Radio Radio

We search the airwaves for signs of intelligent life

EDITOR'S NOTE:People have been predicting the demise of radio almost from the day in 1901 when Guglielmo Marconi first transmitted electrical signals across the Atlantic. Every new invention was supposed to be the death knell of the medium: record players, movies, TV sets, compact discs, the Internet, Napster, disposable diapers. And yet radio has consistently flipped the bird to its naysayers.

It's still a thrill to stumble upon the Next Big Thing while driving home from work. Problem is, you're less likely to be surprised by radio these days. In two of the stories that fill the following pages, G.R. Anderson Jr. addresses the fact that commercial radio is increasingly owned by a handful of nationwide corporations with their eyes glued to the bottom line and their ears sealed in tin. Meanwhile, contributor Rob Levine argues, public radio's obsession with winning a lucrative demographic has obscured its mission. The only place where things are truly unpredictable, it seems, is on AM talk radio, where, as writers Paul Demko and Mike Mosedale found, Christian rockers and conservative white males are staging a raid.

So while radio may well be here to stay, it's hard not to conclude that, as Anderson opines in the essay that opens this package, the thrill is pretty much gone.

 


Popped Off
BY G. R. ANDERSON JR.

New Year's Eve, 1979. I had new pajamas from JC Penney, a sheet of paper, a No. 2 pencil, and a Lloyd's AM-FM transistor radio.

My folks and my father's mother had settled in front of the TV to celebrate alternately with Dick Clark and the Guy Lombardo orchestra. Given permission to stay up with the adults, I found a corner in our living room, plugged in the transistor (encased in black faux leather), and tuned into Casey Kasem counting down the year's top 100 songs on KDWB-FM (101.3).

Right up until the stroke of midnight, I sat glued to the radio and carefully wrote down, in descending order, the final top 42 songs of the year. Though I can recall several moments in my childhood where I obsessed on pop music, there's something about this particular geek-out that has always stuck in my memory. I was in fourth grade, in what was a particularly happy, well-adjusted time of my life. So what, I've always wondered, could possibly have driven me to such nerdy behavior?

Recently, I came upon the answer: true love.

 

You would think the hit songs of 1979 would be long gone, trampled under years of pop culture. After all, nobody still listens to Robert John or Peaches and Herb. Right?

Wrong. E.L.O. was at No. 42 on my list with "Don't Bring Me Down." That song still gets played almost daily in the Twin Cities' market; same with "Sultans of Swing" (or "Saltines," as I wrote it) by Dire Straits. "Logical Song" by Supertramp? Ditto. And don't forget retro hits like "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge, "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor, the Knack's "My Sharona," Blondie's "Heart of Glass," and, the No. 1 hit of the year, Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" Warranted or not, these songs are more than mere blips from a bygone era. They are drive-time staples.

Why do these tunes stubbornly refuse to fade away? To find the answer, one needs to go back to 1979, when FM was quickly replacing AM as the place to hear music, and a polling experiment dubbed "call-out research" was sweeping the radio biz. The brainchild of a DJ who rose to prominence on an FM station in Phoenix, the idea was to first figure out the "hook" of a song--the part that is most memorable --then play that fifteen-second splice of some twenty songs over the phone to a potential radio listener. (Never mind that some songs of the era, like Barbra Streisand's "The Main Event" and Elton John's "Mama Can't Buy You Love," might not have a quick, discernible hook. There were parts, according to the researchers, that people could recognize within the allotted time.)

About 200 listeners a week were asked if they recognized the song. If the first answer was an overwhelming no, the song could quickly be relegated to back-burner status. If the answer was yes, the next phone-poll question concerned general impressions of the song. The overall response, based on scale of one to five, determined how many times the record got on the air each week--in industry parlance, "spins."

This was a more scientific departure from how hits were chosen in the Fifties and Sixties, when AM radio was ruled by requests. That's because somewhere along the line, radio programmers realized that a mere ten percent of their listening audience was actually calling in their favorites. (If you believe the mythology, that's why the AM dial was ruled almost exclusively by the tastes of teenage girls.)

With the explosion of FM radio in the late Sixties, the calling habits of listeners became increasingly moot. Initially, that's because nobody really cared about the stereo frequency: There were no listeners and there were no advertisers. As FM pulled in hip listeners interested in new music, everybody started to look for a quick piece of the action. Already the bottom line, not the medium, started to become the message.

Radio stations soon learned that some 90 percent of their audience was "passive," tuning in for only a few minutes in their cars or listening to background music in the office. So, while familiarity breeds contempt from some of us, radio executives learned that they could create listener loyalty among the majority by reheating the same dish again and again. After all, nobody was sitting around waiting to hear a new single from the Beatles anymore. And they certainly weren't running to the record store to buy singles the way they once did.

That's where the phone surveys, which are still used by almost every major-market station in the country, come in handy. Call-out research provides an immediate gauge on an audience's mood--in an even more detailed way than quarterly reports from Arbitron, the firm that configures radio ratings. Stations figure out which songs listeners know and like, then play them until they hear differently. (The surveys also have a "burn quotient," which measures when exactly listeners tire of a song.) Why try anything else?

To this day, "Heartache Tonight" by the Eagles (No. 6 in 1979, according to Kasem's countdown) is instantly recognizable and still tests well. Meanwhile, a tune like Herb Alpert's "Rise," an instrumental that was No. 11 when I celebrated my fourth-grade New Year's Eve, would probably get little more than a bewildered response if tested over the phone today. Problem is, brand-new songs don't fare much better.

To say the least, call-out research was the beginning of the end for free-form commercial radio.

 

In the mid-1990s, another event polarized the state of music radio even further: The sweeping Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated several industries and relaxed rules for radio ownership. Advocates of the legislation, such as Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt and President Bill Clinton, claimed the move would encourage more diversity in ownership of the airwaves; the opposite proved true.

Until 1992, any one company was allowed to own just one FM and one AM station in any given market. In 1996, the act allowed for up to eight, with no more than five on either band. In just a few months, media giants like ABC, Viacom, and Clear Channel snatched up the best radio signals in the top markets. In the Twin Cities, the most emblematic blow was struck in 1997, when ABC/Cap Cities bought the three frequencies airing the fledgling and truly unique radio station Rev 105 (105.1, 105.3, and 105.7 FM).

