That Was Then. This Is...Then

Up on stage, John Tenaglia looks satisfied. The boxy WSHE owner holds a microphone in one hand, shields his eyes against the glare of the spotlights with the other as he beams out at the crowd of about 200 -- station personnel, advertisers, local ad agency reps, and sundry listeners and well-wishers -- gathered inside North Miami's Greenwich Studios to celebrate WSHE's ostensible format switch from classic rock to alternative rock. As the throng downshifts out of nosh-and-schmooze mode to listen to Tenaglia, he thanks everyone for coming out in such beastly weather, the second day of a weeklong monsoon. (Outside, the rain pours down in bucketfuls, turning the parking lot around the studios into a flood plain.)

"As they would say in Britain," grins Tenaglia, "'it's a three-dog night.'" Pause. "Except that's the wrong format." Kaboom. Rim shot. The radio-savvy group chuckles lightly, savoring the in-joke.

Wrong format, perhaps. Wrong country, definitely. Australia's Aborigines, the story goes, sleep with their dogs to keep them warm during the Southern Hemisphere's winter. The colder it gets, the more dogs you gather close to you. A three-dog night means it's wicked cold outside. Most Britons, like most Americans, including Tenaglia, enjoy the advantages of central heating when they need it.

The station owner moves straight from the three-dog-night gaffe into a longer joke about Heaven, Hell, and "clients," the punch line eliciting polite laughter from its target audience, WSHE clients such as Cellar Door Productions and Borders Music, who've nestled at small white tables set up in Greenwich's Studio D. Then he turns over the mike to WSHE program director Bill Pugh. Less jocular and more poised, Pugh also thanks everyone for being here, particularly the station's "support staff," before introducing the Rembrandts (Danny Wilde and Phil Solem), in town for a live broadcast on WSHE earlier that day and on hand tonight to play a few of their songs acoustically -- notably "I'll Be There for You," the hit theme song from the hit TV show Friends, as well as a current WSHE favorite -- and to glad hand with station brass and "clients."

The Rembrandts give the SHEsters what they want, playing "I'll Be There for You" first, the suits swaying gently in place to the song's calculatingly hooky choruses ("I'll be there for you/'Cause you're there for me, too"). They follow up with their biggest previous hit, 1990's "That's Just the Way It Is Baby," then two more songs, before mugging engagingly and exiting stage right to spend a half-hour good-naturedly signing autographs for a queue of station staffers and advertisers.

A remarkable tableau of kismet, really, because had it tried, the radio station couldn't have tapped a more appropriate act to perform at its "alternative" coming-out bash. Likably bland pop-music careerists mindful of the importance of taking care of business, the Rembrandts are the musical analogue of WSHE's new format: smooth, safe as milk, adult, and, no matter what the station's promo spots say, decidedly unalternative.

Sixteen days before the Rembrandts briefly serenaded the radio station's troops and clients -- at exactly 1:03 p.m. on Monday, June 5 A WSHE-FM (103.5) created a mild disturbance on the local airwaves when it changed from "SHE's only rock and roll" to "South Florida's rock alternative." The station moved from its old mix of Seventies classic rock (Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Pink Floyd), Eighties new wave (Police, U2, Talking Heads, Pretenders), and Nineties modern rock (Counting Crows, Live, cranberries, Hootie and the Blowfish) to its new mix of, uh, Eighties new wave (Police, U2, et al.) and Nineties modern rock (Counting Crows, et al.).

Sort of meet the new format, same as the old format.
On the surface, SHE has done one thing and one thing only: sent the dinosaur bands packing. But on a more subtle level, the station, along with like-minded radio outlets all over the nation, buoyed by the overwhelming ratings success of Denver's KXPK (the Peak), has cobbled together two existing formats, Adult Album Alternative (AAA) and Album Oriented Rock (AOR), and in the process orchestrated a complete generational overhaul of "classic rock" by replacing doddering Seventies monoliths with doddering Eighties monoliths. The new SHE supplements its pantheon of non-noisy Eighties artists, as exemplified by, say, Simple Minds, with a roster of non-noisy current artists, as exemplified by, say, the Gin Blossoms. At no time, however, does it remotely approach what might be considered a legitimate "alternative" station, such as WVUM-FM (90.5). If SHE constitutes an alternative, it is only to stations that pump out music by country-and-western hat guys, stations that feature talk-show blowhards, and stations that regurgitate canned Christian programming with hosts who want to lighten your wallet.

