For over two decades, local radio station 96 Wave has identified itself as an independent-minded arbiter of top-shelf vintage and modern rock music. They've adjusted their sound, schedule, and attitude numerous times over the years. This month, they stand at a new crossroads.
Last spring, 96 Wave celebrated its 20th anniversary with a month-long concert series featuring national and local acts. They also conducted a full day of "Wave on Shuffle" — an arrangement that allowed random songs culled from two decades of airplay to resurface.
Inspired by the staff's and listeners' positive response to Wave on Shuffle during this year's anniversary celebration, 96 Wave program director Dave Rossi decided to open the station's vast library of tunes to the jocks for a month-long experiment with their permanent format — an expanded, non-subcategorized "rock" format. In the process, however, several popular specialty shows were elbowed aside and put on hiatus. Consequentially, the move caused major upheaval among some loyal listeners.
Wave's Sunday evening specialty shows — "Kinky Reggae" (hosted by Star 99.7 FM veteran jock Jabaria from 7-9 p.m.) and "The Cutting Edge" (hosted by Bryant Stowe from 9 p.m. to midnight) — never hit the airwaves on Sun. March 5 as the "shuffle" continued into the next week. Many in the scene heard about the suspended Sunday shows on Tues., March 7, when local musician, booking agent, and radio show host Johnny Puke posted a bulletin on his MySpace.com page. It quickly made the rounds locally via e-mail.
"Well, I'm fired," opened Puke's lengthy statement. "96 Wave is experimenting with a new 'Action Rock' format, which means more Tom Petty, Black Crowes, and lots of Aerosmith, apparently. According to Dave Rossi, all of this is an 'experiment' which we all believe means that feedback can make a difference." He also speculated that the three-hour "Critic's Choice" — hosted by the Jim "The Critic" Voigt — was cancelled as well.
Puke urged listeners and fans to show their support for "The Cutting Edge" and his one-hour, punk-filled "Johnny Puke's Picks" segment by contacting the station via e-mail and telephone. "You can help show our last radio station free of Clear Channel corporate constraints that our town needs and deserves the best in all types of music no one gets to hear here otherwise," he said. While Clear Channel only owns and operates less than a quarter of the commercial stations in town, his anti-corporate sentiments were clear enough.
Through the week following Puke's announcement, websters posted and reposted the plea for support and awareness on MySpace.com and other blogs. "Without supportive radio, we have less touring shows, less local bands, less of a good place to live," he said. "I can't stress [enough] that I like everyone at the Wave, so no one is a prick here. Let's just let our last bastion of corporate-free, forward-thinking radio know how to best serve you, the listeners."
DJ Bryant Stowe, host of "The Cutting Edge," says he didn't hear about the suspension until that Sunday morning. A veteran of the show for over six years, Stowe had arranged a full-band band interview with The Addictions out of Texas, as well as upcoming interviews with local bands Maestro, L. Brown Odyssey, A Decent Animal and others.
"I've had tons of bands in the station in the past," says Stowe. "I hated having to cancel the upcoming interviews and segments. Dave told me he was putting the show on hiatus until further notice ... nothing specific. In order to let him know that we had a good listenership, people supported the show, and local bands and the local community appreciated it, Johnny put a note on MySpace.com to get people fired up to let the station know that they wanted the show. It's not meant as an attack on Dave or anyone; it's meant to show listeners' support. I wrote a response to that saying that hopefully it would come back. They could bring back the shows but, for now, I have my Sunday nights free."
So ... what now?
According to Wave management, "The Cutting Edge" is officially on temporary hiatus, but it feels almost completely dismissed to Stowe and his cohost, Puke — both of whom fully understand the volatility and spontaneous nature of the radio and music business. "It's not on any more, and the vagueness of not knowing when it's coming back makes it feel cancelled for sure," says Stowe. "When you work on a show for this long, you can't help but feel like your legs have been cut out from under you and part of you is just lost. I'll wait it out. I like Wave, and I have no plans to DJ elsewhere."
The cancellations were rough news for those who follow and appreciate the tangle of activity at 96 Wave. One of the strongest attributes of the station — as they regularly boast in an array of cleverly-produced promos — was (and hopefully is) their "independence" from suits in the corporate office over-managing the playlists with narrow rules and regulations.