The demise of the Rev was covered ad nauseam, by teary-eyed music fans from City Pages to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The more influential cultural shift, however, flew under the radar. Clear Channel and ABC started to play a game of corporate cat-and-mouse, flipping formats and counter-programming each other seemingly down to the minute. In the past, stations tended to stake out a format and stick with it. That era, with few exceptions in town, is over.

Well into the Nineties, KQRS-FM (92.5), for example--once a revolutionary, free-form station--could at least be counted on to help break the occasional new artist or song, such as blues Turk Jonny Lang or "Bittersweet" by Big Head Todd and the Monsters. In the summer of 1999, the competition at Clear Channel, which had had a hard-rock format on 100.3 FM (an outlet for new music), introduced WLOL-FM (100.3), playing "classic hits" of the Seventies and Eighties and threatening KQ's very foundation. Overnight, KQ, which is owned by ABC Radio, quit adding new music almost completely.

To certain circles of the hip, this may not seem such a big deal. But considering how many people listen to just these two corporate stations, and how they can influence other markets, it's difficult to overstate the effect of these corporate moves. The commercial reality: Playing old Steve Miller nuggets guarantees far more listeners than playing the latest single from the Strokes.

Take R.E.M., one of the few alternative bands from my youth that made it to big-time-radio play lists. I remember driving to my girlfriend's house one weeknight during my senior year of high school in 1987 and having to nearly pull over when KQ played "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)." It was weird. It was thrilling. It was new.

In 1996, the year of deregulation and the year R.E.M. signed an $80 million contract with its Warner Bros. label, the band was already beginning to fall out of favor with radio programmers, despite eight years of chart and radio success. Last spring Time-Warner/AOL, parent company to Warner Bros., reportedly considered shelving R.E.M.'s latest--and, to my ears, very good--album entirely. The label, according to some, understandably feared there was no room on the dial for the Georgia band.

The demise of bands like R.E.M. can also be traced, perhaps indirectly, to another element of the Telecommunications Act: The cost-cutting of several record labels that had been gobbled up when corporate conglomerates got the green light to jump into the entertainment business. As this happened, the music industry's founding fathers were let go. And people who had devoted their lives to new music were bought out.

Consolidation, along with the new radio culture, stopped the flow of our culture at the main vein.

 

I loved the Rev. I miss the Rev. But let it be said that I am not against populist pop music. I like stuff that's big, shiny, and hooky. And I don't have a taste for a lot of what is considered by the hipoisie to be indie rock. I would just as soon listen to "Livin' la Vida Loca" or Alicia Keys than to hear "Exit Music (for a Film)" or Jill Scott. On occasion, in a particular mood, I'll still listen to "Freebird" when it graces the airwaves. In this, I have just a hint of shame.

Still, despite my love for hits and classic rock, I tend to have a disdain for empty nostalgia; I want to hear songs I've never heard before coming out of my radio.

News flash: This is harder to come by in the Twin Cities these days. Only six major commercial stations, KDWB-FM (101.3), WLTE-FM (102.9), KS95 (94.5 FM), KTTB-FM (96.3) Cities 97 (97.1 FM) and 93X (93.7 FM), bothered to play anything by new pop artists in 2001. Of these stations, only KDWB and Cities 97 seem particularly interested in being the first in town to play a new song, and even that comes only after weeks of call-out research and chart observation. This, I am told, is better than it is in most markets.

There are few signs of hope. The current Arbitron book shows that ratings slipped a notch in key demographic groups for oldies stations like Kool 108 (107.9 FM) and WLOL-FM (100.3). Moreover, Clear Channel's V105 (Rev's eventual replacement, many formats later), which was relying on old R&B songs, flipped formats to Drive 105, the third go-round with some sort of alternative format. (From Ike Turner to Ike Reilly, is how one radio insider put it to me. Still, a quick listen reveals that Drive 105 is also mining for nostalgia, playing alterna-oldies like "Under the Milky Way" by the Church far too often.)

By all accounts within local radio circles, this creates hope that a change is gonna come. Still, it will be a long road. Awhile back, brand-name college bands like Built to Spill or Soul Coughing (remember them?) could do a two-week tour, play the Mainroom at First Avenue, and be sure that a station might play their music in the days before and after the show. Not so anymore--a big part of why club attendance has fallen in the past few years.

And it's not just the up-and-comers who are being shut out of radio. Last year saw the release of critically praised new albums by Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, and Elton John. So far, none of them has received much airplay, and only Dylan's went gold. Yet these artists' back catalogs fill the airwaves on a daily basis. (A similar fate has been bestowed upon the latest from Stevie Nicks, one of the few chicks allowed in the classic-rock boys club.)

Of course, it could be that these guys are just irrelevant now, but there's something else going on. Media conglomerates and advertisers have a fetish for what's becoming the "glory demo"--the demographic of 25-to-54-year-olds, especially men, in their "peak earning years." Fact is, a majority of these folks only want to hear what they know.

For instance, in the 1980s, ZZ Top made two videos for the songs "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Legs" that essentially defined heavy rotation in the early days on MTV. But for all the buzz the videos created, only "Legs" broke the Top 10, while the other languished at the bottom of the charts. More to the point, both songs get more spins in this market today than when they were current releases. I count three stations in town that play both songs incessantly, which is more than the number of stations in town that play David Gray.

My favorite pastime is hitting "scan" on my car stereo to see where I can ride the FM airwaves. Small rural or college stations crop up, but mostly I like to hear what the big stations in town are playing, and how often. Over the past five years, this masochistic habit has yielded increasingly limited and frustrating results. Still, I haven't given up. True love may not be blind, but it is forgiving.

A month or so ago, rummaging through a junk drawer at my parents' house, I found the list I made on New Year's Eve, 1979. Turns out my old Lloyd's radio still works, as well. Problem is, when I turn it on, the song remains the same and the thrill is gone.


 

The Radio Gods
Praise the lord, Christian radio is a hit
BY PAUL DEMKO

"Thank you, Jesus." Those were Chuck Knapp's final words on commercial radio in 1994. After three decades on the FM dial and fifteen years as part of Knapp and Donuts, a morning drive-time duo on KS95 (94.5 FM), he walked away from radio. There was just no room for Jesus during drive time.

