February 9, 1999
Fracturing the Formula: A Hope for the Offbeat on Small FM
By JON PARELES
ommercial radio stations weren't happy when the Federal Communications Commission announced recently that it might allow low-power radio stations -- up to 1,000 watts, reaching an area up to 18 miles in diameter -- to share the FM band. The final decision will be made this summer or fall, and if the proposed rules are approved, the corporate radio chains of generic Lite FM's and Q92's and Hit 105's will share the dial with very local stations dispensing anything from avant-rock to city council meetings. The broadcasters warn that more stations sharing the band could lead to more interference. But what they would interfere with most is the numbing predictability of professional radio.
The great divide comes at 92 on the FM dial, with noncommercial public and college radio stations below 92 and the big-time commercial outlets above. Commercial radio has never seemed more organized and less invigorating. Down below 92, there are still strange sounds and surprises, mostly thanks to college students who see radio as a calling rather than a routine. But drive across the United States punching the "seek" button on the car radio, and you'll hear the same hits, the same selected oldies, even the same slogans: "More music, less talk" or "10 in a row."
Since 1996, when the Federal Communications Commission removed limits on the number of stations a single corporation could own, the regimentation has increased. Broadcasting chains spend huge sums to buy new stations, incurring hefty debts, then press program directors to deliver ratings and advertising dollars immediately, before the next quarterly reckoning. (Squeezing more stations onto the band could also lower the scarcity, and thus the value, of major broadcasters' licenses the next time they're sold.)
There's a strong incentive to go for the trite and true, to aim for a niche of the market -- like 18-to-25-year-old men -- and program only sure-fire material to reach them. The idea is not to play something they might be thrilled to discover; it's to play what they won't dislike, so they won't tune out.
Nearly without exception, commercial radio stations are formatted radio stations, aiming to dispense a consistent sound day and night. They may play classical music, rhythm-and-blues, jazz or so-called alternative rock, but they play it nonstop. Although there are commercial stations offering anything from Arabic programming to gospel, the greatest number -- more than 1500 in each category -- play rock, country or "adult contemporary" (also known as "lite") music.
They announce what they're selling -- "Young country!" "No rap, no metal!" "All the hits!" -- and they hire consultants and commission research to make sure listeners get it. Gut reactions to music from disk jockeys have been all but replaced by chart analyses and surveys.
There's some business logic behind such decisions. Most people don't want to pay attention to the radio; they want a station to be dependable. The block programming used by some public and collage stations -- four hours of classical music, say, followed by a political discussion, followed by four hours of jazz -- does reach people who are willing to think about the schedule. But it baffles casual listeners who have grown used to thinking of call letters as brand names, who expect the Top 40 on WHTZ (Z-100, at 100.3 in New York City) and Latin pop on WSKQ (La Mega, at 97.9). Commercial stations pound home their identities with their endlessly repeated slogans, partly in the hope that when a ratings representative calls a listener, the listener will parrot the slogan. The higher the rating, the more advertising revenue comes in.
On commercial radio, the days of the trusted disk jockey -- the Symphony Sid or Wolfman Jack, the one whose enthusiasm made listeners pay attention to something they hadn't heard before -- are just about over. New York City has Vin Scelsa, still chasing down smart singer-songwriters in his format-free refuge on WNEW (102.7); there are also the disk jockeys, like Stretch Armstrong and D.J. Enuff, who take over the turntables for hip-hop mix shows on weekend nights on Hot 97 WQHT (97.1). Most current disk jockeys don't expect to choose music; their job is to disguise the mechanical nature of the format. As they play a preordained list of hits, they try to add some personality to the 100th spin this week of a song in heavy rotation.
To choose those songs, focus groups sit in rooms or listeners answer phone polls to rate current hits and potential new ones. Usually they don't hear the whole song; they're responding to the 10-second "call-out hook" that recording companies have conveniently begun adding to promotional singles. No one has to take a chance on making an esthetic decision; the numbers do it for them. And while research can gauge people's reaction to the familiar, it won't ever tell a programmer to take a chance.
The human attention span being what it is, radio stations have to provide a certain amount of variety and a certain amount of novelty. And since formats allow only a few songs to reach the airwaves, those songs that do get played are soon played to death. That's O.K.: when research reveals that one song is burned out, there are always more.
In their symbiotic relationship, recording companies and radio stations reinforce each others' search for one-hit wonders, each new song working minute variations on the formula for last week's hit. Formats are about shutting out possibilities; listen to any commercial station long enough and music starts to seem constricted and stale. Perhaps it's a law of nature that niches keep growing narrower.
And then here come those upstart low-power stations, no longer staying in their place on the bottom end of the FM band but scattered across it like shanties among the skyscrapers. The necessary investment is modest: hundreds of dollars (or a few thousand) rather than millions. And thus the need to draw a mass listenership disappears; a radio station could be a hobby or a subscription business or a public service.
The FM band in New York City is so crowded that low-power stations may not get much of a chance here, but imagine the possibilities of neighborhood radio from all the city's ethnic and cultural clusters. There could be a record-collectors' station playing rarities all day long; talk radio in Haitian Creole or Korean; a classical-guitar station and one broadcasting Chinese operas; a station devoted to free improvisation or an open-mike station for singer-songwriters and comedians, 24 hours a day.
Big broadcasters, with some justification, see their exclusive territory turning into something like cable television, which has caused network television ratings to slide. It's not that any single cable channel has drawn the mass television audience away; it's that all the possibilities splinter an audience that once had less than a dozen choices. Radio stations are already facing the beginnings of new competition from Internet broadcasters, which range from out-of-town radio stations to Internet services that allow people to choose their own formats.
But more people have radios than Internet hookups. With low-power stations on the FM band, people casually twirling a knob might happen onto some 20-watt outlet playing vintage rhythm-and-blues tunes and forget about the pop Top 40; they might be able to find traffic and weather information that's not riddled with commercials. They might be seduced by a Brazilian pop song; they might tune in a ranting conspiracy theorist instead of syndicated news. It would be a triumph of public access -- closer, at best, to the Internet, with all its wacky and diverse and unfiltered content, than to the limited zone of public-access cable.
Simply allowing low-power stations to broadcast is the easy part of the choice for the Federal Communications Commission. The hard part will be making sure that low-power stations don't turn into smaller copies of their high-powered neighbors.
When licenses become available, organized broadcast interests will probably try to snap up as many as possible, both to provide programming and to shut out the competition. Having seen the results of concentration of ownership of big radio stations since 1996, the commission would do well to find ways to keep low-power station licenses out of corporate hands and out of the mass-audience sweepstakes.
Instead, it should keep low-power stations as down-home and diverse as possible, close to the grass roots. That might mean assigning the frequencies by examining programming ideas rather than simply auctioning off licenses; it might also mean leasing the frequencies for a few years and making the leases nonrenewable.
The commission could stipulate that license owners be local residents, or set a ceiling on the revenue a low-power station can bring in. It might require low-power stations to create their own programs instead of relaying others'; a similar requirement, after all, spurred the development of FM radio in the 1960's. The commission could also make competing applicants share a low-power frequency, since none would have to raise a huge financial stake.
And instead of seeing low-power stations as a threat, big broadcasters could learn to treat them the way major recording companies treat independent labels. As the major labels have been consolidated into ever larger corporate monoliths -- lately through the merger of Polygram and Universal -- the indies have become laboratories for new ideas, scouts for new talent and outlets for specialized material that's not profitable for bigger companies. If the big broadcasters are really giving the people what they want, they have nothing to fear. And if they're not -- well, let a thousand transmitters boom.
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