Radio Daze

A swirling hip-hop groove slams from the big square speakers in WJMN 94.5's studio as DJ Gee Spin gets ready for the segue from Nas's “Doo Rags” to S.T.R.E.E.T.'s “Bangin'.” A deep voice-over begins counting down: ten, nine, eight…Two turntables twirl. The noise of rocket engines builds. Gee's entire body moves to the beat. He adjusts the speeds and syncs up the two different records….seven, six…His eyes narrow. His hands are motionless, one on the mixer, the other hovering above one of the spinning records….five, four… He leans into the microphone — “I'm going to bang a Boston banger right now.” He pushes the microphone away. The engines growl….three…His eyes grow wide. His hands shake.

He hunches down some, every nerve ready to fire….two…Rocket engines scream. Gee looks like a skydiver in those hyperconscious moments just before he leaps into the nothingness that is air….one…

The sound of scratching bursts from the speakers. Gee's hand twitches back and forth on the turntables. He teases the two rhythms, bouncing from one song to the other, mixing one of hip-hop's reigning superstars, Nas, and a couple of Haverhill rappers known as S.T.R.E.E.T. Everyone, including Gee himself, is hanging on an edge in midair.

This is great radio. No, this is outstanding radio. This is radio unlike most of what's heard up and down the Boston dial, where programs are syndicated, prerecorded, and playing the same songs over and over. But Gee's hip-hop show is as spontaneous as an old Peter Wolf monologue, a throwback to the early days of FM when “people would make it up as they went along,” and radio was more than just background music. There ought to be hundreds of thousands of people tuning in to be energized by Gee Spin's “Launch Pad” show.

Except that it's Sunday just after midnight.

So why is such good radio, which pops with new music and local artists, relegated to this horrendous time slot?

“Whenever radio stations take chances, they generally lose in the ratings,” says FM radio pioneer Larry Miller, who now teaches at the New England Institute of Art and Communications (NEIAC). “That's what it comes down to. Ratings rule.”

One percentage point of the listening audience is worth more than $4 million in Boston, according to Arbitron, the industry ratings company. With the stakes so high, radio that does what radio used to do — take risks and expose new and local music — doesn't pay anymore. Blame MTV. Blame Machiavellian media giants. Blame CD players, MP3s, Napster. Blame our mass-marketed, globally Gapified McCulture. The bottom line is that six years of national media consolidation has transformed the once-unrivaled Boston dial into an on-air strip mall with cookie-cutter stations no different from ones in Dallas, Detroit, or Duluth. And the only outlets waging any kind of counteroffensive — independent stations, college radio, Internet radio — are forced to play David to the conglomerates' Goliath.

“The days of freeform radio — which was so much fun — are gone,” admits Stoughton native Mike Mullaney, music director at WBMX 98.5. “Before consolidation, back when radio wasn't such big business, I think people were more into creating special stations, niches. Today companies must maximize their resources, and sometimes the creative process goes out the window. Radio is big business now. It's just a natural progression.”

Which is not only short-shrifting Boston's ready-to-explode rock and hip-hop scenes, but is also killing what has always been good about Boston radio: its Bostonness.

When Boston radio station WBCN 104.1 began broadcasting the so-called “American Revolution” of underground rock more than 30 years ago, it changed the rules forever, not only in Boston but across the country. For the next decade, DJs like Peter Wolf (a.k.a. the Woofa Goofa) and Charles Laquidara were the everyday voices of a world-shaking generation. They countered the tin-can sound of AM Top 40 by spinning songs in interwoven sets and digging deeper on a record than just the hyped single. All of which coincided with the rise of Boston's most successful bands — Aerosmith, the J. Geils Band, Boston, the Cars.

“Listeners looked to us to turn them on to different music, different-from-the-norm ideas — and to do it in an entertaining way,” says Laquidara, the longtime morning DJ at WBCN and WZLX 100.7, now retired and living in Hawaii. “They looked to us for some kind of leadership, both politically and musically.”

The high point came in 1979. That year, rock station WCOZ 94.5 was ahead of WBCN in the rankings and WXKS 107.9 discoed onto the scene. With personalities like Sunny Joe White, WXKS shot to number one within a single ratings period. “Radio was competitive then, like a football game,” says Rich Balsbaugh, WXKS's founding general manager and eventual owner. “Competition made for great radio.”