Almost a decade later, on an early Friday morning in January, Knapp is back behind the microphone. "Good morning! Good morning!" he booms in a 50,000-watt voice as the clock ticks past 5:00 a.m., fiddle music playing in the background. It's a "no fear Friday" on KTIS (98.5 FM) and Knapp is once again part of a morning drive-time team: the Knapper and the Pastor. The top-of-the-hour news has just brought word that the mayor of Inglis, Florida, has issued a proclamation banning Satan from the town limits.

"So she wants to run Satan out of town," Knapp crows. "I have to agree." He then launches into a rapid-fire monologue that ranges from the weather to the Winter Carnival to a fishing house that has inexplicably been deposited on Interstate 35. "You're probably not having a good day if you lose your fish house on the highway," Knapp quips at one point. "Can I get an 'amen' for that?"

Knapp has a head of wispy gray hair, wire-rim glasses, and a bug-eyed expression of constant bemusement on his face. He stands behind the microphone in the station's gray-walled St. Paul studio, located on the campus of Northwestern College, occasionally clapping and singing along to the music. "My vision of morning radio is 'wake 'em up, get 'em up, stand below their windows with a garbage can or something,'" Knapp says. "Woo-hoo! Wake 'em up!"

A live track by Christian-music superstar Michael W. Smith is playing on the airwaves. "How many of you are hungry for God?" Smith calls out to the crowd.

Apparently a lot of people in the Twin Cities are feeling spiritually famished each morning, because in the last four years the Knapper and the Pastor have quietly become a drive-time powerhouse. While Tom Barnard's shock-jock routine on KQRS (92.5 FM) continues to dominate the early morning hours, among the prized 25-to-54-year-old demographic KTIS now routinely lands among the top five most listened-to stations between 6:00 and 10:00 a.m. And the station's audience is steadily growing. According to last summer's Arbitron ratings, the number of people listening to KTIS has increased by 43 percent since the beginning of 1999.

Jesus, it seems, is making serious inroads on the airwaves. In some ways it's a stealth campaign. KTIS mimics the tactics of commercial FM radio, with polished on-air personalities and music that at first blush wouldn't sound out of place on Cities 97 (97.1 FM). A third of the station's listeners aren't even regular churchgoers. Knapp says that people routinely tell him that KTIS sounds no different from other stations on the FM dial. "Are they starting to praise the Lord at KQ?" is his retort.

KTIS has become a financial phenomenon as well. In each of the past three years, the station--which is owned and operated by Northwestern College--has raised its annual operating budget of $2.5 million entirely through listener donations--during pledge drives that last just a few days. Hundreds of thousands of dollars more have been contributed to help deliver Christian radio to parts of Russia and Belize. Last year, between the station's annual "Shareathon" fund drive and a special campaign to pay for a new headquarters, KTIS raised more than $5 million. "I'm almost positive that no [Christian radio station] has hit that [number] nationwide," says Todd Isberner, president of ShareMedia, a consulting firm that helps KTIS and other religious stations around the country with fundraising.

Isberner adds that most Christian radio stations bring in closer to $200,000 or $300,000 annually: "You can't find a cleaner, more solid organization than Northwestern in terms of their financing and their funding."

This year's Shareathon was slated for less than two weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The station contemplated postponing its fundraising drive in deference to the victims and, allows station manager (and ordained minister) Rev. Jon Engen, because they feared listeners would be in no mood to shell out money for radio in the wake of the tragedy. Ultimately KTIS decided to proceed, but with ten percent of the donations earmarked for the Salvation Army to assist attack victims. The result was no different than in previous years: more than $3.5 million raised in three days. About 1,000 people contributed at least $1,000 and received a complimentary American flag. "We leave Shareathon each year with our jaws on the floor amazed at what God has done," says Reverend Engen, who works as Knapp's drive-time partner.

The rise of KTIS has been driven in part by the recent boom in contemporary Christian music. In July Newsweek declared it the "hottest genre in the entire music industry," with annual sales totaling $747 million. While much of the music industry staggered through 2001, sapped by the sluggish economy, sales of Christian music were up 13.5 percent, according to the Christian Music Trade Association. The godly fare apes every genre of popular music, from hardcore to country, but with a distinct focus on Jesus Christ. Steven Curtis Chapman (think Michael Bolton for the Bible set) has sold more than seven million albums. Last month Warner Music Group purchased Word Entertainment, one of the leading producers of religious music, for $84 million. "Christian music has finally come out of the closet," declares Knapp.

KTIS has also been helped by the lack of competition in the Twin Cities market. While religious stations are present on the dial, such as the Jesus-centric talk radio of KKMS (980 AM) and the traditional praise music of WCTS (1030 AM), no other full-powered FM station offers a contemporary Christian music format. "They've been very, very fortunate to really be the only player on the block here," says radio consultant Isberner.

That is likely to change before long. As Christian music has morphed into big business in recent years, two chains have spread across the country. K-LOVE, a nonprofit network based in Sacramento, now operates 45 stations nationwide. It also owns 122 translators that relay its signal over smaller areas, including the Twin Cities, where it is heard on 90.7 FM. K-LOVE president Dick Jenkins allows that the network is interested in acquiring a full-power station in Minnesota, but he declines to get into specifics because of pending business negotiations. "Demographically, the Minneapolis area is one of the best Christian-radio markets in the country," Jenkins notes. "There is a strong Christian influence from churches and colleges."

The other emerging player nationwide is Salem Communications Corporation. The company now has 13 stations in major markets such as Los Angeles and Dallas with a contemporary Christian music format. Because Salem already operates three stations on the Twin Cities dial, including the Patriot (see "Red, White, & Green," p. 14), the area would seem like a natural fit. John Hunt, general manager of the three local Salem stations, avers that "if an FM signal ever became available, we might consider trying it here."

