Clear Channel is destroying radio. At least, that’s the popular mantra these days. Radio consolidation–which shifted into high gear with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and has been fostered by a pro-big-media majority at the Federal Communications Commission–has resulted in the Wal-Martification of radio. Across the nation, stations are being gobbled up by huge chains like Clear Channel, which then monocrop their playlists. It’s the same fifty mindless cookie-cutter songs played in an endless, soul-numbing loop, the same conservative talk shows, even the same deejays doing the same shows for simultaneous broadcast in a half-dozen markets nationwide. Jockeys are losing their jobs as the big chains consolidate and centralize their work forces. There, in the distance, is the faint swan song of independent radio. Abandon all hope, ye who flip thy radio dial.
That could be true; the recent ruling of the FCC to further deregulate the media, though now under challenge in Congress, is further evidence of the power of the media giants. But for the irrepressibly optimistic, there are beacons of hope: Dozens of independent and small-network stations are regularly whipping the Clear Channel rivals in their markets. If quirky, original, community-oriented music radio is dead, how do these tenacious little outfits keep beating Clear Channel and its ilk at their own game? And what can small-time stations and local radio networks learn from their examples?
Part of what separates these scrappy stations from the competition is a bet they’re making that the big consolidators’ fundamental philosophy–that Americans only want to hear familiar music that doesn’t challenge them–is wrong and can’t last. Ultimately, the bet goes, the listening public will tire of being underestimated and will seek out alternatives.
Singer-songwriter Dar Williams, who got her first big breaks from independent and college radio, will take that bet. She sticks with her independent label (Razor & Tie) despite overtures from the big boys, regularly plays benefits and fundraisers for independent stations, and has even written a song about the deejays who spoke to her from her childhood transistor radio. Williams regularly plugs local independents at her shows. “You can tell the ones that are getting it right. When I mention them from the stage, the audiences cheer for them,” she says. “Those stations that have a very corporate way of doing things, they don’t command that kind of allegiance. Those stations that allow themselves the flexibility to be genuinely involved in their communities, to play local artists and to respect their audiences–that sows a vibrant kind of loyalty.”
One Popular Pig
KPIG, near Santa Cruz, California, is one station already reaping the rewards of Clear Channel exhaustion. By its own admission, KPIG has one of the weakest signals in its market. Yet it consistently ranks in the top five against all formats in all demographics in its market, and first in the 25-54 demographic and in the Triple-A (adult album alternative) format. It has owned the ratings charts there for six years. What makes KPIG unique is that in an age of format consultants and universal playlists, live deejays at KPIG still pull records off the shelves and play practically whatever occurs to them, whenever they feel like it. They even answer the phone. This is old-school rock radio. “You scan the dial and you know when it’s the PIG. You may not know the song, or even the artist. You know it’s us because you’ve never heard it before and it’s good,” says program director Laura Hopper. “That’s our strength. There is no one else like us out there.”
Hopper has been with the station for all of its fourteen years, and through three ownership changes. “We have survived intact, which is a minor miracle,” she says. The credit for the station’s longevity goes in large part to its fiercely loyal listeners. Five years ago, then-new owners New Wave Broadcasting tried to switch the station’s format to classic rock, air “canned” shows and pare down the staff. In a popular uprising Hopper dubbed “The Revolution,” Santa Cruz residents stood on street corners handing out fliers of protest–complete with New Wave executives’ home phone numbers. New Wave backed down. “People consider KPIG a part of the community,” says Hopper. “When you have that kind of loyalty, and ratings like ours, [the owners] are afraid to mess with you.” The Chamber of Commerce in Santa Cruz includes KPIG in its tourist brochures of things to see and do (and hear) in the area.