The Songs Remain the Same

Rejecting young talent in favor of dinosaurs with proven track records, classic rock radio rakes in the ratings and the cash A along with a severe case of geezer burn

* K102: An early-Eighties progressive station, reborn as Majic 102 (WMXJ-FM 102) with an oldies format

* WGTR: An ambitious AOR station that challenged WSHE before switching formats three years ago. "The Coast" (WFLC-FM 97.3) now plays "the best of the Seventies, Eighties, and today"

ZETA-4 itself began as a free-form forum for the latest rock, before bowing to the demand for disco and pop during the Eighties. In 1987 the station, locked in a battle with WSHE and WGTR, went all classic.

"What we've tried to do is re-create the feeling of FM's early years," Neil Mirsky says. "The energy. The attitude." Not to mention the exact same music they played fifteen years ago A time-warp standbys such as the Doors, Eric Clapton, and Zep. Plenty of Zep. Mirsky is quick to note features he has added to vary the mix, such as playing obscure "lost classics" and regularly dipping into a "new music" bin (new songs by classic rock artists, naturally).

He shouldn't take all the credit, though. His paid consultant, Fred Jacobs, deserves at least a mention.

Any doubts as to how truly complex the business of radio has grown should be directed to Bill Hard.

"What you got with the classic format is an efficient Arbs winner at 25 to 54. You're not gonna get glamour shares, but with AOR splintered into COR formats, Triple A's, and heritage outlets, you can lock into that upper-end demographic. Look at WSYP in Philly. With a shock jock morning guy they hiked the lead-in numbers and dethroned WMMR."

While it is true that Hard's acronymic outbursts call to mind the ravings of a slightly imbalanced intelligence operative, there is method to his mumbo jumbo. Hard, who edits the New Jersey-based weekly trade sheet The Hard Report, is nothing short of a guru among the FM intelligentsia. Like the seers of the stock market, his role is to document and decipher the blizzard of ratings and research churned out by radio analysts.

Step back from the minutiae, Hard says, and what emerges is a snapshot of rock radio's dizzying fragmentation. Despite revenues that skyrocketed in the past twenty years, the emergence of MTV A not to mention personal stereos A has left FM programmers scrapping for a smaller slice of the music pie. "The result," Hard says, "has been for stations to define their niche, and defend it to the bone."

"They used to call it broadcasting. Now it's narrow-casting," ZETA-4's Mirsky agrees. "Look at cable TV. They've gone from half a dozen stations to a thousand. So now we've got nine kinds of rock format alone: soft, hard, classic, alternative.... People realize that trying to be all things to all people makes you nothing to nobody."

Nowhere is this nichemongering more obvious than in South Florida's polyglot market, where radio formats reflect not just generational, but also ethnic, divides. The current ratings leader (according to the Arbitron company, which tracks radio listenership), WEDR-FM (99.1), plays so-called black music (a.k.a. urban contemporary), while five of the area's top ten Arbitron stations appeal directly to South Florida's huge Latin population. With each of the area's 44 stations calibrated to lure a specific audience, the notion of violating format -- of, say, unleashing the Red Hot Chili Peppers' funky "Give It Away" on rock radio -- has become akin to miscegenation in the antebellum South.

"The reason classic has become so dominant down there is because you've barely got a rock audience," Hard sniffs. In fact, because half the population is tuned in to black and Latin stations, and about a fourth is too old to stomach rock, Mirsky and his counterpart at WSHE, Bill Pugh, figure their potential audience at less than half a million. The latest figures bear them out: WSHE placed ninth among radio listeners age twelve and older, ZETA-4 nineteenth.

"In that kind of market, you play it safe. You've got so many stations vying for older rock listeners that you've got to cart out the classics because they're proven records," Hard says. "The bottom line, in Miami and most other markets, is a dearth of new music."

That pretty much goes without saying to the purveyors of new music. Like cotton farmers faced with some invincible strain of boll weevil, record execs have watched the hits of yesteryear chomp away at the medium once considered the breeding ground of new bands.

"I hate the fuckin' stuff," snaps Harvey Leeds, an Epic Records vice president of album promotions based in New York. "Don't even make me think about it."

Classic rock programmer claim they're paying homage to the music they play, but Jeff Appleton, Atlantic's director of national album promotions, says they're reducing it to schlock. "I used to love a lot of these bands, but after eight years, their hits are just fried. You've got the ad community dictating how radio should be programmed. And they can't believe that anyone over twenty might actually want to hear new music. I walked into a radio station a few months ago and played the program director a new single by Tori Amos. This is a woman who sold 600,000 albums with no airplay. And you know what he said? He said, 'It's good. But where am I supposed to put this?' I said, 'How about on the air?'"

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