Isberner notes that if either of these two growing radio networks were to purchase an FM signal in the Twin Cities, KTIS would have to "batten down the hatches." The station has already made significant changes to keep pace with modern times. Started by students at Northwestern 53 years ago, KTIS first hit the airwaves with the voice of Rev. Billy Graham, then president of the college, who offered a prayer followed by organ music. Over the years KTIS refined its approach to conservative Christian-based radio, with a format long on Bible passages and short on on-air personalities. "Northwestern radio has a long tradition of being very proper, very dignified, having incredible integrity, being very trustworthy," says Isberner.

In 1998 KTIS put that stodgy reputation in the unlikely hands, or rather the voice, of Chuck Knapp. At the time Knapp hadn't worked in radio for four years. His path to KTIS was a tortured one: Knapp says that during his three-decade run on commercial radio he suffered from chronic depression. Several times a year he would be overcome by what he describes as a "tsunami of sadness," during which he would become obsessed with the thought of blowing his brains out in a cornfield. In December of 1991, as Knapp describes it, he hit bottom. "All alone. Sick and tired of being sick and tired. Having this message coming stronger and stronger: cornfield, cornfield, cornfield."

Knapp says he finally freed himself from depression not with a handgun or therapy, but through Jesus Christ. "Finally I just broke," he recounts. "I just screamed out, 'I give up. I surrender.'" He asked Jesus Christ to guide his life "and from that moment on changes started to occur."

Knapp continued working drive-time commercial radio, but he became increasingly disenchanted with the bathroom humor and juvenilia that had become a staple of the morning routine. "Radio in general started to gross me out," he says. "I heard people saying things on the air that I first heard in the locker room in about fourth grade, and I couldn't imagine going that way."

Knapp parted ways with KS95 when his contract expired in 1994. He went to work for the local chapter of Promise Keepers, an evangelical group for men, and waited for his chance to get back behind the microphone. "When I left radio in 1994, my prayer was that someday maybe God would bring me back and put me on the air with a pastor," Knapp says. "It only took four and a half years."

On this "no fear Friday," a moniker introduced in the wake of September 11, Knapp is joined in the booth by the Pastor at 6:30 a.m. They both don loud Hawaiian shirts. In many ways their shtick is little different from the patter heard on FM stations across the dial. Knapp plays the role of the naive boob, always on the verge of slipping back into sin. Reverend Engen is the voice of moral authority, keeping his cohort in check, ever ready with a passage of Scripture.

Following the weather report, Knapp cues up an Osama bin Laden parody song that concludes, "There's a cowboy in the White House and he's coming after you."

Near the end of the show there is what might be called a "teachable moment." According to one news item, 3,600 pounds of Jimmy Dean Maple Flavored Pork Sausage Links have been recalled. As the Knapper and the Pastor contemplate this delicious tidbit, Reverend Engen offers this proclamation: "My wife doesn't like sausage."

It's the kind of inadvertent confession that any self-respecting shock-jock would feed on for days. Knapp simply pauses, grins, and moves on to the sports report.


 

MPR: Money Public Radio
Taking the public out of public broadcasting
BY ROB LEVINE

You've got to hand it to the folks over at Minnesota Public Radio's KNOW-FM (91.1) and KSJN-FM (99.5): Not only have they cultivated a highly educated, well-heeled audience, they have managed to convince those listeners that they are the sole reason the station stays on the air.

Take the network's tri-annual radio membership campaigns, one of which begins today. From a financial standpoint, there would seem to be no reason for the fund drives, which are pitched to listeners by on-air personalities as a civic duty. After all, the network has primary access to endowments and investments totaling more than $130 million that, in 2000 alone, generated $8.5 million in revenue. Throw in another $4.3 million in state and federal aid and MPR ends up with a whopping $12.8 million in annual income, just standing still. To top it all off, in fiscal year 2000 MPR took in $7.4 million more than it spent, which, coincidentally, is almost the exact amount it received from listeners. Yet MPR still comes around three times a year, hat in hand, begging for contributions.

The core problem for public broadcasting has always been funding, since it has no ongoing method of financing--like public broadcasters in Europe who are funded by various fees and taxes. Public Television has eased its financial burden by watering down content to attract corporate underwriting. MPR has taken a more nuanced approach: They've cultivated a moneyed audience and set up a complex corporate structure that mixes nonprofit and for-profit companies, then shares member lists and resources. Both strategies have created a sort of independence--but at a price. Public television, for example, is rarely worth watching anymore. And for those of us who are not part of its target demographic, listening to MPR has become an increasingly underwhelming experience.

Of course, unlike most commercial broadcasters, MPR actually works to objectively report the day's news and put it into context. That higher journalistic standard goes a long way toward explaining why MPR has become a national media juggernaut that raised more than $41 million in revenue in 2001 and controls more than 30 broadcast licenses. Still, there is a gaping distance between the kind of radio that people need to function in a democracy, or even would just like to listen to, and what is available from commercial broadcasting. MPR's standards would have to drop exponentially for most listeners to observe its shift away from the sort of populist programming most assume public broadcasting was designed to deliver. It seems those running the show hope that by the time people do notice, they'll have ceased to care.

MPR's Web site (www.MPR.org) advertises its success in audience cultivation, boasting that its listeners possess an annual "spending power" of $4.1 billion, that they are "110% more likely to have $100,000 or more in securities than the average Twin Cities adult," and that 50 percent have incomes greater than $50,000. A section called the "Appeal of MPR" highlights its audience's "High Discretionary Spending" and the fact that "43% travel internationally at least once per year."

These promotional talking points have started to influence the network's direction, on and off the air. Flip on the station anytime during the day, and chances are better than ever that the topic will somehow involve money, how to invest it, and where. One of MPR's longtime syndicated programs is Sound Money, an hourlong Saturday-morning show, repeated on Sundays, that focuses on personal finance. (Chris Farrell, the star of Sound Money, is the second-highest-paid journalist--the first being Bill Buzenberg, senior vice president of news--at the network. His $130,000 in compensation as "chief economics correspondent" dwarfs that of morning host Katherine Lanpher, who emcees two hours each weekday on Midmorning for the still eyebrow-raising salary of $90,000.)

Then there's MPR's Marketplace, a half-hour show on weekdays about, well, the marketplace. The show is such a franchise that it is spliced up and splashed throughout MPR's broadcast schedule. And no news report on MPR or NPR would be complete without an accounting of the day's stock-market action, sometimes played to the strains of "We're in the Money," replete with moral assessments about whether it was a good or bad day for the index.

