Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The tide is turning - the death of WBCN and the move of WQXR

America’s radio landscape is looking to shift considerably in the next month, with several industry moves that will topple two pioneering stations. First, a 65 year-old New York classical music radio icon is ending. And in the other, CBS Radio is looking to boost it's FM sports presence with two format flips. One of those moves was long-rumored. The other one effectively kills a four decade rock institution. And both are closely related to the current economic landscape hurting many media owners.

To begin with, there's the complicated deal completed late yesterday. New York's WQXR, one of the oldest FM stations in America (it went on the air in 1939, and has carried its current format since 1944), is being sold by its cash-strapped owner, the New York Times. The Times will sell the 96.3FM frequency to Univision, which will move its Spanish hits "La Kalle" format from the current, lesser-powered 105.9FM. In turn, the Times will sell WQXR's classical music format to WNYC Radio, which will take over 105.9FM and operate it as a non-commercial classical station.
The Times will get $45 million out of the two deals - $33.5 million from Univision plus another $11.5 million from non-commercial outlet WNYC (93.9FM). Times CEO Janet Robinson sees the three-way transaction as the best chance to preserve WQXR's format, though the move will sever the station's ties with the Times' reporters and resources. In addition, WNYC, which broadcasts some classical music in the evening, will likely shift to all news/talk. WNYC has already begun a $15 million campaign to fund the purchase of the new frequency and its equipment.

At least WQXR's classical format will survive. Another iconic station is not so lucky. Earlier in the day, another notable incident of format shuffling was announced, as CBS announced the pending flip of two large-market FM stations. In Washington, DC, FM talker WJFK's shift to sports has been a poorly-kept secret for several weeks. Therefore, that announcement was not surprising. But the most notable part of this story is the pending implosion, set for mid-August, of one of this country's most iconic rock stations, WBCN in Boston.

The changes in Boston are a little more complicated than a mere format flip. What essentially is happening is CBS is moving the adult contemporary format of WBMX (Mix 98.5) to the 104.1 FM frequency. The 98.5 frequency will become WBZ-FM, "The Hub", which will be all-sports.

Sports on FM is a growing fad for many of the big corporate broadcasters across the country. First, some music formats don't seem to be faring well in Arbitron's new flaw-ridden PPM-derived surveys (which use 'people meters' rather than diaries). Second, with music industry lobbyists pushing Congress to mandate performance royalties from radio stations, some radio owners see talk-oriented programming as a way of giving the music industry the middle finger. It also shows the impulsive nature of the major corporate broadcasters.

But today's changes are most notable in a different way. After all, it's not every day that a company abruptly blows up a 41 year-old radio institution. Honestly, though, WBCN's pending demise should come as no surprise, given that it has practically been dying for years. Many similar stations also lost their way as their corporate owners have been clueless as to how to remain relevant. WBCN suffered the death of a thousand cuts.

For over half a century, WBCN has been a local institution. Since its inception in May, 1958, they aired a classical music format (with the same call letters), while most ears were glued to AM radio. By 1968, 'underground' free-form rock was making waves on the FM dial, as struggling stations on that band were eager to try just about anything to get people to listen. It started with KMPX in San Francisco and WOR-FM in New York, and spread like wildfire across the landscape. It could be argued effectively that free-form rock contributed greatly to the growth of FM radio.

WBCN, engulfed in fierce competition with other FM classical outlets, began to experiment with cutting-edge rock when it leased its nighttime hours to a local promoter/nightclub owner, who wanted to use the airwaves to draw traffic to his shows. "The American Revolution" launched on March 15, 1968, with "I Feel Free" by Cream. Within a year, and with skyrocketing listenership, WBCN adopted free-form rock full-time.

Like many similar stations of the day, the programming was adventurous, heavy with album cuts, diverse genres of music, and no playlists. The newscasts and the overall attitude of the station was unabashedly left-wing and, well, revolutionary. The jocks talked with the listeners, rather than at them. And they were fully in tune with who and what they were. It is highly doubtful, for example, that a station would actually air a show dedicated to, of all demographics, prison inmates in these more rigid, uptight times. WBCN became the epicenter of the growing Boston rock scene, which helped to spawn such bands as Aerosmith and The Cars. Peter Wolf, who went on to international fame as the lead singer of the local J. Geils Band, was originally the station's wild nighttime personality.

As music, culture and lifestyles changed, WBCN was still able to keep up. They championed the arrival of punk and new wave in the late 1970s, as similar stations were befuddled as to how to mix it with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

As with many of their contemporaries, WBCN soon grew up. A new corporate owner, along with consultants, playlists and a more rigid format began entering the picture by the late 1970s. Competitors also bit at their heels. With its listeners growing older and a new generation of rock fans entering the picture, WBCN arrived at a crossroads. By the 1980s, the station's original listeners began flocking to classic rocker WZLX and the younger listeners tuned in to modern rocker WFNX. WBCN straddled the fence with a mix of both old and new. But like many of their pioneering contemporaries, they struggled.

By 1994, Infinity Broadcasting decided a generational update was in order. Following their purchase of WZLX, they gave WBCN a modern rock format similar to that of WFNX. Infinity's New York-based morning superstar Howard Stern was brought in and a year later, they became the flagship station for New England Patriots football. The music evolved over the next decade, as heavy metal and soon, even classic rock acts, were added. Soon, the station's music would be diminished further, with CBS' growing addiction to FM male-oriented talk. Opie and Anthony and the local Toucher and Rich shows were added, as Howard Stern departed from terrestrial radio. Like many other CBS rock stations, it became a matter of too much of everything and not enough of one thing.

But the passing of WBCN is not surprising in the 2009 radio landscape. External forces, such as webcasting, satellite radio, MP3 players, Arbitron's PPM, performance royalties, uninspiring programming ideas, the economy and corporate radio's itchy trigger finger obviously helped to seal the fate of WBCN and other similar stations. Legacy rock stations, the ones that began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, are a rapidly vanishing breed, often propped up by big ticket sports contracts and popular morning shows, but not by the very thing that made them successful in the first place. There are only a scant few of these stations still around, such as WMMS in Cleveland, KQRS in Minneapolis and WEBN in Cincinnati. And, like WBCN, these stations long ago became hollow corporate-owned shells of their former selves, twisting in the winds with uninspired programming and little connection to their glorious pasts aside from their history and call letters. In the 1960s and 1970s (and even into the 1980s), radio was exciting to listen to. They had great live jocks, terrific music, lots of personality, and a finger on the community's pulse. Today, it's almost all done by computer. Radio stations in this day and age all sound as if they're run by account executives and focus groups. In short, it's just plain depressing.

And the fact that WBCN and other once-great stations like it, rich histories and all, are being replaced by the trendy sports talk format and work-friendly adult pop music is certainly a telling sign of where radio is headed. No wonder radio is dying.

Finally, in a fitting funeral well-suited for modern-day radio, CBS vows that WBCN will live on, as a fully automated jockless HD Radio side channel on 98.3FM, that likely few will listen to. Welcome to 2009.


wwrl said...

i used to be able to pick up 1030 AM at nights in the winter to listen to my bruins, now i'll have to be near a computer :-(

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