A&E Odds & Ends
The buyout of REV 105 wasn't the first consolidation of today's radio industry - and it won't be the last. Is the world collapsing around our ears?
By Francis Hwang
Just a few days prior to the Ides of March, Minneapolis saw not one, but two daggers before it. Stern Publishing, which had recently purchased City Pages, announced its purchase and closing of the Twin Cities Reader, and ABC, Inc., which owns KQRS and the Edge, announced its purchase of REV 105. Starting at 1:30 p.m., March 11, REV would be no more; in its place ABC would launch a heavy-metal station called X105.
REV staffers were informed of the purchase only that morning, and they were packing up to leave as REV music director Shawn Stewart played swan songs for the 3-year-old station. As soon as the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye" ended, REV's oft-praised playlist of modern rock became X's playlist of machismo and screed, and REV's staffers found themselves in a radio industry that has less space for idealism and personality.
For many Twin Citizens, it was a pretty depressing day.
"A lot of companies will decide 'I have two choices: basically, either to get big or to get out.'" -- Jim du Bois, President and CEO, Minnesota Broadcasters Association
ABC told the Star Tribune it bought REV 105 from Cargill Communications because its market research indicated that a metal station could be profitable, and that it wanted to pre-empt WBOB's widely rumored switch to the mullet-head format. (ABC officials declined to be interviewed for this story; WBOB officials deny they were planning a format change.)
Of course, rumors about ABC's motives have persisted since the buyout, and ABC has quite a short-term PR problem on its hands. Nothing less could've been expected: ABC bought a critically acclaimed station that competed with one of its own, and then changed its format to possibly the most reviled genre on the pop landscape. ABC's PR only got worse when a pro-REV movement began to organize itself over the Web. Dedicated listeners who had gone to bed as REVangelists had woke the next morning as REVivalists, with two concrete goals: to voice their support for programming like REV's and to make ABC's business as unpleasant as possible.
As the REVivalists gathered at a rally on Northrop Mall two Saturdays ago, their loss was palpable in a crowd that at times grew to a hundred people. One man told the crowd that he recently turned down a job in another city in part because he'd miss REV; another said he used REV to reaclimate to the area after having lived elsewhere for 18 years. "I needed it to help me get acquainted with the Twin Cities again," he said.
That a few fans dearly loved REV is obvious, but radio success is traditionally measured by the size, not the dedication, of the listening audience. Qualitative debates about musical diversity, DJ personality and community involvement became moot in the face of REV's weak signal. Until last October, when it added a third, downtown-based signal, REV couldn't fully reach the urban neighborhoods where many potential listeners lived and worked. "I lived in Uptown, I couldn't get them, and a lot of people who really were music fans ... just couldn't get them in and just didn't listen for that reason," says City Pages senior arts/music editor Will Hermes.
But even that impediment was eventually overshadowed by the aftermath of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Telecom Act cleared away many of the legal barriers that regulated and constrained the business dealings in the communications industries, with the stated hope that the increased competition could only benefit the consumer.
But what has happened since the law passed last February is the exact opposite -- a flurry of mergers and consolidations, a roster of the disgustingly rich being bought by the obscenely rich. Westinghouse bought CBS. Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting merged. Rupert Murdoch bought New World Communications, Twentieth Century Fox, HarperCollins and TV Guide. Viacom bought Paramount Communications before being bought itself by the newly merged Evergreen Media Corporation and Chancellor Broadcasting Company. And in the second-largest merger in history, Disney bought ABC/Capital Cities, adding the radio and television properties to its own holdings, which include Miramax Films, L.A. Magazine, Hyperion Books, State Farm Insurance, ESPN and the Anaheim Angels.