Marketplace was purchased in 2000 from the University of Southern California in a package deal that also gave MPR Savvy Traveler, a one-hour show aired on weekends and aimed at listeners who travel internationally. These two new syndicated programs complement other MPR programming that targets well-to-do listeners, such as The Splendid Table, a cooking show aimed at gourmets, and Future Tense, a show that follows the tech industry.

Meanwhile, MPR's flagship talk shows, Midmorning and Midday, are frequently used to cross-promote the network's stars and their upscale appeal. Farrell occasionally gives investment advice on Midmorning, and Splendid Table host Lynne Rossetto Kasper frequently joins Lanpher to give advice on the joys of gourmet cooking (Lanpher also shows up on Kasper's radio show and Farrell's public TV program on personal finance). And if that's not enough fine dining for you, there's always the Winemakers' Dinner (part of the Twin Cities Food & Wine Experience), a yearly black-tie fundraiser for MPR hosted by Minnesota Monthly where, for $200 a head, supporters can rub elbows with the local glitterati.

The cultivation of this golden audience would all be for naught if MPR's corporate relatives could not capitalize on it, paying for the content itself and justly rewarding those who made it all possible. In this regard the executives at MPR are geniuses and have actually been called just that in the popular business press.

MPR can't just sell commercials to businesses and play them on the air. But it can offer underwriting deals that give companies opportunities to insert messages into the daily broadcast. The fact that many of these spots contain Web addresses and toll-free phone numbers shouldn't confuse you, dear listener. The messages merely give credit to underwriters. They are not actual advertisements. Yet, in fiscal year 2000, underwriters including the drug giant Merck, Northwestern Mutual Insurance, City Business, West Group, and DFL legislator Matt Entenza, forked over some $4.6 million to MPR for access to airtime.

Technically, the network meets the "commercial free" standard that's been set by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is funded by Congress and subsidizes MPR. Earlier this year, however, MPR spokeswoman Marcia Appel--in an effort to explain a $2 million drop in corporate financial support that required MPR to lay off 13 employees--told the Star Tribune that while the network doesn't run traditional commercials, they "do have sponsors and underwriters, and that pool of money is a subset of advertising."

The pursuit of a bigger audience for fundraising has also motivated MPR's recent forays into the Southern California media market, where it just signed a 15-year agreement to run a sleepy public-radio station in Pasadena, requiring an annual $3 million investment for the next five years. A Los Angeles Business Journal story published in January of 2000 reported that "the end goal [for MPR] is to generate programming that can be syndicated nationwide," with the goal of "more revenues for MPR, and the potential to create a new cash-cow series along the lines of Prairie Home Companion." The story also noted that MPR planned to turn the station into a "fund-raising powerhouse." Never mind there are already four public radio stations serving the area, with a combined budget of $15 million. MPR is hungry for listeners who can be turned into both donors and consumers.

Over the years, the network has mastered the art of synergy, hawking trinkets associated with its editorial content. MPR entered this business by marketing novelties associated with Garrison Keillor's aforementioned Prairie Home Companion, then added products associated with the content of other public-radio stations. By 1992 this side of MPR's business was called Rivertown Trading--a catalog company and subsidiary of Greenspring, which manages all of the network's for-profit ventures. At the time, Rivertown Trading was taking in annual revenues of more than $100 million.

In light of Rivertown's phenomenal growth, three of its top executives decided they wanted a piece of the action. By 1998 they had persuaded the board of the Minnesota Communications Group (MCG)--MPR and Greenspring's corporate parent-- to grant them something called "Value Participation Units" (VPUs). These VPUs were to be used to compensate the executives in relation to the growth of Rivertown, and promised them a percentage of any increase in value of the company. In the private sector a comparable arrangement would involve stock options. Bill Kling, the president of MPR and Greenspring; Thomas Kigin, vice president and general counsel for both MPR and Greenspring; and Donna Avery, Kigin's wife and then-president of Rivertown, were granted VPUs. But because there was no such thing as publicly traded Rivertown stock, the executives stood to profit most from the VPU arrangement if Rivertown were sold. This created a tremendous conflict of interest. Should MCG hold on to and operate Rivertown as an asset and revenue producer or should it sell the catalog company and create a permanent endowment? It's a good guess that the executives were influenced by the knowledge that, collectively, they could reap $7.6 million if Rivertown were sold.

This conflict was pointed out in a report by the Minnesota Attorney General's Office in January 1998, which raised concerns about the potential for private profit should MCG decide to sell one of its for-profit subsidiaries. Two months later Rivertown was sold to the Dayton Hudson Corporation for $123 million, which resulted in VPU payouts of $3 million to Kling, $3 million to Avery, and $1.6 million to Kigin. Local and national media questioned the amount of the payouts, but no one looked into the legality of the VPUs.

Normally it probably wouldn't have been easy to get such a scheme approved by a nonprofit board of trustees, but the executives at MPR had eased the way by filling the board with just the sort of people who would understand such a compensation system--executives from the financial industry itself. By 1999, 25 of the 36 members of the MPR board came from the corporate and/or financial world. Many of them were representatives of investment houses and banks, or businesses associated with that industry, including executive headhunters and executives from PR firms. And though MPR has the largest broadcast newsroom in the state, and boasts the call letters KNOW, the only journalist on the board was Bill Buzenberg.

Whether one considers the Rivertown deal and its attendant compensation to top MPR executives right or wrong, there is no denying the financial stability it provided to the network. MPR's large endowments, combined with government monies, conservatively guarantee the network an income of more than $13 million per year. As for pledge drives like the one that got started this week? The truth is MPR really doesn't need your money.

Other public broadcasters do, however. KFAI-FM (90.3), for instance, offers listeners international news and opinion from a chorus of alternative voices, all for an annual budget of about $1 million. And their endowment is worth even less. So unless you really need one of those special gifts they give at MPR for making a monthly pledge (an O Brother, Where Art Thou? CD or the chance to win a trip to Paris), you might think about investing in public radio stations struggling to raise the radio bar in Minnesota. Otherwise, you are simply giving your money to people who want to talk some more about money.