But there was another important milestone in 1979: the purchase of WBCN in February of that year by Michael Wiener of Hemisphere Broadcasting. Wiener promptly pink-slipped more than half the employees, including a then-little-known DJ named Oedipus, in an effort to bust the union that at that time represented not only the on-air guys but also the rest of the staff. Everybody walked, even the higher-profile jocks.

“The response was unbelievable,” says Jerry Goodwin, then a WBCN DJ known as the Legendary Duke of Madness. “We protested in front of the Prudential and created gridlock on Boylston Street.” Local bands organized benefit concerts, the biggest at the Orpheum, where the J. Geils Band — whose lead singer was former WBCN DJ Peter Wolf — made a surprise showing.

“The 'BCN strike was one of the coolest things ever in Boston radio,” says Balsbaugh.

And also one of the most portentous. After three weeks, during which the station made do with out-of-town scab DJs, the strike ended. The jocks went back on the air, the staffers kept their jobs, and Wiener used WBCN as the foundation for Infinity Broadcasting.

Would the community support such a strike today? “I doubt it,” says Laquidara. “As radio dumbed down, and the DJs had to say things they didn't really believe in and play songs they didn't really like that much over and over and over, any credibility we might have had went the way of the vinyl record. If a bunch of commercial radio jocks went out on strike now, the listeners would think it was a station promotion.”

Industry folks still consider Boston an important benchmark. The nation's eighth-largest market, it has competition in several formats, a strong college radio scene, and programmers like Oedipus at WBCN and “Cadillac” Jack McCartney at WXKS who are watched and copied by programmers across the country. “Boston is doing what radio is supposed to do — deliver a consumer to an advertiser,” says NEIAC's Miller.

More and more, though, the accountants from the home office are deciding which needles get dropped on which records. When the Federal Communications Commission deregulated the telecom industry in 1996, it also quietly loosened up restrictions on the number of radio stations a company could own. Companies were now allowed to own up to eight stations in any given market, and national restrictions were eliminated altogether. A feeding frenzy ensued, and today two companies control a disproportionate slice of the radio pie. The aforementioned Infinity is now part of the Viacom media empire with 180 stations nationwide, most of them in major markets. Clear Channel owns roughly 1,200. Together they account for almost 37 percent of total national radio revenues. In Boston today, there are only four major players: Infinity, Clear Channel, Greater Media, and Entercom. Between them, they own 17 of the 20 top-rated commercial stations and account for 92 percent of the ad dollars, according to Duncan's Radio Market Guide.

All those numbers point to one thing: Today's commercial radio is less about a kid in a car blaring a track from Godsmack or EDO.G with the windows rolled down, and more about shareholder value and corporate synergy.

“There have been public companies since the stock market began, and return on investment and shareholder value and all those things,” says Stephen Mindich, founder and owner of WFNX 101.7, one of the last independents left on the Boston dial. “But not to the same degree, it seems to me.”

And the fallout from letting the accountants into the studio isn't too surprising. The conglomerates have expanded syndication and voice-tracking — prerecording a show to be aired later, often in several markets — as well as tightened playlists and increased the number of times a single song might be repeated. Furthermore, the major record labels put out unoriginal artists — aggressive white male rap-rockers, prepackaged boy bands, bubblegum Lolitas, interchangeable hip-hoppers — who disappear as soon as their songs burn out from oversaturation.

“A radio station's cash flow can affect a stock price on Wall Street,” says Jonathon Lev of the Jerry Brenner Group, a Brookline-based radio promotion company. “They won't take as many chances. The bottom line is, radio is in it to play the hits.”

Balsbaugh is more blunt: “Radio has gone down the toilet. It's flourished in terms of money, but the quality is horrible. There's no reason to take chances. It's just not innovative musically.”

And the money involved freezes out entrepreneurs with new riffs. Meanwhile, the conglomerates have consolidated “vertically.” Along with nationwide radio chains, they own television stations, concert-promotion companies, live music venues, and outdoor advertising, all of which can be leveraged against, say, a small independent radio station struggling to survive in a highly competitive market such as Boston.