Prior to 1996, a radio company was allowed to own two radio stations per band per market. The Telecom Act increased the overall number of stations that a company may own in one market from four to eight, and it removed limits of how many stations a company can own nationwide. The resulting national consolidation -- more than a thousand mergers in 12 months -- could be seen locally in Chancellor's purchase of Minneapolis-based Colfax Communications' stations last August. Chancellor now owns seven stations in this market, accounting for 30 percent of its advertising dollars. With its purchase of the REV 105 signals, ABC now owns three stations and 20 percent of the market's ad dollars. Only one of Minneapolis' top 10 stations -- KSTP -- is owned locally.
Radio's always been a cutthroat business, but during the past year it's become an even bigger pie with even fewer slices. Now that some have the financial backing of some of the largest companies in the world, the future is looking bleaker for any commercial station with modest means and modest aims.
This, says Cargill Communications' President and General Manager John Kuehne, was the scene REV founder Jim Cargill saw himself facing. ABC started to make offers when Cargill Communications purchased REV's third signal last year. Cargill refused at first, but changed his mind once the ratings didn't show improvement with the added signal. (They actually dropped a little, Kuehne says.) Cargill took a hard look at REV, an adventurous station that wasn't turning a profit, and couldn't picture it in the new radio order: "As we saw all this consolidation in the market, we just didn't feel we were going to be able to survive."
"REV was local. They lived here, they worked here, they had a history, they had roots here, and ABC doesn't have that." -- Alan Freed, Beat Radio founder
The drastic national increase of radio station purchase prices is a matter of simple economics: The demand is going up while the supply is staying the same. And in Minneapolis, the supply is surprisingly meager; the city has only half as many stations per capita as the national average.
Minneapolis' status as an under-radioed market is mostly due to issues of licensing, not insufficient demand. A number of complicated factors affect where a transmitter can be placed without interfering with other signals, and the Minneapolis dial simply wasn't allocated optimally. That, Beat Radio founder Alan Freed says, makes the option of microtransmitting even more vital.
Last year, Beat Radio used a 20-watt transmitter to broadcast to a handful of neighborhoods in the metro area. For about three months, the station played dance music at 97.7 on the FM dial until the FCC seized its equipment in November.
Beat Radio had never bothered to apply for a broadcasting license. After all, the FCC would've never granted it; it requires FM broadcast stations to have a signal strength of at least 100 watts, arguing that smaller stations often cause too much interference for the coverage they offer.
Freed, however, says that the FCC is simply protecting the commercial status quo. (FCC officials could not be reached for comment.) Technology has advanced, he says, to the point where microtransmitters can operate without causing interference: In 1993, Canada legalized microtransmission in urban areas.
Currently, Freed is pursuing the matter in court. This might not be as quixotic a battle as it seems, judging from the success of Free Radio Berkeley in California. Last year, FRB successfully fought the FCC's preliminary injunction to shut it down, and for the time being the station is operating 24 hours a day.
The microtransmitter debate is only a symptom of a greater problem: that the radio spectrum is underutilized, and that those stations that do exist are increasingly less interested in devoting air time to local interests. The FCC has essentially stopped requiring that radio stations take an active role in their communities, says Ben Bagdikian, a University of California at Berkeley journalism professor emeritus and author of The Media Monopoly. As a result, he says, radio has gradually transformed into "muzak of a standardized kind around the country ... and people have stopped expecting more because they don't remember a time when they used to get more."
In part, REV 105 was founded on the belief that radio listeners did value community involvement. Its core listening audience was just as involved in the local music scene themselves, and if REV will be missed as a paradigm of radio experimentation, it will be just as missed as a focus. REV's ratings may have paled in comparison to the Edge's, but its listeners were much more active, says Let It Be owner Ryan Cameron. "The REV listeners used it more as information to find out who was coming to town and go see them, hear a record and go buy it," he says. "The Edge listeners ... hear whatever record they're playing and think 'Oh, that's great, I hope they play it again.'"
