When I moved to Raleigh back five years ago, one of the things I excitedly told people about the place I was moving was that they had a good radio station. I had been subjected to “adult contemporary” out in the Hamptons for way too long, and the closest thing we had to a rock station was WBAB, a “classic rock” station that wouldn’t play your music if your band formed after 1984. 96Rock was different. It played current music, but it also played older music – not older as in “from the 60s and 70s”, but older music as in from 10-15 years ago. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Oasis. This was the music that I listened to during my high school and college days, and when I worked in a music store. I never heard this stuff on the radio anymore, and I was happy to hear it on what would be my new local station.
Shortly after I moved down, 96Rock mentioned that they were trying something for the Hurricanes Stanley Cup run. They’d be doing “everything that rocks”, meaning that they wouldn’t restrict music to a certain era, as long as it “rocked”. This meant that they’d still play the music that I liked, but that the BAB playlist would sneak in there – Hendrix, Zeppelin, etc. It also meant they could play the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like A Hurricane” whenever the hell they wanted to, since they were probably getting tons of requests for it during the playoff run. After the team won the Cup, 96Rock announced that “due to popular demand”, they’d be keeping the “everything that rocks” format, which disappointed me but I could live with – just don’t forget about the stuff that I liked in the first place.
As time passed and 96Rock stayed with their “everything that rocks” format, I got to know the jocks – as anyone would if you listen to a station enough. Salt & D on my morning drive, Alli Morgan around lunch, Foster in the afternoon, and Adam-12 (who would bounce around coverage and finally settled into the evening “sweathog shift”) finishing up my drive home. It worked – jocks that weren’t trying to be bigger than the station, but being likable. Salt & D were funny but weren’t obnoxious or cringe-worthy like other morning shows can be. When Bob “The Blade” Robinson was brought in to big fanfare it didn’t do anything for me – Bob’s got a history in Raleigh, which is great for him, but I didn’t think it was anything to be that excited about. Bob got paired with Foster – I guess to get something more “dynamic” because Foster didn’t really have a gimmick and this was drive-time – and the result was mediocre at best. To me, the station started to be skewing “older”.
Then came the “classic” debacle.
Last year, the 96Rock jocks started using the word “classic” in connection with “rock”. While it seemed innocent enough, it just served as a warning for another format change, albeit a subtler one. By the beginning of this year, 96Rock had gone full-blown classic rock, becoming the WBAB that I had left on Long Island. Maybe a Nirvana song here or there, but current rock wasn’t going to be heard unless Rush was coming out with a new album. Those of us who wanted to listen to local radio and wanted to hear rock from the last 20 years were out of luck, something I vented about in this very blog at the time.
Then the station did something I thought was very clever in hindsight. It worked like slight-of-hand, and I think they did a good job of it. In June, already neck deep into their classic rock mistake, they fired Salt & Demetri, their morning drive-time jocks, replacing them with Bob “The Blade” Robinson, who had been doing the evening drive-time shift with Foster. With that generating buzz, they announced a week later that they were dropping the “classic” format and going back to “everything that rocks”, bringing back the 90s, 00s (there needs to be a better term for that), and current rock into the fold. So for those of you planning on running your own radio station, this is how you do the radio slight-of-hand:
- Make unpopular controversial decision
- Make second controversial decision to take focus off of original controversial decision
- Introduce popular decision to undo original controversial decision and take focus off of second controversial decision
The slight-of-hand was clever, but the execution was curious. The firing of Salt & D for Blade seemed wise for a station that was aiming for an older audience, but to go back to catering for a younger audience by bringing back the more current music seemed like the plan wasn’t greatly thought out. Salt & D weren’t at the end of their contracts, nor were they let go for any kind of disciplinary action, so this was purely a management decision. But not to have anyone ready to take over a morning show – Blade never seemed comfortable in a morning role – seemed incredibly short-sighted.
And now we have this – the end of 96Rock. On Monday, 96Rock became Radio 96.1 FM. The response online has been overwhelmingly negative, mainly due to another format change (straight rock giving way to a larger mix of mainstream music) and the loss of all of the jocks, replaced by automated radio. The stations new catchphrase – “More music. Less blah, blah, blah.” – comes off as insulting to the jocks that were the human side of the station. As for the reasoning for the change:
You also said you wanted to hear A LOT more music, without a whole bunch of useless talk. And that’s why Radio 96.1 will always deliver “More Music” and “Less Blah Blah Blah.” Our goal is to make Radio 96.1 the best reflection of your musical tastes and preferences.
That was taken from an email the 96Rock mailing list received on Monday. “Useless Talk” apparently consists of studio promotions and interaction with listeners. 96Rock wasn’t an overly talkative station, which is what made it refreshing. But people did talk on it, and those people were the ones who made listeners stick around and not go to satellite radio or Spotify or making mix CDs for their cars.
Here’s the thing that Curtis Media doesn’t seem to get – it’s not as black & white as “talk”. People aren’t switching their radios because of jocks (well, some are, but not the majority of them). People go to satellite radio because they don’t want to listen to commercials and they want to hear music that they like. It’s not the people at 96Rock – it’s the music they play. People will tolerate commercials and a few minutes of a boring jock if they know the music is good. And that’s the key – play good music, and the people will listen. They’ll come back. Changing things every few months will never get you the results that you want. Instead, you’ll get a quick false boost from the change, and then it’ll take months to figure out if it actually worked in the first place.
What some radio station needs to do – whether it be WBBB or another station ripe for a format change – is to pick a rock genre and stick with it. Don’t cross your generations. Covering all of rock, from the 60s to today, is too much. Crossing those boundaries is easy with adult contemporary because that style generally doesn’t change. But rock constantly changes – you don’t listen to your dad’s rock n’ roll, and your kids don’t want to hear yours. Focus it on more current (say the 90s to now) or classic (the 80s and earlier), but pick a group of listeners and go after them. You’ll never please everyone, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to please the ones that you want if you aim for them.