96 Wave's sudden shift to a wide-open rock format left some listeners and local musicians wondering, what's going on? Will Sundays on Wave still provide coverage for underground, indie, and local tracks? Will daytime jocks still mix a few classics by Devo, The Ramones, or Camper Van Beethoven in with the Foo Fighters, Radiohead, and Stone Temple Pilots? Others wonder if Wave is going to shoot itself in the sneakers and chuck all the best on-air talent in exchange for generic clowns who sound like all the other FM rock jocks — the industry term for them is "pukers."
So far, the format shift has continued to amuse as much as it has confused, with DJs back-announcing sets of songs arranged in seemingly random fashion. The delivery is reminiscent of the good old days of early-era (late '60s and '70s) FM and '80s rock radio ... before there were such designations as "classic rock" and "alternative."
"We did the 'Wave on Shuffle' all [last] weekend and I thought, you know what, I don't want to stop the shuffle for 'Kinky Reggae' and 'The Cutting Edge;' I want to keep it going," explains Rossi. "I liked the way it sounded — the wide variety and the spontaneity — and I liked the fact that instead of a library of about 300 songs, which is what most radio stations play over and over again, that we pulled from over 2,000 songs. It's all stuff that we've played before. Wave has been a rock station for a long time, and we've changed along the way."
Over the last week or so, the new Wave music sets weaved back and forth, placing such classic-rock anthems as Rush's "Tom Sawyer" and The Doors' "L.A. Woman" between a groovy Dave Matthews Band tune, Orgy's industrial-strength cover of New Order's "Blue Monday," and U2's live version of "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
A 'Wave' of independence
Rossi, 40, became the Wave program director in 1991 and currently does his on-air work during the midday shift from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. He worked at Wave from 1987 to 1996 and participated in his share of format adjustments and upheaval. When he became program director in 1991, he and the staff confronted the hair-metal and chart-topping commercial rock format and revamped it with a completely new set of "alternative" tunes by bands such as Nirvana, The Pixies, Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, Jane's Addiction, etc. A few years after Rossi left the station, former owner Woody Bartlett sold 96 Wave to Apex Broadcasting out of Alabama. The station struggled to find its identity, delving into the nü-metal scene of the late '90s and playing a heavy rotation of Creed, Korn, and Limp Bizkit, to the dismay of long-time listeners who had loved Bartlett's renegade alternative rock station. In 2003, the new owners at Apex lured Rossi back to be program director. His influence was felt immediately, as he encouraged the jocks to play the better acts on the sidelines of the modern rock mainstream in addition to classic '90s alternative hits, '80s college rock, and occasional underground acts.
"It's always been a radio station that did its own thing and avoided being pigeonholed," Rossi says. "It defined rock in Charleston. Over the last year or so, I think we've let ourselves get stuck under the 'alternative' umbrella a little too much. So what we're trying to do is celebrate our 21st birthday all month with music we've played over the years."
While it may seem presumptuous and downright arrogant for Rossi and the staff to take it upon themselves to "redefine" rock and declare what's acceptable or cool, it's also a reflection of the varied tastes of the station's listeners, many of whom grew up with the older material Wave is pulling back into its format.
"I do like the idea that you can hear some bizarre things on the air that you'd probably never hear back-to-back," Rossi says. "What we're doing now was kind of spawned from the 'Wave on Shuffle' concept, but I'd just say that we're playing all the rock we ever played. It's a constantly evolving thing. On shuffle, anything could happen. We could go from Lou Reed into Poison into the Velvet Underground. We want to expand on that. You know, most classic rock stations play the same three songs or so by a band. For example, with a band like AC/DC, for the most part you'll only hear 'Back in Black,' 'You Shook Me All Night Long,' and 'Highway to Hell.' We already have 29 songs of theirs in the library. And the jocks decide. That's what we're trying to get back to — the days of AOR ("Album Oriented Rock") radio when the jocks had control over what gets played."
The Critic credits Rossi and station owner Dean Pearce for encouraging Wave's DJs to play from a more open format over the recent years. "They let us play what we wanted," he says. "We wanted listeners to never know what was coming next. We're trying to promote our independent spirit and get away from that giant corporate stuff."
For years, Critic and his fellow DJs have repeated the self-identifying mantra, "96 Wave: Charleston's rock alternative." These days, listeners will hear the same jocks making a newly adjusted announcement — "96 Wave: Charleston's rock station," which harks back to the station's earliest days when the phrase was "Charleston's Best Rock."
