Who will kill the radio star? -- Redesigning Chicago radio's landscape

Posted by Mitchell - October 10, 2005 (entry 366)

(originally published in the Columbia Chronicle) Tiffany Breyne and Hunter Clauss
Assistant A&E Editors

Radio fans across Chicago rejoiced last April when Q101 FM switched its format to shuffle mode, broadening its playlist to about 800 songs of old and new, from Jack Johnson to Nirvana. Since then, other stations have taken the hint that listeners want variety without having to pay for an iPod or satellite radio. FM stations such as 99.9 WRZA went from being a Spanish station to an English station with the slogan “We play anything,” and 101.9 WTMX, The Mix, changed its slogan to “Today’s new music…and whatever we want.”

Another big change to Chicago’s radio world came on June 3 when 104.3 WJMK switched from “The Greatest Hits of the 60s and 70s” to Jack FM, a jockey-free station with a play list of over 1,500 songs from all genres and time periods. Needless to say, many listeners were pissed off—who else was going to give them their daily dose of Simon and Garfunkel and Creedence Clearwater Revival?

“Where we are headed with the radio station is better than the place where we were with the station,” said Dave Robbins, WJMK vice president and general manager. “What we’re trying to do is to appeal to the age demographic of 25 to 54-year-olds, and oldies was not the most popular format for that—Jack is. [For] 21 years we owned the marketplace, and we still own the marketplace, because we just moved our format over to one of our digital channels. WJMK

still lives on.”

Though 104.3 moved its oldies format online to www.wjmk.com and to WJMK HD2, available on high definition radio, its analog radio audience was still left without an oldies station—until Sept. 26, when WZZN 94.7, The Zone, switched from a rock format to “Chicago’s True Oldies Station.” After 94.7 let go of all its jockeys, employees and tough rock image, the station began reworking its system and starting fresh as Chicago’s newest oldies station.

Jacent Jackson, program director at Q101, one of the former 94.7’s competitors, said that before Q101 switched to shuffle mode, the stations shared about 70 percent of their playlists. Jackson said that both stations’ demographics were about the same, and while Q101 expanded its playlist, 94.7 stayed small.

“I would like to think that we had something to do with [94.7’s reformat], and I think to some extent we probably did,” Jackson said. “I would also say, though, that recently when the oldies format was pulled, that left a really large hole in the market for somebody to do an oldies station. There’s a significant amount of people that really like that music and they had nowhere to go for it.”

While individuals in the radio industry agree that picking up the oldies format was a smart move for 94.7, considering the gap for that market, the reasoning behind 104.3’s switch is not as clear.

“Jack FM is a format that’s had a really big success in a number of markets before us—Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Dallas,” Robbins said. “This is a tried and true format. So that’s why we know it works, we know it’s successful. And in the first two months of the format, we’ve seen the station nearly doubling its ratings from [the] 25-to-54 [age range]. We’ve already seen it.”

Other sources say that isn’t the case. A Columbia student who wished to remain anonymous, recently interviewed at 104.3 for a jockey position, and said that the stations ratings weren’t doing so well. She also said it was considering bringing jockeys back onto the scene.

The Jack FM format is purely computerized, with no catchy voice to talk to the listener.

“It is unlike any radio station,” Robbins said. You turn on any radio station, you hear a lot of talk. You turn on Jack, you hear a lot of music. That’s the quote. It is unique that there are no jockeys on the station, and that’s one of the big positives that people in Chicago talk about. They tell us they don’t want to hear DJ chatter; we’ve completely removed it.”

Robbins also said he is confident that Jack will completely redefine the Chicago radio landscape. He said he believes every station wants to be like Jack FM, and the station is starting a new trend that others will latch onto. Though Robbins said that alternatives to traditional radio, such as satellite radio and podcasting, make up only 1 percent of the market, radio industry workers are seeing changes in their field. XM Radio cites on its website that by 2012, 49 million people are projected to be subscribers to satellite radio. With such alternatives and Jack FM supposedly invading the radio waves, the prospect of radio lies in the hands of the audience and the soon-to-be graduated jockeys of the future.

The other side of radio

While commercial radio struggles with declining listenership, one group that seems to be sailing trouble-free along the airwaves is independent radio.