"The brilliance of REV 105 was that I would hear a set that would go Bob Marley to Nine Inch Nails to Black Sabbath. And that's how real people listen to music." -- Jim DeRogatis, Music critic and Sound Opinions host
That the buyouts of two alternative media sources occurred on one day is barely coincidence; the two events are both part of an increasing consolidation of media sources in this country. The variety of opinions is shrinking, says music writer Jim DeRogatis: "How many bad reviews did you read of the new U2 album or the Howard Stern movie? The answer is none, or hardly any. And there's this homogeneity of opinion and a lack of diversity and a lack of dialogue."
But industry heads argue that radio consolidation could actually lead to a more diverse market. As companies become wealthier, the argument goes, they'll feel more secure and more willing to take risks on new formats. In addition, if a company owns two stations of similar formats, it's likely to change one to avoid competing with itself.
This comes down to how you define diversity however -- whether you look at what songs are on a station's playlist or how stations use playlists in the first place. A difference in format isn't necessarily a meaningful one, DeRogatis says: "I mean, I can't tell any of the Edge DJs or the KQ DJs apart, can you?"
Radio is a niche market. Traditionally, it segments the listening audience as finely as possible to help advertisers target a highly specific demographic. So it only makes sense that the industry would gauge diversity by measuring the precision of that segmentation. But if REV was, as it claimed, revolutionary, it was because it offered its songs not as singles, but as parts of the whole of pop music -- because it strove to unite, not divide.
"REV 105, in ways, was founded on just going over to somebody's house and looking at their record collection," says Kevin Cole, who was REV's program director. The result was a format that avoided genre-based restrictions in favor of an overall attitude characterized by a firm awareness of pop history, an awareness mirrored in an individual's listening tastes.
When REV started, Cole says, it would play the newly popular Green Day next to old Who songs, comparing and contrasting two different instances of similar music. "We were trying to draw those parallels and juxtapositions musically," Cole says, "and that's something that radio doesn't do."
Unfortunately, it's not necessarily what people expect from radio either. Commercial music radio is predicated on singles that are calculated to appeal in a matter of seconds, and while music listeners often build eclectic record collections, they're usually much more fickle when they turn on the radio. REV hoped to offer a continuous mix of its own choosing, but most listeners never heard it because they were too used to crafting their own mix out of the six buttons on their car stereos and boom boxes.
REV wasn't just competing with the Edge; it was competing with every other commercial music station, which offered listeners a quick thrill while REV tried to persuade them to stay a while. Combined with the fact that REV's broad audience was a harder sell to advertisers, the challenge that REV faced was a formidable one. And perhaps it was a challenge that REV didn't face aggressively enough. Its eclecticism was miles ahead of the rest of commercial radio, but it still focused heavily on the guitar-based alterna-pop of today and yesterday. It paid short shrift to genres like funk, hip-hop, techno and acid jazz -- genres that its listeners probably would've accepted if they heard them as heavily as Soul Coughing or Ani DiFranco. REV just wasn't different enough, and as a result, says Star Tribune music writer Jim Meyer, it let the Edge define the terms of the competition. "When the Edge was so good at playing the megahits, it seemed to only leave the REV the odds and ends, the scraps from that are left over," he says.
Commercial music stations are almost never judged by such high standards, but REV's success depended on its ability to create something radically new, and its alterna-pop loyalty was too strong to truly give it the sense of excitement it needed to survive. You were more likely to hear international music on Radio K or a great Prince song on KDWB, and while REV's mix served its REVangelists well, it left a significant middle ground of open-minded listeners who respected REV more than they liked it.
But even this pales in the face of the industry upheaval that ultimately defeated REV, and here we find the most frustrating, if not the most depressing, part of the REV experiment: It was an experiment cut short by market trends over which Cole and Company had absolutely no control. We may never know if commercial music radio can be an instrument of coherence, not division. And if Minneapolis radio continues to become less signal and more noise, the airwaves may soon be filled with the static of a few corporations defining diversity for all of us.
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