“Invisible airwaves crackle with life; Bright antennae bristle with the energy;Emotional feedback on timeless wavelength; Bearing a gift beyond price, almost free.” Rush “The Spirit of Radio.” Those optimistic words about the positive potential of radio broadcasting speak volumes about a medium where millions of Americans are exposed to music, entertainment, and news content on a daily basis.
But it is important to note the changing face of radio in the Philadelphia area. Demographic and marketing trends have not only transformed the tastes of the audience, but have transformed the content of radio itself. The only thing that hasn’t changed, it seems, is who comes out on top of the ratings.
For decades, the number one station in Philadelphia has been KYW News Radio 1060-AM. While this may come as a shock to some people, the station’s slogan that urges people to listen “two, three, four times a day,” seems to be working. Many people rely on 1060 for its dependable and regular traffic and weather reports, giving it a near-permanent place at the top of the all-day ratings for listeners over 12.
But beyond KYW, much has changed. Stations change style and format regularly, and no tradition seems immune from reevaluation. Rush’s optimistic take on the potential of radio is negated by their views on – and the harsh reality of – the recording industry. As Rush sang, “One likes to believe in the freedom of music. But glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity.”
According to last July’s Abitron radio rankings published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the most popular stations after KYW in all-day, over-12 ratings were WDAS-FM (105.3; Soul/R&B), WBEB-FM (101.1; Adult Contemporary), WIOQ-FM (102.1; “Hit Music”), WUSL-FM (98.9; Hip Hop/R&B), WJJZ-FM (106.1; Smooth Jazz), WOGL-FM (98.1; Oldies) and WXTU-FM (92.5; Country).
Notably absent from that list are rock and roll stations. A number of factors, including the fractioning of the rock audience, have reduced the influence of what was for decades the most powerful format in radio. Former Philadelphia icons like 93.3 WMMR and 94.1 WYSP have lost much of their audience and been forced to alter formats, sometimes by going so far as to abandon proud traditions.
Much of this has been brought about by the fact that federal deregulation of the broadcasting industry has allowed corporations more liberty when it comes to owning radio stations.
The 1996 merger between CBS/Westinghouse and Infinity Broadcasting is an excellent example of media consolidation – fewer entities owning more broadcasting outlets. According to Philadelphia Weekly, this merger means that one company owned WMMR, WYSP, WOGL, KYW, WIP, and WPHT. The Justice Department forced CBS to sell off WMMR as a term of the deal.
Now, WMMR is owned by Greater Media Radio, Inc., which also owns WMGK. A dramatic overhaul of WMMR was undertaken in the late 1990s, which led to the firing of popular, long-time on-air personalities and a format change. WMMR has a rich history in Philadelphia of promoting new rock artists and focusing on an “AOR” (album-oriented rock) mindset. The format change has led to the banishing of many WMMR favorites like Billy Joel, Elton John, and Jackson Browne. Not ironically, these artists are a primary staple in the rotation of WMGK, which is owned by the same company. Greater Media’s strategy was to create formats that maximized the combined audience of its stations. Greater Media’s firing of local broadcast legends like “Bubba” John Stevens, Ed Sciaky and Helen Leicht alienated many fans of the old WMMR. WMMR has gone so far in revamping its image that its new morning team – “The Philly Guys” – features three men with sports and comedy backgrounds. WMMR signed Mike Missanelli – a former sports talk show host – and Joe Conklin, a comedian who specializes in impressions, to join their “Vinnie The Crumb” for the morning team. “It’s horrible to see somebody murdering something you love,” writes Jonathon Takiff, head music writer at the Philadelphia Daily News and a former DJ with WMMR. “[Greater Media is] trying to find a new audience. In a sense, they’re flushing the old station. Which makes me think they should just fold the whole operation, change the call letters and turn it into something else. I mean, it isn’t WMMR anymore.”
“One absolute result of stations being clustered under a single owner,” notes radio personality Michael Tearson in Philadelphia Weekly, “is that there is no longer an attempt by single stations to dominate the market by competing head-to-head, but instead, for the cluster of stations to be complementary to each other, in order to maximize the corporation’s take on the advertising dollar.”
Another emerging trend over the past several decades has been talk radio, which has brought many listeners over to the AM side of the dial. Sports Radio 610 WIP-AM occasionally creeps into the top five in the ratings, and does well with adult males. According to WIP producer Dave Breitmaier, the station aims to give Philadelphia sports fans an outlet to discuss – and criticize – their favorite sports teams. He notes that in markets that include a sports talk station, professional franchises are more accountable to the demands of the fans. “Take a look at a place like Charlotte, that doesn’t have sports talk. It’s not that the teams don’t care about the people, but the people don’t have a strong voice,” notes Breitmaier. WPHT-AM 1210, which broadcasts the Rush Limbaugh show, is also popular. Political talk radio, in general, has increased in popularity over the past few years. Generally dominated by conservative viewpoints, this segment of the media expanded recently with the debut of Air America, a new liberal talk network not yet available in Philadelphia.
Regardless of format, the commercial goal of radio is to turn a profit by selling advertising, which requires listeners. But on the music side of the spectrum, this has led to an “MTV” effect when it comes to song selection, argues Breitmaier, who is also the drummer for local band Convert to 8 Bit. “It’s basically a half dozen people in Philadelphia who decide what gets on the air,” said Breitmaier. The only new music they want to play are hit singles. And if you don’t have a hit single, you won’t get signed. And if you’re not signed, you don’t have a record company that backs you shoving music and money in the hands of the people who choose what to play.”