Editor's note: Rob Levine is coeditor of two Minneapolis-based media-criticism Web sites, www.mediatransparency.org and www.cursor.org.


 

Red, White, and Green
A hard-luck am station takes a hard right into politics
BY MIKE MOSEDALE

Hugh Hewitt is feeling the love. It is a little after 8:00 p.m. on a weekday in late January, and the Los Angeles-based talk-radio host has just wrapped up a broadcast from an ice house on Lake Minnetonka. For the past three hours he has talked fishing. He has chatted up sponsors. He has made cornball jokes about "Minne-so-cold."

Between the advertisements for debt-consolidation services, baldness remedies, miracle weightloss products, and all-natural memory enhancers, Hewitt has managed to interview some of Minnesota's most notable Republicans: U.S. Senate candidate Norm Coleman, gubernatorial hopefuls Tim Pawlenty and Brian Sullivan, and John Kline, onetime Congressional candidate and now vice president of a local conservative think tank, the Center of the American Experiment.

Now Hewitt is making his way to a podium at the nearby BayView Event Center. The ballroom is festooned with the red, white, and blue logo of the Patriot, WWTC-AM (1280) an Eagan-based radio station that broadcasts Hewitt's drive-time show six days a week and is sponsoring the evening gathering.

This is the station's first big promotional event since it adopted its all-talk format, and there is a giddiness in the air. About 250 fans shelled out $12.80 for the opportunity to mix with their fellow Patriot devotees and a chance to meet Hewitt. After three hours of cocktails and appetizers, they are primed when the radio host, who is still dressed in insulated ice-fishing bibs, takes the stage.

Hewitt doesn't disappoint. Talk-radio stations like the Patriot, the ebullient host tells the crowd, don't merely aim to entertain. They are looking "to change the political and social climate" of the country, to restore "commonsense conservatism" to its rightful place in the national ideology. "And this is the type of radio that, hopefully, can turn around the type of places that elect Paul Wellstones," Hewitt proclaims. There is a robust round of applause, then Hewitt steps into the throng to pose for pictures and press the flesh.

Since inaugurating its new format with a 24-hour marathon of John Philip Sousa marches and other patriotic songs last March, WWTC has established itself as, if nothing else, the most bombastic radio station in the market. Literally. The station's promos regularly feature the sounds of explosions: "Political correctness? [Kaboom!] Not on our watch!" goes one; another likens the Patriot's impact to that of a cruise missile. And then there are the not-so-subtle pitches to the listeners' ideology. "Finally, news talk with your perspective."

With the exception of a locally produced Saturday-night oldies show, all the programming aired on the Patriot consists of syndicated call-in shows. Patriot general manager John Hunt says the station aims to provide listeners with national perspective, unlike its chief rival in the talk market, KSTP-AM (1500), which relies on homegrown hosts. "They're kind of like the Star Tribune, and we're kind of like USA Today," Hunt offers.

The Patriot's hosts regularly veer into strange territory--even by talk-radio standards. On one recent show, morning host Mike Gallagher intimated that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, presumed to have been kidnapped after attempting to meet with a radical cleric in Pakistan on January 23, had not been abducted. In one of the now infamous photographs of the captive Pearl, Gallagher posited, it "looks like he's got a big wide smile, like he's laughing." Gallagher supplied no reason why Pearl would participate in such a deception.

A few days later, late-night host Roger Fredinburg blamed illegal immigration on the availability of legal abortion in the United States. Abortion, Fredinburg explained, created a domestic labor shortage. Afternoon host Michael Medved, a former film critic and self-avowed "cultural crusader," devoted much of a recent broadcast to the sweeping contention that "commonsense conservatives are just nicer people than idealistic liberals." A subsequent Medved show was dedicated to exposing that most "despicable" and "immoral" threat to American life: body piercing.

But without question, the edgiest and most provocative character in the Patriot lineup is the San Francisco-based Michael Savage. Now syndicated in more than 300 markets, his show, The Savage Nation, is played on the Patriot twice on weekdays, once on Saturdays. It is a peculiar blend: populist rage, spat out in a New York accent, with death-metal bumper music and over the top rhetoric.

In recent weeks, Savage has denounced everyone from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan ("a limousine leech") to Walter Cronkite ("a seditious hack"). Al Gore is "a socialist One World-er." New York Congressman Gary Ackerman is a "Stalinist." And in an often repeated Minnesota-specific promo for his show, Savage describes Paul Wellstone, in the space of 15 seconds, as "a nitwit," "a moron," and "a schmuck."

But Savage's chief concern is immigration. "You are going to wake up in a country that has been taken over by strangers. We have been invaded," he warned listeners last week. Most immigrants, Savage added, are coming to the U.S. from the Third World--not a good thing since "most of the people in the Third World are lazy."

Despite (or perhaps because of) the predictable accusations of racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, The Savage Nation has proven remarkably successful. The show was recently declared the fastest-growing talk show in the country by the industry publication Talkers Magazine. And in San Francisco, Savage dethroned talk-radio icon Rush Limbaugh as the market's top-rated host in the last ratings period.

"Sooner or later, Tiger Woods had to come along and give Jack Nicklaus a run for his money," says the Patriot's Hunt. "Savage gets people worked up. And you can easily listen to him and think this guy is full of anger and hates people. A lot of people don't listen long enough to see beyond the shtick. But if you look beyond the shtick, you can see that there is some really good comment. That's what our audience wants: some meat on the bone."

Call it meat on the bone, shtick, or hate speech, Savage and the rest of the Patriot lineup have managed to put WWTC back on the Twin Cities radio map. Aside from a brief heyday as an oldies station called the Golden Rock in the early Eighties, WWTC has seldom garnered enough listeners to even merit notice in the Arbitron book, the industry's ratings bible. In the period from September to December, however, the station pulled in its best ratings in nearly two decades.

"It's had an interesting history. There were always a lot of strange goings-on there. Management screw-ups. Staff turnover. One thing after the next," says Minneapolis author Jeff Lonto, who wrote and published a book about WWTC called, aptly enough, Fiasco at 1280. Following its glory days as the Golden Rock, WWTC changed ownership and formats with regularity: From urban dance to all-weather to news, briefly back to oldies, then to children's programming, and, finally, to religious broadcasting. The experiments had one thing in common: They all flopped.

