The Songs Remain the Same

Hack critics and weathered promoters will all tell you the same thing about Bob Seger. Seger, they'll say, never had it easy. Abandoned by his daddy at age ten, he shared a one-room dive with his mom and brother during junior high school and cooked off a hot plate. By fourteen he had a band, the Decibels, and a part-time job. The Bob Seger System came next. Then Teegarden. Then VanWinkle. The day job he never quit.

Seger's canny blend of hard rock and soul brought him fame in Detroit, but he remained a hometown prophet for nearly two decades, legendary for rasping his voice on the bar circuit. Only with the release of Night Moves (1976) and Stranger in Town (1978) did his Silver Bullet Band began to win national radio airplay. It would take another five years, however, for Seger to hit his zenith.

More precisely, it would take Tom Cruise's tush. The young actor set female hearts aflutter during the 1983 film Risky Business, when he lip-synced Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll" while prancing around in butt-hugging briefs. That single scene lent the veteran troubadour previously unimagined cache. His song, though five years old, raced up the charts.

More than a catchy tune, Seger's anthem reflected a nascent movement in American radio. All over the nation, FM programmers, sure that punk and new wave would never sell, were beginning to follow the singer's simple prescription: Just take those old records off the shelf/I sit and listen to them by myself/Today's music ain't got the same soul/I like that old-time rock and roll.

And boy, were they making money.
Ten years later they're still pulling those old records off the shelf. And they're making even more money. The genre dubbed classic rock has become FM's dominant format, the meta-Muzak of our time. Songs once confined to K-TEL record sets are now the bread and butter of rock radio. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Led Zeppelin. Pink Floyd. Rush. The Stones. Steve Miller. And that unfortunate geographic triumvirate: Boston, Kansas, Chicago.

South Florida, once a bastion of FM's underground, has become a Styx-aholic's paradise. Petrified of alienating their sliver of the market, Miami's two remaining rock stations are content to play the Top 10 of ten to twenty years ago almost exclusively. How did it happen? What does it mean?

Snobs, cynics, and audiophiles argue that the ascendance of classic rock represents all that has gone wrong in FM radio, the transmutation of a rebel medium into a corporate asset. Disc jockeys who once prided themselves on spinning the most daring new records have been reduced to airing an endless tape-loop compiled by demographic consultants who couldn't find the heart of rock and roll with an amped stethoscope.

But this appears to dismiss classic rock for what it is: an antidote to such weighty contemplation. The whole concept, after all, is designed to harken back to the halcyon days of Vietnam and Kent State, to the glory of the Carter administration, when the nation was long on gas lines and short on fashion sense.

Take the line: On a dark desert highway/Cool wind in my hair/Warm smell of colitas/Rising up through the air. It doesn't matter that we live 3000 miles from the nearest desert, or that most Floridians have no idea what the hell colitas is. The lyrics alone cast a mood inexorably linked to the rise of classic rock. Of longing, that is, for a past that probably never existed, of memories filtered through the misty aperture of nostalgia.

Because in the end, as any classic rock fan knows, it always feels like the first time, even if time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future, and there really is a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold, as well as a big wheel in the sky that keeps on turnin', carrying me home to my kin, and, well, you get the point.

As for Bob Seger, classic rock has bestowed upon him fame as durable as his obscurity once seemed. Hits such as "Night Moves" and "Against the Wind" continue to enjoy heavy radio rotation. Of course, few remember the dark warning Seger issued in 1975. He was just past 30 back then, his seventh album languishing, his career nearly kaput. "If the day comes when nobody wants to hear me play," he sighed, "I'll probably become a disc jockey."

There are ferns in the heart of South Florida's classic rock headquarters in North Dade. An alarming number of them, actually, sprouting from planters that float incongruously on a sea of green carpet. The executive offices of ZETA-4 (WZTA-FM 94.9), a mile west of Joe Robbie Stadium, are scattered around this flora, and in one of these offices dwells program director Neil Mirsky.

Like most who survive more than five years in radio, Mirsky is a terribly nice guy. He is also in a permanent state of denial, stuck defending the current state of mass-market radio even as he fawns over the days when there was some purity to the endeavor.

"Back in the early Seventies, it was a matter of walking into a studio with 10,000 albums and four hours to fill," says Mirsky, a fortysomething mensch who has grayed in a distinguished, Richard Dreyfuss manner. "I'd go from Zeppelin to Stevie Wonder to Chuck Mangione to the Stones to Bob Marley. It was all fresh. I consider myself blessed to have worked in that environment.