"I don't think that offering a broader variety is such a bad thing," says Rossi. "And I don't know what 'alternative' is anymore. It's kind of empty and I'm not sure if most listeners even know what it refers to. Honestly, we're going to just be a rock station. For some people, rock means the Counting Crows. For others, it's Led Zeppelin. Or James Taylor."
Rock ... or Active Rock?
Mike Allen, the operations director at classic-rock station The Bridge at 105.5 FM and sister "Active Rock" station 98X, took curious notice of last week's bulletins on MySpace.com from Wave's "Cutting Edge" hosts. "I think it's interesting to look at what they're playing, too; the Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Beatles, and stuff, which has to be kind of shocking to their audience," he commented. "I thought Puke said something about them playing 'Action Rock,' which I've never heard of. What we do is 'Active Rock.' I don't think they'll be playing the new Godsmack, Disturbed, or the things one would expect in an Active Rock format. What they're playing is what I'd call 'classic alternative' with some relatively new tracks. I'm not sure if their audience will follow along or not."
Such categorization is the stuff of national radio format guides. Among those used in the trade papers are "Adult Album Alternative (AAA)," "Adult Alternative," "Adult Contemporary," "Album Oriented Rock (AOR)," "Alternative Rock," "Americana," "Contemporary Hit radio," Hot Adult Contemporary," "Lite Adult Contemporary," "Modern Rock," "Rock AC (or "Jack")," "Oldies," etc. ...
Allen helped guide the major format switch from 98 Rock's classic format to 98X's "Active Rock" and oversaw the establishment of The Bridge at 105.5 — both in Jan. 2004.
98X and The Bridge both survived their first years and a recent natural disaster that knocked them off the air this winter. The antenna and coaxial cable took a hit of lightning at the transmitter facility on Johns Island (near the executive airport) on Sun., Feb. 12. 98X was back on the air relatively quickly, while the Bridge struggled with ongoing technical difficulties that were finally resolved last week.
The Bridge at 105.5 FM gradually "built the bridge" with older listeners and younger connoisseurs who tuned in to the laid-back classic rock and "deep cuts" rotation and specialty shows — including Gary Erwin's "Blues on the Bridge," the syndicated "King Biscuit Flower Hour" and "Grateful Dead Hour," and "Then & Now" (Sundays from 7-9 p.m.), a show hosted by the City Paper's Sara Miller which explores how favorite classic rock artists influence newer bands and musicians. "Then & Now" emulates the best efforts of a good college radio station, playing older artists such as Tom Waits, Roxy Music, Kate Bush, The Hollies, and T. Rex alongside modern tracks from the likes of The Shins, Rogue Wave, Broken Social Scene, Kings of Convenience, Air, and others more likely to appear on the college radio charts and in the pages of Paste or Magnet magazines.
98X, which is already home to "Local X," a program hosted by Amy Hutto that features an ongoing parade of local "hard rock" artists, recently decided to add a new specialty show called "Harder Faster" (from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.), which will feature extreme examples of modern metal.
"There have been some strong developments over the last year," says Allen. "The Bridge has slowly gained an audience and 98X is pretty consistent. It's pretty straightforward ... male, loud, rock 'n' roll stuff. The main adjustment we're going through is in the mornings. We put on a new morning show — the 'Tom Bolt Show with Jessica Chase' — because we lost Howard [Stern] to satellite radio, and that's going very well and continuing to grow, as is the new afternoon show with Potter."
As for the idea of Wave shifting back toward an Active Rock-styled format, Rossi laughs it off. "It's a song-by-song thing, but there will be no Limp Bizkit, Korn, or bands like that at all," he says. "We're trying to avoid those disposable bands, get rid of the crap, and embrace newer rock bands. We are not going for an 'Active Rock' format. 98X is an 'Active Rock' station. I don't want to be 98X. Let them have all the meathead music, I don't care. They can rock their balls off and rock even harder if they want. That's not what we're going for.
"We're going for a unique sound," he adds. "We're not going to go all classic rock, either. But instead of eliminating it, we're going to bring some of it back in. Some of it's dated, like Ratt, Quiet Riot, and Modern English. Songs by acts like these might not be included in rotation ... but might be included in a specialty show over the weekend sometime."
Hey, what about the local scene?
Despite the changes in format and the temporary withdrawal of "The Cutting Edge," Rossi vows to continue to break new artists and up-and-coming bands. He pledges the same support for local rock bands who've stepped up and made a name for themselves, too.