Take a traipse through a roll call of the highest-profile alternative bands of the past several years, the ones signed to major labels, the ones who played the main stage at Lollapalooza, the ones featured in Rolling Stone and Spin, or the ones who showcased at the New Music Seminar, South by Southwest, and CMJ conferences: Sonic Youth, Sugar, Flaming Lips, Dinosaur Jr, Teenage Fanclub, PJ Harvey, Bettie Serveert, Guided by Voices, Helium, Sebadoh, Magnapop, Throwing Muses, Lush, Rollins Band, Primus, Bottle Rockets, Moby, nine inch nails, Hole. Well, you get the idea. Heard any of them on "South Florida's Rock Alternative"? Thought not.

As for hearing a song by any of the teeming gaggle of bands percolating just outside the alternative mainstream A Stereolab, Archers of Loaf, Bad Livers, Combustible Edison, Royal Trux A get real. When it comes to contemporary acts, SHE feels much more at home with 1) H.O.R.D.E. tour wanna-be's such as the Dave Matthews Band and Blind Melon; 2) the pleasant AAA-itude of Natalie Merchant and Aimee Mann; and 3) when the station feels especially dangerous -- look out! -- the faux-angst grunge of Pearl Jam, the mascara-pop of Peter Murphy, the hand-me-down New Waveisms of Elastica, and an occasional big-toe dip into the alt-rock deep end with proven winners such as Weezer and Smashing Pumpkins.

But SHE's principal priority lies in fashioning the new classic rock, dedicating approximately 65 percent of its music programming to "soft" tracks by late Seventies-early Eighties innovators (the Cure, the Smiths, the Clash, R.E.M., Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, U2) and inoffensive fogies (the Alarm, Tears for Fears, INXS, Howard Jones, Wang Chung, Big Country, the Fixx, and the new el supremo of classic rock, Peter Gabriel). Seldom does an hour pass without SHE playing at least one track by the tastefully dull Gabriel: "Sledgehammer," "Big Time," "Shock the Monkey, "Red Rain" (studio version), "Red Rain" (live version), and "Don't Give Up," Pete's treacly ballad with Kate Bush, the modern-rock equivalent of Lionel Ritchie and Diana Ross's 1981 number one "Endless Love."

The station justifiably reasoned that fifteen years of spinning the Stones, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had burned out a significant portion of a generation of listeners, with fewer and fewer fortysomethings willing to abide AC/DC's Bon Scott rasping his way through "Highway to Hell" -- or Queen's Freddie Mercury overemoting on "We Are the Champions" -- one more time. And in truth, a considerable number of the top tier of the prized 25-to-54 market had tuned out, which reflected in decreased station ratings. It happened not only at SHE, but at stations nationwide.

Decreased ratings engendered change. A little more than a year ago, Denver's KXPK, a new station, signed on the air with an artful mix of 40 percent current bands (cranberries, Smashing Pumpkins, Hootie) and 60 percent Eighties bands (Police, Talking Heads, you know the drill), in the hopes of establishing a Vulcan mind meld with the spendthrift 25-to-40 age group. By mining the music of this market segment's formative years, the Peak created a whole new stratum of classic rock for tail-end Boomers and early-era Gen Xers. Ratings went thermonuclear. Advertisers affixed themselves to the Peak. And in the wake of that station's remarkable start, imitators, among them WSHE, have fallen into format lock step, sloughing off the old classic rock for the new classic rock: same great taste, less overwrought guitar solos!

Well, as NRBQ -- a band that has played alternative music for more than 25 years, never quite fitting into any popular station's world-view A sings, "The music goes 'round and 'round, and it comes out here." Listen closely to the new SHE, listen closely to that 35 percent of its format devoted to walking-talking contempo bands, and you'll hear the sound of the next wave of classic rock incubating A Live (the new Kansas), Counting Crows (the new Foreigner), Gin Blossoms (the new Tom Petty), Melissa Etheridge (the new Bruce Springsteen), the Dave Matthews Band (the new ZZ Top), Hootie and the Blowfish (the new Bachman-Turner Overdrive), Collective Soul (the new ELO). The kids are alright, all right, but no time like the present to start prepping them for future nostalgia, for that day in the year 2010 when SHE rolls out its new format, chock-a-block with those bands you loved back in 1995. Because, hey, all in all, it's just another brick in the wall.


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