"But back then" A and with classic rock programmers, the buts are inevitable A "we could get away with that because nobody was listening. Now radio is a business. You've got 300,000 listeners, and they want to hear stuff they know, songs they can tap their toes to. The average person, once they get past 25, has house payments and kids to worry about. They stop buying new music and revert to the music they listened to growing up. Classic rock is an ideal niche to capture advertising for that 25-to-54 baby boomer demographic."

Mirsky pauses. "God, I can't believe how honest I'm being."
Honest, yes. But a tad simplistic. To understand the genesis of classic rock requires a more thorough account of the social and economic forces that, in two short decades, have warped FM into a rapidly conglomerating industry.

When people like Mirsky first began broadcasting rock and roll, most radios didn't have an FM band. The medium was an electronic soapbox, and FM programmers positioned themselves, quite consciously, in opposition to AM's lucrative Top 40 formats. "The feeling was, 'Let the hippies do what they want. Nobody's listening, anyway,'" Mirsky recalls.

But as the Sixties wore on and rock drifted into the mainstream, the FM band, by virtue of its footloose format and superior sound quality, rocketed past AM, and it didn't take long for men in three-piece suits to converge. By the mid-Seventies they had converted FM into a well-oiled profit machine. The aptly dubbed "superstars" format broadcast established acts A Styx, Pink Floyd, Journey A almost exclusively, and sprinkled more and more commercials into the mix.

As the sounds of punk and new wave squalled across the music industry's transom, the aging baby boom generation A and their hefty checkbooks A tuned out. "Our research showed that the newer music was falling on deaf ears," notes Fred Jacobs, the man credited with pioneering classic rock. He sat down one summer day in his living room, amid the dusty vinyl of his own album collection, and carved a new format. "Classic absolutely exploded out of the box," Jacobs recalls. Most insiders felt the strategy would fade within a year. After all, the premise appeared to rest on the novelty of hearing classics. "But we became the vampire that wouldn't go away," gloats Jacobs, president of a consulting firm based in Southfield, outside Detroit. Within three years, classic rock had oozed into virtually every major U.S. city.

Jacobs had several factors on his side. First, as Neil Mirsky points out, boomers' listening habits had changed. Settled into lives of comfy consumerism, the peaceniks and flower children no longer preached and protested. They were, however, happy to bask in Sixties nostalgia. If they couldn't make revolution, at least they could crank up the Beatles' "Revolution" as background music at the office.

The corporate profligacy of the Eighties, along with Reagan-era deregulation, likewise were crucial to solidifying classic rock's quick stranglehold. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) lifted its requirement that owners demonstrate their commitment to radio by operating a station for at least three years. "Basically, broadcasters stopped buying stations," Jacobs notes. "You had this Michael Milken philosophy. Real estate speculators began snapping up stations and flipping them a year later for a huge profit. These people didn't understand Elvis Costello or the Police. They needed a proven moneymaker."

The stakes soared. Owners grew more conservative about the music they aired. Jacobs and other consultants were called in, along with droves of market researchers. Industry trade sheets sprang up. And daring new music -- the sort that had originally fueled FM -- disappeared from playlists. The library that Jacobs had casually culled from his record collection became a canon. As recycled music became radio's growth industry, oldies stations specializing in music from the Fifties and Sixties (the progenitor of classic rock) prospered. Stations hoping to woo an older, wealthier demographic began airing "soft" classics. DJs, whose musical tastes had been superseded by consultants and computers, were now forced to play the classic hits they once chose.

"What I didn't understand ten years ago was how much the ad people wanted that 25-to-54 demographic," observes Jacobs, who now consults for more than a dozen classic rock stations. "The classic format forced everyone, even the mainstream rock stations, to go older. Just look at how many old rockers they've taken out of mothballs."

Today, as much as 75 percent of the music played on the nation's 200 album oriented rock (AOR) stations A such as Davie's WSHE (103.5 FM) A is classic. So much of the "new" music trotted out emanates from rock fossils like Billy Squier that critics commonly refer to AOR as "another old rocker." And Jacobs's vampire shows no signs of bedding down: in the past two years the format has added some 70 stations; more than 200 FM stations nationwide now play nothing but classic rock.

Predictably, this proliferation has come most often at the expense of AOR operations. In South Florida the list of failed rock stations has spawned an alphabet soup of mutating call letters:

* WBUS: The legendary Magic Bus, Dade's first FM underground outlet. Now soft jazz outlet LOVE 94 (WLVE-FM 93.9)

* 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?'"

With the glut of new faces ignored by radio, record companies now rely on MTV, print media, and plain old word of mouth to launch a band. Pearl Jam and the Spin Doctors, this year's pet newcomers, built cultish followings by touring incessantly. Rock stations didn't play tunes by these bands until months after they released albums. And for every success story, Appleton says, there are a heap of radio-ready bands that never get a shot.