The signal's drift came to an end when Salem Communications bought 1280 (and another AM station in Milwaukee) for $7 million last February. The California-based chain, which owns 81 stations nationwide, specializes in commercial Christian teaching and talk, with a sub-specialty in contemporary Christian music. In the past two years, though, Salem has branched out into the secular talk format and now has ten such stations nationwide. It also syndicates its own stable of hosts, including Patriot regulars Hewitt, Gallagher, and Medved.

Because the company already operated KKMS-AM (980), a Christian talk station broadcasting to the Twin Cities market, buying another station here made sense, says Hunt. The Patriot shares offices and staff with KKMS. And since introducing the Patriot format in March, the station has slowly built up an advertiser base.

"We're doing something that hasn't been done in this market before. On the negative side, people say we're biased, we're racists, we're hatemongers," Hunt says. "On the other side, there are people saying, 'I'm glad someone is finally presenting my point of view.'"

The numbers are still relatively modest. According to Arbitron, the station recorded a weekly "cume" (which measures the total size of audiences) of some 40,000 listeners 12 years of age and older during the fall ratings period. By comparison, KSTP-AM pulled in a weekly cume of 305,000 listeners; WCCO-AM (830), the market's dominant AM frequency, scored more than 500,000. Not surprisingly, the Patriot's audience is predominantly male (by a more than three-to-one ratio) and middle-aged.

As Hunt sees it, that's just fine: "We don't intend to be as large as WCCO, and we're not a radio station everyone is going to want to listen to. It's not our goal to be the number-one or number-two station in the market. We're basically a niche direct-marketing company. And marketers know that if you can define a niche, sometimes you can command a higher price. We have very narrowly focused our audience--a little older, a little more affluent, and a little more educated. We think there's money in that demo."

Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine, says the competition for audience has become increasingly intense in recent years. In the mid-Nineties hundreds of former AM music stations switched to the format, and syndicated hosts like Limbaugh, Howard Stern, and Laura Schlessinger became radio's new stars. In the past few years, Harrison adds, the growth of market share has leveled off--at around 16 percent. So stations like WWTC have increasingly staked their hopes on finding the smaller niches.

What sets the Patriot apart, Harrison says, is not the ideological extremity; it's the promotional approach: "Conservative talk radio is a format of talk radio just like Christian talk or sports talk. It's a genre unto itself with a big following. But in terms of marketing, what they're doing is a little bit different. They're actually marketing the fact that they're conservative. Most stations try not to allow themselves to be labeled."

If the Patriot is about nothing else, it is about labeling--from the relentless self-branding ("patriotic before it was cool") to the epithets the hosts spit out at straw men, politicians, and immigrants. Perhaps that's because these stereotypes offer a reassurance to the station's listeners that there is something absolute and definite in an uncertain world.

And how would one label the listeners of the Patriot? A quick survey of the advertisers paints a dismal picture: The baldness-remedy folk. The weight-loss folk. The debt-management folk. The invest-in-gold folk.

Does this mean the station's much-ballyhooed target demo is balding, fat, in debt, and yearning for a return to the gold standard?

Maybe. Or maybe they're just pissed off.


 

Old-School Sell
Independent promoters work both sides of the biz
BY G.R. ANDERSON JR.

To hear local radio promoter Tom Kay tell it, the LeAnn Rimes song had at least two strikes against it. For starters, "Can't Fight the Moonlight" was released more than a year ago on the soundtrack for the movie

Coyote Ugly and, as a result, to radio stations nationwide. Then there was the movie itself: a critically panned box-office dud that threatened to turn any song attached into an entertainment-industry joke.

A call Kay received in September from Rimes's label, Curb Records, did not quell his misgivings. A new regime at the Nashville label had decided it was time to transform Rimes from a child star in the fading country spotlight into a pop radio diva. To some, this would seem to be a slight distinction. But for Kay, it was a potential roadblock; at least two Twin Cities pop stations had passed on putting "Can't Fight the Moonlight" in heavy rotation the first time around, and they were still among the three stations that could break the tune locally.

"The song kind of went away," Kay recalls, noting that WLTE (102.9 FM) did warm to the LeAnn Rimes song "Soon" in the interim. But, he says, the label convinced him that "Can't Fight the Moonlight" had "untapped potential." So, a music-industry veteran of 35 years, Kay assigned the Rimes project to Main Street Marketing and Promotions, a company he started in 1986 to help labels get songs on radio stations around the Midwest.

As it turns out, video sales of Coyote Ugly had been quite strong. And the soundtrack, which features the Rimes song, was selling as many as 35,000 copies a week. More important, Kay found the song had "researched well," getting both recognition and positive feedback from listeners on the Internet and in phone surveys. Soon Kay was calling program directors in the Midwest, doing his part to launch Rimes into the Top 10. Within a month, the song was in heavy rotation on a station in Saginaw, Michigan; by mid-November, "Can't Fight the Moonlight" once again hit the Twin Cities' airwaves.

Kay's synergistic sleight of hand went unnoticed by radio listeners in the region, but insiders were no doubt paying attention. That's because Kay and other independent record promoters are the players on the fringe of a billion-dollar business. They chat up major labels for a piece of the action on up-and-coming artists, then they relentlessly schmooze local programmers. And every week, for better or worse, they stake their reputation on a handful of new songs in an industry increasingly dominated by conservative corporate conglomerates.

It's no secret that many music lovers think corporate radio sucks. And those of Kay's ilk don't necessarily disagree. They also know that what they do conjures up sleazy music-industry stereotypes. There's the stigma of the scandalous system of payola--in which promoters paid radio stations for airplay--that marred AM radio in the Fifties and rocked FM commercial radio in the mid-Eighties. There's also a perception that indie record promoters, no matter how "clean," are still just hustlers-- pawns in a cynical, bottom-line industry that cares nothing about good music. But Kay and his peers will tell you that they are the last of the true believers; the old-schoolers who have ridden the music industry's many ups and downs, still groove on the latest music, and can pick a hit a mile away. They listen to radio. They understand radio. They love radio.