“There are a lot of lessons that commercial radio can learn from independent radio,” said Shawn Campbell, program director for WLUW 88.7 FM, an independent community radio station located on the campus of Loyola University Chicago. WLUW is composed of both a professional staff and a volunteer staff.

Campbell, 34, believes the appeal of radio is that it’s local and immediately available. She sees the declining listenership of commercial radio as a result of commercial radio’s failure to serve the communities they are located in.

Campbell also sees the reformatting of radio stations as a sign that they do not know what to do to survive. Many commercial stations have abandoned a specific devotion to one genre, such as oldies, and have begun randomly playing anything and everything. With such slogans as “we play what we want” and “on shuffle,” it would appear as if randomness is the new trend in commercial radio.

However, this trend in randomness is being seen by some as a tactic commercial radio is using to appeal to listeners who may have been lost to the almighty iPod, Apple’s market-dominating MP3 player.

“It gives people a lot more control,” said Mitchell Szczepanczyk, president of Chicago Media Action, an organization which analyzes and advocates for independently operated media outlets.

He believes that the downloadable audio programs known as podcasts, which can be downloaded and played on MP3 players such as iPods, share common ground with pirate radio.

“Both fight the monopolization of corporate owned commercial radio,” said Szczepanczyk.

Pirate radio stations are ones that operate without radio licenses. Without a radio license, a station does not have permission by the Federal Communications Commission to use specific airwave frequencies to beam their content to listeners. Pirate radio receives its name due to the fact that it takes radio signals that are not registered to them. However, Szczepanczyk sees it the other way around.

“If anyone is deserving of the word pirate . . . it’s the incumbents,” he said of commercial radio. Szczepanczyk referred to an old Dutch saying to further illustrate his point: “If you steal a loaf of bread, they call you a thief. If you steal the whole kingdom, they call you a prince.”

A new wave of radio

While some consider radio to be the poor man’s TV, it has managed to survive and adapt through the years in order to compete with films, TV and the internet. The fact that radio is still around suggests that it continues to serve a purpose in today’s society.

But a new wave of technological advances in entertainment is once again giving radio the atomic wedgie. One such technology is podcasting. Podcasts are audio programs that can be downloaded and played back using a portable MP3 player or a computer. The word podcasting is an amalgam of “broadcasting” and “iPod,” although podcasts are not exclusive to iPods. Podcasts are usually free to download and can be found through individual websites or through iTunes, which has its own podcast directory.

Although some consider podcasts to be similar to blogs, in that they are like diaries which can be listened to, there are a few podcasts that strive for the highest mark of excellence. “Feast of Fools,” which is produced in Chicago by Fausto Fernos and his boyfriend Mark Felion, is a free podcast that entertains listeners by taking them to places they might never dream of going to.

“It’s sort of like the same reason why poor republicans subscribe to yacht magazines because they like to fantasize,” Fernos said. “I think that’s why our show is appealing. Because I don’t think anybody is going to dress up in drag or do the things we do on our show, they like to live vicariously through us.”

One reason Fernos decided to do the “Feast of Fools” podcast was due in part to his love of meeting people and sharing their stories. Some people he has met and interviewed on his show are Dee Snider from Twisted Sister and film director John Waters. The producers do numerous shows each week and include segments from correspondents in different parts of the world—from New York to Germany. Listeners of the show are scattered about the globe as well.

“I think a lot of the reasons why our show has been so popular is . . . because there’s so much crap out there,” Fernos said. “There’s an opportunity for a lot of people to post an audio file, but a lot of these people don’t have any artistic or theatrical or presentational experience. And so what you wind up with is a lot of shows that meander and don’t really go anywhere.”

Despite how inexperienced some podcasts may come across, some well-established organizations, such as National Public Radio, are experimenting with podcasting.

NPR, which includes more than 780 noncommercial radio stations such as 91.5 FM WBEZ in Chicago, has released some programs as podcasts through NPR’s online directory at npr.org and through the iTunes music store.

“There’s a certain hype going on around podcasting right now,” said Maria Thomas, vice president and general manager of NPR Online. “I think that underlying that is a very important concept, and that is simply that making audio or radio experiences portable and on demand.”