"Radio has grown so terrified of experimentation that everyone in the record industry is scrambling to find the next Pearl Jam," says one disgusted music scout. "It's a pack mentality that manages to punish originality."

The response to such gripes echoes the excuse put forward by tabloid journalists: Hey, we're just giving folks what they want. Unlike the subversive voices that commandeered FM radio during the Sixties, today's owners have little interest in expanding listeners' tastes, or changing the world. As ZETA-4's free-form-DJ-turned-program-director Neil Mirsky puts it: "We're here to entertain people, not to educate them."

Pick your way through the maze of trailer-park roads off Interstate 595 in Davie, toward the radio towers that are the closest South Florida comes to redwoods, and eventually you'll find WSHE. From the outside, this drab, single-story building layered in shale and white shingles doesn't strike the eye as a $20 million property. But then, airwave inflation does have a way of overlooking aesthetics.

Inside, a worn chorus leaks from the ceiling: "I can't get no sat-is-fac-tion." The truth, as anyone who listens to WSHE knows, is that you can get satisfaction. You can get so much satisfaction listening to South Florida's sole remaining AOR station that you may very well grow confused and believe you are actually listening to a classic rock station. At which point you will have to be reminded, sternly, that SHE plays new music, too A often by fresh young artists such as Robert Plant and the Moody Blues.

Whatever comes out of your box, don't blame Art Garza. He's just the DJ. His routine, like most other jocks', amounts to mechanics. Read the log sheet.

Slip the right disc inside the right machine. Provide the requisite patter. "It ain't exactly brain surgery," Garza says.

Which might explain why the SHE studio, a dim ten-by-ten cell that Garza prowls from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. weekdays, is crammed with totems of distraction. Celebrity photos, scribbled with juvenile messages, blanket one wall. (A shot of Dan Marino, inscribed to afternoon drive DJ Diana Smart, reads, "Here's looking up your endzone with a Ford Probe, Love, Dan.") Nearby sits Glenn Richards's "bar stool": a plastic turd crowned with a photo of SHE DJ Richards. A set of pouting porn princesses, captured on official Penthouse trading cards, stare vacantly from their perch on the soundboard.

"What can I say, man, it gets kinda boring around here," Garza offers sheepishly. Clad in surfer pants and a Pink Floyd T-shirt, thinning hair pulled into a ponytail, the jock cuts a figure calculated to convey both a zest for partying and a futile disdain for adulthood. A silver skull ring the size of a golf ball sprouts from one hairy knuckle.

Garza, who signed on with SHE a year ago, grew up listening to the "Godfather of Rock and Roll, Joe Anthony."

Joe who?
"Well, he was the godfather of rock and roll in San Antonio," Garza explains. "I remember once he played 90 minutes of Mahogany Rush and someone called to complain, you know, enough with the Mahogany Rush! So he played another 90 minutes.

"And there are times, even now, that we get to be spontaneous," Garza insists. "Like during the hurricane. We put together a triple shot for the weekend. 'Rock Me Like a Hurricane,' 'Like a Hurricane,' and 'Riding the Storm Out.'" Barring natural disasters of previously unfathomed magnitude, however, he concedes the DJ's life can grow pretty dull.

Garza cues the next CD and purrs into the microphone. "That's another song set from SHE A the Stones, Van Halen, Zep, and U2. Now, here's a little BTO for Hollywood." The opening riff of Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" burbles out of the speakers. Garza squints at the playlist. He has stacked in order the tunes he'll be airing for the next three hours, the all-request lunch excepted, from the wall of classics behind him, and the single row of acceptable new music to his left.

"Every jock lobbies for his own tunes," Garza explains. "Take for example 'Wildfire Woman' by Bad Company. I'd like to put it in the mix. It wasn't a huge hit, but sometimes you gotta say, 'What the fuck!'" He swivels and presses the next song into service: "Dream On" by Aerosmith, whose members will soon be eligible to receive Social Security.

Down the hall, on the business side of the operation, program director Bill Pugh is taking an extremely important call. "Yeah, we got the 25-to-54 men, across the board. Substantial increases. No, nothing below 25. But much better with the men. Yeah.

Right. Bye.
"That was the boss," he explains. "Checking the latest numbers." Not WSHE's Arbitrons, as it turns out, but those of WMMO, an Orlando FM station that just switched from AOR to classic rock, under Pugh's tutelage. No such move, he is quick to note, is in the offing for SHE. In fact, the 39-year-old Ohio native says he would like to see the station play more new music, bands like Toad the Wet Sprocket and the Gin Blossoms, both of whom he has championed.

