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

Given his druthers, Richards says, he'd prefer an alternative format. "But the truth is I like to play rock and I don't want to leave town so I love SHE," he adds, sort of convincingly. "They're playing as much new stuff as they can and still keep a big listenership. I guess they've got to be careful, or people will say, 'What the hell is that,' and go back to ZETA. But when I hear all the good stuff being released now, I sometimes feel like it's water building up behind a dam, ready to burst onto radio. You've got this potential energy, and it's got to go somewhere."

The consensus among optimists is that South Florida A by far the state's largest radio market A will eventually create a venue for current/alternative music. "It's inevitable," seconds Jeff Shane, a Miami native now heading album promotions at Capitol Records in Los Angeles. "With the focus finally shifting from the boomers to this new Generation X (the baby busters, or whatever the ad people call them), radio has to react. Orlando finally got an alternative station. It's long overdue down south. When it comes right down to it, most of these alternative bands A the Tragically Hip, Pearl Jam, the Stone Temple Pilots A are just rock and roll. The only reason they're called 'alternative' is because it's become so risque to play them."

Mike Lyons, ZETA's mellifluous midday announcer and music director, says listeners will have to earn what they get. "You can piss and moan about new music all you want, but until some businessman comes along with the balls to take a long-term risk, it won't happen," declares Lyons, himself a veteran of FM's underground era. "And until the public A you guys out there A start to make demands, no one's going to take that risk. If there's one sure rule in radio, it's that the public gets what they ask for."

But South Floridians may already have a viable alternative voice. After four years of delays, the University of Miami's WVUM-FM (90.5) is in the process of jacking its power from a wee 365 watts to 1500. By autumn the college outlet, whose diverse format is new-music intensive, will purportedly be heard static-free in all of Dade and South Broward. VUM's success could prove key in luring a bolder commercial rock station. (Fans of WDNA-FM, meanwhile, have been waiting more than a year for the quirky community-sponsored station to raise its signal. They're still waiting.)

Ironically, even Fred Jacobs A the man who blithely identifies himself as the record company's "public enemy numero uno" A is banking on a new-music explosion. Last year his consulting company introduced a second format, the Edge, which is now pushing alternative music in four markets.

Industry egghead Bill Hard remains unconvinced: "With your ethnic make-up, two rock stations are all you can support. I doubt you'll see any alternative. You're lucky SHE plays as much new music as it does."

Both men agree that radio will become even more timid as the industry gallivants towards its ultimate fate: conglomeration. An FCC ruling this past August that allows owners to purchase more than one AM and FM station in a market has triggered a consolidation many considered inevitable. Witness Paxson, a Florida radio mogul who now owns ZETA-4, LOVE 94, and WINZ-AM (940).

"You'll also see more and more satellite-delivered programming," Jacobs predicts. "It's less expensive and superior to anything you can do locally. What you'll have is a McDonald's-type situation: the good news is if you really like Big Macs, you can get them anywhere." (The bad news, presumably, is that independently owned stations will be driven out of business.)

And where does all this leave classic rock?
Sitting pretty, says Bill Hard. "The format will continue to thrive, especially when you've got a strong morning show, like Howard Stern, as a lead-in. Team those two together, and classic is like a machine." Which might explain why ZETA recently decided to pipe in the Tampa-based comedy duo "Ron and Ron" for morning drive time. And why rumors abound that Infinity, the company that distributes Stern's wildly popular and offensive New York-based program, is raising capital to buy out WSHE.

For audiophiles like Glenn Richards, the irony of it all is too blatant to ignore. "The only reason classic rock exists today is because people took chances twenty years ago," he observes. "Where is the classic rock of the next generation going to come from if we keep playing the same songs?"

Before he can ponder this disturbing question too seriously, however, another foreboding thought hits him. "I was talking with [ZETA-4 evening DJ] Kimba the other day about how popular 'Hotel California' is with the kids these days. We've got these young kids calling in to request that old tune all the time. It's like a whole new audience."

As the Eagles put it -- over and over, over the years -- You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

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