Thomas sees similarities between podcasting and digital television recorders such as TiVo because both devices enable the listener or viewer to control when to receive the programming they choose.

“Users and listeners of NPR programming are increasingly busy people, and we’re an increasingly multitasking society,” said Thomas. “If we can’t make the content available at the time and place when people want to listen to it, we might not be able to retain, in the long-term, the kind of audience growth we’ve had in the last decade.”

In addition to podcasting, satellite radio is also proving to be a growing competitor of traditional radio. Satellite radio is different than regular radio because it uses super high-tech satellites to beam audio content around the globe instead of airwaves.

“I think the issue is of choice,” said Jim Collins, vice president of corporate communications for Sirius Satellite Radio. Collins believes one advantage satellite radio has over airwave radio is that satellite radio can offer a wide range of programming for listeners to choose from, and some programs are commercial free.

David Butler, director of corporate affairs for XM Satellite Radio, also sees many advantages to satellite radio, such as convenience for those who want to listen to the radio while traveling.

“[Satellite radio] stations don’t fade out like traditional radio stations,” said Butler.

Although both foresee growth of satellite radio in the future, Collins thinks that it won’t mark the end of airwave radio. “There is always a place for traditional radio,” Collins said.

Radio's future jockeys?

With so much change occurring in the radio world, Columbia radio majors may be moving into unknown territory after graduation. The podcasts, satellite radios and Jack FMs of the radio world are increasingly popular alternatives to the regular signaled dial with a DJ. With job opportunities at stake, Columbia is trying to stay ahead of the game by offering students the best education in the latest technology and advancements in modern radio.

Starting this year with the new J-term occurring during Columbia’s month-long winter break, the Radio Department will feature a new class open to any student, tentatively titled Satellite Radio and Other Merging Technologies. Generated and taught by Dave Berner, the class will take a look at the fast-growing technology in the field.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions in the Radio Department lately about how fast technology is moving and how it has changed our industry so much over the last few years,” Berner said. “We are going to work on satellite radio and how important that is. We’re going to talk about high definition radio. We’re going to be talking about developing podcasting and how the iPod has changed the face of radio programming—and it has.”

Berner said that whilethe department has hinted at the topic of iPods and satellite radi, it knew it was time to form a class and explain each new item on the market individually and specifically. As for the students themselves, the outlook is a combination of worry and anticipation.

Yester Narinian, a jockey for Columbia’s radio station, 88.1 WCRX FM, is in her last semester at Columbia and still not sure what lies.

“I don’t know [what I’m doing after graduation],” Narinian said. “But oh my goodness, of course [I’m worried]. I think everyone in the radio business is. People from 94.7 [FM] The Zone lost their jobs, so it’s a very frightening thing.”

Yet, others remain optimistic about the future job opportunities in radio, confident that their education at Columbia will help toward success in the field. Marady Norman, an employee at 88.1 FM and radio major hoping to graduate this year, thinks that just because the need for jockeys is waning, it doesn’t mean she won’t find achievement elsewhere in radio.

“I’m not worried about it because there are so many different things you could do,” Norman said. “If you’re not on-air you could do production. If you don’t do production you can do advertising. As long as you know all the different fields, I think that you’re able to get a job.”

When it comes to the Jack FM jockey-less format, Norman believes that a human connection is part of the reason why people listen to the radio. Jimmy Styx, another 88.1 FM jockey and sophomore radio major, agrees and is confident that there will always be an audience that will want that human voice talking to them between songs. Stating that this is the next generation to follow up Mancow and Howard Stern, Styx hopes to do morning shows in the future, like his inspirations, Eric and Kathy on 101.9 FM The Mix.

“It feels good to have a good personality to wake you up and make you laugh in the morning,” Styx said. “And [the audience is] going to miss that. I mean, sure you get your music [without jockeys], but every now and then you want to know what’s going on. And you don’t want to turn on the TV, so you turn on the radio and expect to hear a personality. That’s something computers can’t take over.”

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed on this website are those of the individual members of Chicago Media Action who authored them, and not necessarily those of the entire membership of Chicago Media Action, nor of Chicago Media Action as an organization.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.