“We're no longer competing with WBCN,” Mindich says. “We're competing with the whole group, with Clear Channel, and not only in one market but in multiple markets. The real question is about individual listeners making individual choices. It's about consolidation in an industry that gives them less choices to make.”

“In a word,” laments Laquidara, “except for college radio, everything out there is Top 40. It sucks to me, but someday no one will know what they're missing.”

WBCN programming king Oedipus is an arrogant man. He likes it that way. His office feels like an energy executive's — except the stereo is jamming Limp Bizkit. In his 25 years in radio, including as host of America's first punk rock show on MIT station WTBS 88.1 (now WMBR), he's seen it all — and anticipated much of it. Today, he's watched by alternative stations around the country. If Oedipus adds a song to the WBCN playlist, they do, too.

“First and foremost, our job is to entertain,” he says. The reason for WBCN's success, he says, is “longevity and consistency, which help you develop trust so people can grow with your radio station. They know when they turn on WBCN what to expect.”

But that very point sums up the tragedy of modern FM radio. It's no longer about content as much as it is about setting a tone. “It's the sound itself they put on and have on, sort of as background music,” says NEIAC's Miller. “But it's a familiar sound, even the sound itself has a familiarity that they just put on and leave on all the time. And they're not even listening to the content all that much.”

One format people do listen to is talk radio. The reason is simple: What comes out of someone's mouth is anything but predictable, and it's usually very local. In this sadly impersonal world of computer interfaces and e-mail relationships, people look for human connection anywhere. WBCN now airs talk shows on both the morning and afternoon drives — the highest-rated times of day. Smart move: News, talk, call-in shows, sports — this is where the money is. And WBCN has cashed in: $38 million in revenue in 2000, second in the market behind news station WBZ-AM 1030. In fact, news or talk stations top the ratings in 5 of the 10 largest markets. In Boston, WBZ consistently wins the ratings battle, and local National Public Radio affiliate WBUR 90.9 — while not officially ranked because of its noncommercial status — gets ratings that would put it in the top 10.

Talk radio's power to bind a community was in stark relief in the days and weeks following September 11. Listenership jumped as people tuned in to their long-lost on-air friends. Stations ran special call-in shows for listeners to simply talk or make requests. “Radio really opened themselves up in their communities for people to call DJs,” says Lev. “They weren't being told to do that. That's just the way it happened.”

The implication is that everyday radio isn't exactly opened up to its local community. WBCN's talk shows — shock jocks Howard Stern in the morning and Opie & Anthony in the afternoon — are beamed from New York, as is WTKK 96.9's Don Imus.

“So many of the programs on the stations now are syndicated,” says Mindich (who himself has been broadcasting WFNX on recently acquired small stations around New England, a kind of syndication in its own right). “Obviously, the cost of spreading out a talent like Howard Stern among 200 stations allows them to amortize the cost and make more money. But it loses its local flavor. It just can't be local.”

Gee Spin is baffled. Besides hosting WJMN's “Launch Pad,” the Brookline native has been deejaying in local clubs for 15 years. But he still doesn't understand the general public's mindset. “A lot of times,” he says, “if you sell people on the fact that it's a Boston artist before they hear the record, they already have a notion about it in their head, 'Oh, this is local. Not good.' It drives me crazy.”

The irony is that Boston music is actually primed for a breakout. Melodic pop-rockers like the Jaded Salingers and Chauncey, energetic singer-songwriters like Meghan Toohey and Ellis Paul, hard-rockers like Cracktorch and Quitter, intelligent hip-hoppers like Akrobatik and Mr. Lif — the list goes on and on. But no one is giving them serious airtime.

The stations, of course, argue that they're doing their part. They point to the Sunday-night shows like “Bay State Rock” on WAAF 107.3 and “Boston Emissions” on WBCN. They call attention to promotional efforts like the WFNX Best Music Poll, the WBCN Rock 'n' Roll Rumble, and a local music talent search WJMN initiated last month, and to the fact that support like this is unheard of in most cities.

It's no coincidence, though, that the Boston scene went national during the two most innovative times in local radio — the Aerosmith-Boston-J. Geils era of the late 1970s, and in the early '90s when artists like alternative bands Buffalo Tom and the Lemonheads and rapper EDO.G were being spun.

