When I was growing up, there was one radio station that pre-high school kids listened to up until the rap tsunami hit: Slam 103. Slam was mostly a Pop 40 radio station, for the most part, but it had a morning show with that wacky sidekick that people my age found amusing for reasons that elude me now. They played a wider variety of stuff, though, than did most stations. They actually discovered some talent that you have heard. They also shook things up with some techno stuff. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was what I would call a good radio station, but it was really quite popular with the young crowd and was in the top five along with a pop station, an easy listening station, and two country stations.

I drifted out of touch with Slam when I got into high school and stopped riding the bus. I really didn’t care for the techno stuff and I found that there were a couple other stations I liked better, but it still maintained a spot on my speed-dial. But it was still a popular enough station that they had billboards up and stickers posted everywhere. Then the company that owned Slam changed management. It was apparently management’s view that man, if this station is doing well now with their atypical programming, imagine how much better it would be doing if we made it like all of the other stations. So they instituted a policy where they wouldn’t play any songs that had not already been receiving airplay elsewhere for a full month. No more great discoveries. They also replaced much of the DJing with national hosts.

And over time, Slam 103 not only became not particularly worthy of my attention (it lost its spot on my speed dial), but became utterly irrelevant. The last time I looked up the ratings, it had fallen out of the top dozen. I’d hear about some DJ from that station coming back to Colosse and would find out that he left for some mid-range market in the midwest, which I was unaware of because, well, nobody cared about Slam anymore. After a while, it ceased being Slam 102 and became Steam 102 with HOT dance music all the time and then became something else a couple more times into relative oblivion.

Several years later, a radio station came out of nowhere and was an overnight sensation. They played a lot of the same music as the other stations, but they kept the chatter to a minimum. They made a point of this by making fun of pointless chatter and prizes that nobody cared about. It was in the top three within six months. Apparently, the idea all along had been that it would be a placeholder until it could be sold to someone else. They were bought out by ClearChannel. ClearChannel, impressed by its success, initially said that they would keep things as much the same as possible as they could since the station was doing so well. Then they decided, wouldn’t it be better if they had a morning show? People like morning shows. And hey, we should have contests! And before long… well, you know the story. It’s ratings fell, it became one of ClearChannel’s weakest properties, and they sold it to a company that switched to Tejano.

More than anything, that’s what drives (or drove) me crazy about radio. It’s not the limited playlist or that you can hear the same song on six different stations at once. I can understand why a formulaic playlist would be advantageous. I can understand why they would stick with what works. But on at least two occasions, they took something that was working fine and they completely broke it. Rather than saying “Hey, this new model seems to be working out. I wonder if we can try this elsewhere?” they think about how much better it would be if they took away everything that was unique about it and made it sound like everything else. Like they can’t even begin to imagine that in a world where a formula works, something that differs from the formula may have its own appeal even if the formula is successful where it is.

In the end, I guess radio stations have learned somewhat. The whole Jack-FM phenomenon is rather similar to the second radio station I talked about. More music, less chatter. And it’s also built on the premise that different can be good. Some stations only need a playlist of a few hundred songs, but if in a world of 500 one participant in the market plays 1000, that might get its own niche market. Jack-FM doesn’t exist in the Colosse market, but a couple years later an updial station took much of what made it successful and ran with it. Meanwhile, one of Slam’s cheif competitors from back in the day was – when I left Colosse – the number one station in the city.

* – You could tell because any time they talked about anything local, they would have someone else speaking.

Category: Theater

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One Response to Fixing Unbroken Radio

  1. Sheila Tone says:

    Ah, yes, Jack FM. Constantly reminds one of its tame target market with all the ads for stuff like kids’ cold medicine and 24-hour pharmacies where you can pick up medicine when your kid is sick at night.

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