"I like to think we teach people how to be better radio people," Kay says of his industry contacts. "I still believe that radio is the best way for music to reach people who want to hear music."

 

When Tom Kay is working the phone, his low voice and calm demeanor make it seem as though he couldn't give a whit about what song gets played where. He'll calmly call up a database on his computer, maybe tell a radio programmer in Milwaukee how many other stations have the new Nelly Furtado single in heavy rotation, then hang up. But that's all it takes. The seed is planted.

He'll call back in a week and the Milwaukee station will be playing the song 20 times a week. He'll call back in a month, and Milwaukeans will be hearing the song twice as much. All the while, he'll be doing the same in St. Louis or St. Cloud. Then he'll pick up Billboard magazine to find that Nelly Furtado has a Top 10 hit.

"Not a great profession sometimes," Kay says, adding with an amiable irony that he once played Beatles tunes as "currents" (industry lingo for new songs) around the state of Minnesota as a young DJ. "But I believe that integrity means something in this industry--still."

Surrounded by gold records and posters signed by the likes of Lenny Kravitz and Nikka Costa in his St. Louis Park office, Kay riffs cautiously about the rules of the radio game, but he lights up when he talks about how it's a "challenge like never before to find a hit for an artist." Finding a No. 1 song is like "trying to catch lightning in a jar," he says.

Ultimately, of course, money rules. And though Kay won't say what he makes annually, he will say that he works for five to ten labels on a retainer, pushing songs to as many as 150 radio stations at any given time. He notes that an "add" (getting a new song on a station) in the Twin Cities usually costs $1,000; and can run from $500 to $5,000 elsewhere, depending on the market. A label can spend $250,000 to $750,000 just to get a single song on the radio.

Which means there's enough going around for other promoters, like Michael Van O. at Midwest Music Alliance in Stillwater. When I call him on a typical weekday afternoon, Van O. comes on the line briefly, does a little jive-talking, then puts me on hold to take another call. Then another. In no time Van O. is juggling calls from two labels and four radio stations at once. Finally, his smooth baritone is back on the line. "With the last 26 years on the music side of the business," he says enthusiastically, "I know a hit when I hear one."

Van O. is a looser cannon than Kay, his rapid-fire cadence markedly more aggressive. Another difference: He doesn't actually work any radio stations in the Twin Cities market. An East Coast disc jockey in the Seventies, he went on to head promotions departments for such forgotten labels as Polydor and A&M in the Eighties. In 1990 he settled in Stillwater and has since promoted songs to about 30 "rock" (think perennials like Aerosmith), "active rock" (Linkin Park), and "alternative" (once R.E.M., now Sum 41) stations around the country.

"I love the stuff I hear even now," Van O. exclaims. "When a friend at Elektra played me the new Staind single over the phone I just flipped. We were yelling, 'Number-one record!' over the phone to each other."

The cash flow for Main Street, as for Midwest Music Alliance, is pretty basic: A label contacts the independent promoter, asks him to chat up a song to radio programmers, and pays a fee based on how long and how many songs a particular project might involve. If the label gets a hit out of the deal, they call again. If the station gets a hit, the programmer will listen to the promoter the next time he comes calling.

There is, however, an ever-shrinking pool of commercial FM stations willing to play new music in the Twin Cities (the 16th-largest radio market in the United States), including: K102 (102.1 FM), a country station; 93X (93.7 FM), an "active rock" station; B-96 (96.3 FM), an urban station that plays hits from Outkast or Brandy; Cities 97 (97.1 FM), an adult format that mixes David Gray and Hootie with classic-rock staples; WLTE (102.9 FM), another adult format, KS95 (94.5 FM), yet another adult format, the new Drive 105 (105.1, 105.3 and 105.7 FM), an alternative format of sorts; and KQRS (92.5 FM), which occasionally picks up new stuff from dinosaurs like Mick Jagger.

With the exception of K102 and KQ, Kay works all of the "contemporary" stations. None, however, has the power and influence of KDWB (101.3 FM), a brand-name Top 40 station with call letters that signify a proven, 45-year track record.

"KDWB will play maybe three new records a week, and when they do everybody in the country pays attention to what they are," Kay claims. "We're all after airplay on KDWB."

Rob Morris, program director for seven years at the station, says he and his staff use several sources to determine what songs will hit the airwaves, including phone surveys, requests, and industry trade sheets.

He has programming down to a science. Still, he will chat with Kay on the phone a few times every week. Beyond that, Morris is somewhat reluctant to say much more about Kay or other promoters who call him, maybe out of fear that it might look unseemly. "He's paid to talk about a record, but not necessarily to tell us what to play," Morris says of Kay. "We listen to everybody."

Morris estimates that each week KDWB has room for roughly 2,200 "spins." Of those, perhaps the top 20 songs get played 65 to 80 times a week. Another 20 current songs will get 10 to 20 spins a week, while 5 to 10 "gold" songs--say, "Kiss" by Prince--will be dropped in periodically. Though Morris says 30 to 50 new songs get sent to the station each week, only a tenth of them make it on the air.

"For us, it's all supply and demand," Morris concludes, adding that the station mostly targets female listeners, ages 18 to 49. "We play what they want to hear and we have a limited number of slots, so we pick carefully."

For the same reason, Kay and Van O. must choose their battles wisely to ensure that radio programmers get a hit in their hands. "Mostly we just fill in the blanks when there isn't a local or regional promoter from a label." Kay says. "Forget about payola. KDWB's charge is not to make money but to win a certain [demographic] based on songs we promote to them."

"[Kay]'s got his ear to the ground," Morris says. "The LeAnn Rimes one, maybe radio just missed that the first time around."

Still, "Can't Fight the Moonlight," available on the Coyote Ugly soundtrack, surprises even Kay. "They did everything right with that movie except for the movie part," he quips, adding that he is close to getting the song added to the play list at KS95 and WLTE-FM. But Kay doesn't want to push these stations too hard, for fear he might tarnish his congenial reputation.

Then again, he might not have to: By last week, the song was No. 12 with a bullet on the Billboard pop singles chart, poised to crack the Top 10. "With that one," he says, "I've done my job."

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