy Malloy was there almost from the beginning. He moved to Columbus from college in New Jersey in the late 1980s, started at the station as an intern and worked his way up.
At 49, Malloy looks like an older version of Crispin Glover’s grown-up McFly character in “Back to the Future”: blond hair with bits of gray, lank and long on the sides and back, as if he’d gotten in an argument with his barber halfway through a haircut.
He talks fast and thinks faster, his voice a Mel Brooksian rasp trying to keep up with all the possibilities in his brain.
He’s a one-man chamber of commerce for his adopted hometown.
On a gray winter’s day he drives up High Street – the Ohio capital’s main drag – and proudly points out sights: the reborn downtown, the once-dead Short North neighborhood, the Ohio State hangouts. He talks about the city’s plans to get rid of the one-way boulevards that shuttle people to the suburbs; he praises the homes in German Village and hopes for growth in the nearby Brewery District. It’s a gentrifying but still patchy area south of downtown by the Scioto River, the kind of place where you’d imagine an alt-rock broadcaster to take up residence.
Localness used to be the point of radio. It may have attracted its audience through the music, but it kept them by keeping them informed – being a “trusted friend,” as Malloy says.
Syracuse’s Wright puts it more succinctly: “The greatest social media is radio broadcasting.”
Wright remembers his godmother advising him on the importance of community. She hosted a popular midday show on WRAP in Norfolk, Virginia, that played music, conducted interviews and provided information.
“She told me, if you’re ever really serious about putting a radio station together, you want your air personalities to become so integrated into the total sociological fabric of the audience that you’re serving, that when they’re in trouble, they’ll call the disc jockey at the station before they’d call the police,” he recalls.
“You’ve become part of the family. They feel they know you.”
“It blows a hole in the radio
When it hasn’t sounded good all week …”
–The Clash, “Hitsville UK”
It took a lot of effort after Andyman died, but WWCD stayed on the air.
Vaughan plowed in more money. Malloy sank his 401(k) into buying a majority interest. The station redoubled its marketing efforts, particularly partnerships with a local music promoter and Columbus’ pro hockey team, the Blue Jackets. Everybody took pay cuts and multitasked, with DJs doing promotions and interns doing everything.
WWCD is a throwback. It’s one of just a handful of independent, major-market commercial music stations left in America. It’s run like a throwback, too, with a strong focus on new music and community service.
Indeed, the station flaunts its indie credibility like a bold tattoo. “We’re not Clear Channel,” trumpets the station’s on-air IDs – a shot at its powerful competitor, which owns six Columbus stations, including the market leader. A CD file drawer in the studio sharpens the point with the bumper sticker “Clear Channel Kills.” “Rock local,” adds a banner on its website.
There’s a lot of bad blood between Clear Channel and others in the industry, thanks to the former’s tactics in the early 2000s. Malloy and the Vaughans talk about Clear Channel’s dominance with an attitude bordering on disgust; Wendy Vaughan says the company offered $15 million for the station at one point.
WWCD’s studio and offices form a ramshackle warren of rooms in the basement of a renovated restaurant and reception hall in the Brewery District. Fittingly, the dominant feature is a large bar complete with an ice-cream freezer. (“We’re a bar with a radio problem,” Malloy jokes.)
Decorations around the studio window wish patrons a happy holiday – changing with the season. Inside the studio are wooden slat seats from the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. A mannequin wearing a skull mask and black robes keeps watch over an equipment closet. There are about a dozen employees ambling about, some dressed so casually it’s hard to tell the veterans apart from the college-student interns.
The station van, an old ice-cream truck, is parked outside. Malloy, a DIY-type guy who drove an ambulance to put himself through college, has been spotted covered in motor oil from trying to get it started.
The vibe is that of a low-key clubhouse.
A number of employees talk about growing up with the station and say that working there is a dream come true. Kyle Hofmeister, one of the DJs, grew up near Columbus but spent his college years in Florida.
“One of the big things about leaving town was I realized how much I missed this particular radio station,” he says.
“We have kids who tell us, ‘I grew up listening to you,’ and now they’ve started a band, and now their goal is to get on the ‘Top 5 at 5,’ ” Malloy says. “They’re excited, and that excites us.”
On a recent Tuesday morning, the DJs and interns pour into Lesley James’ narrow office for their weekly music meeting – a kind of rate-a-record free-for-all for new releases.
That one-hour guest DJ whom Andyman hired without seeing her resume is now the station’s program director – taking over after Davis died.
The music meeting is open to pretty much any staffer. As in Andyman’s day, anything is fair game; record labels drop off new records all the time, but if a listener records a song in his dorm room and sends over the MP3, the gang will give it a go.
Tom Butler, the evening-drive DJ who shares an office with James, pops in record after record: the Dirty Projectors, Thao with the Get Down Stay Down, Grizzly Bear.
A new cut by the French turntablists C2C earns wildly different reviews: “It’s innovative … if that’s what you’re going to call it,” says one staffer. Johnny Marr, the former Smiths guitarist, fares better with his latest.