The station plans to continue to play local music on Sunday mornings and evenings — most likely with a new version of the "Local Look" segment added to Critic's morning show — as well as within regular rotation and the Sunday evening slots. This month, songs from four bands with Charleston ties — The Working Title, The Films, Slow Runner, and I-9 — have already been included in regular rotation.
According to the team at Wave, that kind of special attention and strong connection to the local scene enhances their state of independence from the "corporate vibe" of a mega-company like Clear Channel.
Clear Channel owns over 1,200 radio stations and effectively controls a major portion of the rock radio market across the country. Their market domination rose out of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was supposed to bring a new era of free-market competition in an industry traditionally dominated by government-regulated monopolies. Instead, it cleared the way for big companies like Clear Channel to move into more markets and buy up smaller stations.
The homogenization of national commercial radio has perhaps played the biggest role in turning listeners away and toward other music-on-demand sources. With that in mind, independent stations like 96 Wave, 98X, and The Bridge have tried to carve out niches by offering genuinely local personalities on the air — jocks and cohosts who know the area, and know how to deliver a colorful traffic or weather report, conduct an interview, and pronounce the local proper nouns correctly.
With a major presence on the local airwaves, Clear Channel runs The Drive at 100.5, along with four other stations in the area, including oldies station Y102.5 FM, classic rock station Q104.5 FM, modern country station WEZL 103.5 FM, and news/talk station 730 AM, WSC Talk.
For disc jockeys on The Drive, Q104.5, and Oldies 102.5, freedom of choice is barely an option as they're expected to stay within the boundaries of the pre-approved playlists and scripts. They invariably stick with the most familiar tracks by the most familiar artists with very little deviation. Oftentimes, the DJs prerecord their shows (a commonality in modern commercial radio), so when a local listener phones up to request a tune or ask a question, nobody's even in the DJ booth.
"In one week alone, we're dedicating over 100 spins to the locals — spins that could have gone to another Weezer track or whatever," Rossi says. "I assure you; there's no radio station in Clear Channel's entire universe that sounds anything like what we're doing right now. The idea is to play as wide a variety of rock as possible and to continue to help break good new bands."
98X's Mike Allen agrees with the anti-Clear Channel sentiment. "Clear Channel doesn't do 'local' well," he says. "They're a big national company and they don't allow a lot of custom tailoring. If I worked for a Clear Channel station, I'd have to consult with two guys higher up than me and get permission to play [local rock act] Souls Harbor, or [Myrtle Beach band] Confliction, or a local band that has some validity for our audience in regular rotation. If it fits what the Bridge or 98X does, we will add a local act to regular rotation. At most corporate radio stations, you don't have that kind of sway.
"It comes down to innovation," Allen adds. "Part of what drives it all is the fact that there are 27 radio stations in this town. People are trying to get their head above the crowd and trying to craft something and make it unique."
Potential for great, rule-breaking radio
While the competition for revenue and ratings fuels much of the adjustments in schedules and formats, the rise of new digital and on-demand technologies such as Sirius and XM Radio plays into the game as well. A hard fact for FM stations like 96 Wave, 98X, and The Bridge is that the repellent sameness of Clear Channel radio and the lure of digital and web-based alternatives will continue to distract listeners from their efforts. Many of today's avid music fans have turned their attention away from the free airwaves to iPods, streaming audio on the web, satellite radio, and other digital options. Certainly, more and more people will continue to tune out and log on and plug in elsewhere, so it's imperative for these local independent-minded rock stations to distinguish themselves with an exclusive format and a team of personalities.
If they can offer the listener something of high quality — something cleverly entertaining and relevant that can't be found elsewhere — they'll likely win some higher point shares in the Arbitron ratings.
The pleas and objections from Wave listeners who fear a step backwards may be premature, as the format shift might actually allow for the reinstatement of Stowe's "Cutting Edge," "Puke's Picks," and "Kinky Reggae."
If Rossi and the staff follow through on their experiments, they might even afford the opportunity in the long run to develop more cutting-edge programs in the vein of the nationally-syndicated "Little Steven's Underground Garage" (locals can catch the show on Q104.5 from 10 p.m. to midnight on Sunday nights), the BBC's long-running show "The Peel Sessions," hosted by the late John Peel, or the independent free-form style of WFMU 91.1 FM in the New York area. Anything's possible with the right "independent" approach. For now, listeners are left to wonder whether 96 Wave can stay focused and continue to feature the on-air personalities and the not-so-mainstream rock music that has made the station a unique entity in the Charleston market for 21 years. We have all month to decide whether or not the major changes will work.