“The radio stations are supportive [of local music], but if they really wanted to blow a band up, they have all the power to do so,” says Jeff Marshall, owner of local record label Monolyth Records.

Proof of this comes in the form of local rock band Godsmack. WAAF liked the song “Keep Away” from the band's 1996 self-released, self-titled album, and played the hell out of it. Suddenly Godsmack was selling 1,000 copies a week, up from 50 a month. A national record deal followed, and to date the band has sold more than 3 million records.

“I think the mixers and program directors need to take some ownership in helping and developing talent that they believe in locally,” says Tim Linberg, president of MetroConcepts, a Roxbury-based hip-hop promotion company. “There are people here who are capable of breaking out of the scene, but it's a question of [the stations] doing it and the community supporting them.”

Outside of the consolidated loop, some stations are supportive. But you have to know where to find them.

“People have to discover the left side of the dial,” says folk-rocker Ellis Paul. Down there in that no-man's-land are the mom-and-pops and the college radio stations.

WXRV 92.5's studio in Haverhill is easy to miss. The only hint that there's a 50,000-watt radio station housed in the nondescript building on How Street is the tall antenna across the street. No neon sign, no mural in the lobby. Just a plain studio with CD players and a loose playlist with scribbles all over it. Here, DJs are encouraged to flex, spinning new artists who aren't on MTV or the cover of Rolling Stone.

“We mostly look for a uniqueness, something that makes it stand out from the next song,” explains Joanne Doody, WXRV's program director since the privately owned station came on the air in 1995. A former DJ at WFNX, she personifies her station — unassuming, open-minded, and with a honey-smooth voice that rarely stumbles at the mike. “There's definitely an audience for it. Real music lovers.”

“We look upon local music as part of programming as opposed to a local radio show bastardized to Sunday nights,” says WXRV marketing and promotions director Paul Buckley, who moonlights playing drums for Kay Hanley.

College radio stations don't bastardize anything. Boston is home to what many consider the best college radio scene in the country, including Emerson College's WERS 88.9, Boston College's WZBC 90.3, and Tufts's WMFO 91.5. Many of the city's commercial DJs started here, and WBCN's Oedipus is still on the board of directors at WMBR. Flipping through, you can find just about anything, from electronica to jazz, world music to folk, hip-hop to punk. There are no playlists, no commercials, no formats…and no suits roaming the halls.

“Listeners are being funneled into this corporate machine, which essentially puts the blinders on and directs them to mainstream music,” says Morgan Page, former station manager and current genre director for electronic music at WERS. “This is where college radio comes in, giving listeners a commercial-free alternative. To expose people to the best music they've never heard. I think that right now, people are fed up with consolidated radio and will ultimately reject it.”

Robert Swalley agrees, and he's willing to put his money where his mouth is. The founder of Somerville-based, a three-year-old Internet radio station broadcasting local artists 24 hours a day, believes the time is right to change the dial.

“There's a lot of fantastic music being created in the Boston/New England area that is never going to get played anywhere else,” says Swalley. “Traditional radio is bringing national or international content to a local audience. We're doing exactly the opposite. We're taking local content to a national or international audience.”

RadioBoston's studio is in the long, narrow basement of a plain brick building in Davis Square. The DJ's booth is about the size of a jail cell, with a couple of CD players, a superfast computer, and a miniature camera pointed at the DJ. Welcome to Internet radio — homegrown, multimedia, and unregulated. Here, just about anything goes. RadioBoston's Web site includes video feed of the DJ; an online store; interactive chat; banner ads; multicasting of live venues Club Passim, T.T. the Bear's, and the Kendall Café; and, of course, the music.

As with satellite radio, which kicked off with much promise and not very much success last November, Internet radio doesn't exactly have commercial radio running scared. RadioBoston's total audience is only about 7,000 listeners per week; contrast that with top-rated WBZ, which averages more than 40,000 at any given time. But Internet radio is relatively new, only about five years old, and Swalley thinks new wireless technologies will soon increase the mobility of Internet radio.

“This is about being something extremely unique in a sea of everything for everybody, bland,” Swalley says. “People are sick of hearing the same thing on every radio station. They want to hear something new and not be told what to listen to. They want to choose.”