The demise of WGTR and ZETA's decision to go classic, however, have forced SHE to skew more and more classic into the mix during the past five years A the only sure way, in management's eyes, to keep older listeners from defecting to ZETA. With South Florida's tiny rock market, and a boss eyeballing the ratings, Pugh says he has little choice. Plainly flustered, he is left to console himself with observations such as, "There are works of art that use only three colors," and, "You can't ignore your library. That's your safe zone.

"Once a week I get something that I just marvel at. But most of the time I can't put it on the air," concedes Pugh, who like Mirsky is a proud alum of progressive radio. SHE's "Top 10 at Ten," a nightly feature based on requests, showcases current music. But while Pugh earnestly seeks to "remind listeners that we do know we are living in 1993," his station still digs out the dinosaurs. For every seditious Spin Doctors jam, there is a Steve Miller, or two, or three, to pay.

"I was classically trained on viola," Pugh blurts, straining to reconcile the irreconcilable. "I approach music as an art form. But radio's not like it used to be, and it won't ever be. As soon as they put rock on FM radio, we were all screwed."

Later, almost contritely, he shares his ultimate fantasy: to run a college station that would both generate revenue and provide a course of study for students. A course, one expects, that would prepare students for the money-grubbing, number-crunching world of real radio.

That WKPX-FM (88.5) is located just a few miles north of Pugh's spacious office is not necessarily poetic justice. But it is some sort of justice. Financed by the Broward School Board and run by the students at Piper High School in Sunrise, the tiny station plays virtually every genre forbidden further up the dial: unsigned bands, grunge, hard-core hip hop, death metal. Of course, the kids only broadcast from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and they do have to air the school board's not-quite-scintillating meetings. But, hey, even the Sex Pistols made compromises.

For those who wonder how it is that the Broward School Board became cooler than the rest of South Florida, the answer is simple: they don't have to make a profit. "They don't even give us our Arbitrons," notes general manager Ellen Goldberg, a senior whose pierced bellybutton is healing just fine, thank you.

Ironically, the station began ten years ago as a Top 40 outlet. There was also a brief, painful, classic rock phase before the switch to alternative three years ago. Goldberg estimates that WKPX, whose 3000-watt signal spans from North Dade to Boca Raton, reaches about 50,000 ears at peak hours. If other students tend to regard the radio staff as "all the weirdos" (and if fellow students often gather outside the glass-encased air studio to ooh and ahh at these weirdos), KPX's core listenership borders on cultish. "One guy in Hallandale put a huge antenna on his roof just to hear us better," Goldberg boasts. "We had one guy who tuned in all the way from Canada [on a shortwave radio]."

Music director Anna Daniels gives her DJs free rein, with limited censorship from faculty station manager Joanne Boggus. "When the Divinyls came out with that song, 'I Touch Myself,' Joanne said no way. Masturbation is one of those big no-no topics," explains Daniels, a senior whose hair is dyed the approximate hue of a Charm's Blow Pop. (Other banned material: the Dead Kennedys' punk anthem, "California Uber Alles," King Missile's "Detachable Penis," and anything by Pope-desecrater Sinead O'Connor.)

No doubt the most scatological material emanates from the station's studio during Yvette Lam's Tuesday afternoon death-metal show. "That was Brutal Mastication," Lam chirps. "Next up: 'Cryptic Stench' from Cannibal Corpse." She spins and giggles. "When I listened to KPX in junior high it was, like, the coolest, and I was, like, I've got to get a show there. And here I am, like, two years later with my own, like, show," she notes, her lip-glossed smile that's more Valley Girl than Satanist.

Just around the corner, a cherubic, balding man with a wide brown tie and a pocket protector sits monitoring the subhuman sounds of the Stench. "I think alternative has been our best format yet," says Warren Exmore, KPX's chief engineer. "Nobody else plays this stuff."

Glenn Richards knows the feeling. The WSHE overnight man is perhaps the only DJ permitted to veer, ever so occasionally, from SHE's meticulous song scripts. Most rewarding, three years ago he was granted a Sunday night show (11:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.) devoted to South Florida's blossoming local scene. Without him, local commercial radio would offer barely any awareness of homegrown acts such as Forget the Name, Natural Causes, Tuff Luck, and the Itch.

But Richards's fervid devotion to music has left him thoroughly discombobulated amid the corporate milieu. "I've worked in radio since I graduated from Coral Gables High in 1980, yet I feel like an outsider. I don't know the business side, only what I've read about it in the trades, and that kind of turns my stomach."

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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