Streaming services won't kill live radio, according to the on-air personalities who fill our local airwaves.
Radio doesn't need your pity.
None of the big threats—television, music television, the Sony Walkman, cars equipped with CD players, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, satellite, and now streaming services and podcasting—have managed to bury radio. While there is no question that more choice means a thinner slice of the overall entertainment pie, terrestrial (local) radio still has inherent advantages over other media—the fact that it's relatively inexpensive to produce, free to consumers and available within arm's reach being the most obvious.
“All of my musical tastes were formed from what I heard on Columbus radio,” says local musician Colin Gawel. He grew up riding the COTA bus to campus record stores, spending his lawn-mowing money on music he heard on Q-FM 96 and 92X. Once he started playing in bands, including Watershed, he credits 99.7 The Blitz and CD 102.5 (then CD 101.1) for helping him gain an audience.
Ultimately, it is the relationships—the strong bonds the on-air personalities have with Columbus listeners—that allow it to endure. This month, we take a look at the state of radio in Columbus—its challenges and triumphs, its reliability and appeal, as well as the continuing threat against it—as assessed by its stars.***
The Torchbearers: WLVQ
Kristie Kemper has one of the last great smoky DJ voices in the business. Jerry Elliott is the guy you can count on for a continuous stream of wry observations and one-liners. Together (along with, first, Mark “Daddy Wags” Wagner, and now Scott “Torg” Torgerson), they have shepherded stoners and soccer moms alike through their morning commute for nearly 30 years. Program director Thom McGinty is an industry veteran who came to the station in 2016 and sees his role as “a steward of a great brand.”
WLVQ (96.3 FM) is the consummate heritage station. It has maintained the same format since the day it went on the air in 1977 (a lot of Aerosmith, AC/DC and Heart) and cultivated a fiercely loyal audience, many of whom first listened to the rock station in the back seat of their parents' car and now continue to listen to what's dubbed classic rock as they drive their own kids around town.
“The beauty of that,” says Elliott, “is that rarely does someone listen for 14 years and then stop.” The downside is having an audience that will ultimately age out.
“I love classic rock—it's what I grew up on—but this has been difficult for us,” says Kemper of Q-FM's unchanged format. “Our core artists aren't producing popular music like they used to, which is why people are paying $400 to see the Eagles in concert.”
McGinty is persistently optimistic, acknowledging that Kemper's 26-year-old daughter loves Pink Floyd. “Will rock go away? Not in my lifetime. We call our format ‘iconic rock' because if you go to any major sports games around town, what's playing? My playlist.”
The days of being flush with promotional cash to take a busload of listeners up to Put-in-Bay or broadcast from a Real World-style condo may be long gone, but getting out into the community remains an important part of the gig. “You can't just be a voice on the radio. You have to get out there and get to know your audience,” says Kemper. Elliott agrees: “Because they hear you every day, [the listeners] feel like they know you. It's all a part of it.”
He knows public tastes, and management whims, can be fickle. Q-FM is owned by Saga, which also owns Sunny 95 (WSNY 94.7) and Mix 107.9. But the staying power of Q-FM's on-air talent is notable. “You've got to play young to stay in the game,” says Elliott, who's been part of Q-FM's morning team since 1990. “There's a ton of young people eyeing my chair, and they'll do it for a third the cost.”
“Local radio is not dead,” says Kemper, a morning show member since 1991, “but we can't be stubborn; we have to adapt and evolve.”***
The Innovators: iHeartRadio
By far the largest radio operator in the country, iHeartMedia locally owns WCOL (92.3), WNCI (97.9), WZCB (106.7 The Beat) and WODC (93.3 The Bus). But in March the media giant filed for bankruptcy. Despite tremendous growth in recent years, it was burdened by crippling debt after purchasing Clear Channel just before the economic crash of 2008. Instead of shutting down, the company traded debt forgiveness for company stock.
If anyone at the local stations is worried about the status of their parent company, they don't let on. WNCI program director Michael McCoy is upbeat, buoyed by the potential in new technologies. “Smart speakers are going to save us,” he says, pointing to the Amazon Echo, the Dot and assorted other brands that line his credenza inside the iHeartMedia offices off Fifth Avenue near Marble Cliff. He commands Alexa to “play WNCI,” and she does. Ninety percent of the overall iHeart audience listen via transistor. “But more and more people are streaming all the time,” McCoy says.
To him, it doesn't matter how people consume the content, as long as they spend time with the iHeart brand. “Because of the size of our company,” continues McCoy, “we have the resources to continually get down and dirty in the markets and ask what listeners like and don't like about our stations.” This ability to generate granular data will yield significant insight for advertisers.
Down the hall, at WZCB, 106.7 The Beat, “The Big Man Konata” Holland understands how technology removes the barrier between on-air personalities and the listener. In the past, the only way to connect was to call the station and try to break through the busy signal with persistence. “Now,” he says, “they can reach right out via social media and say, ‘I love this,' or, ‘That thing sucks.'” When he was laid off after 18 years with 107.5, Holland used his severance to buy studio equipment. “I thought, ‘They can tell me I can't be on their station, but they can't silence me.' ” He created a podcast that mirrored his show with music, interviews and produced segments. He courted advertisers and built a website that ultimately attracted followers. When 106.7 The Beat hit the airwaves, he created a #hirekonata hashtag and listeners flooded the iHeart phone lines. Not only did he get an on-air job, but they made him the program director.
Woody Johnson epitomizes what it means to “begin the day with a friendly voice.” While listeners of his morning show, Woody and the Wake-Up Call on WCOL, revel in his prank calls, he insists that if the person isn't laughing by the end of the call, it doesn't go on the air. Originally a farm boy from Nebraska, Johnson first came to Columbus in 1992 and says he found something particularly special here. “I've worked in cities bigger than this, but the call letters here mean something in the industry. There's a lot of respect for this market, which doesn't always happen.” He credits the number of mature morning shows that really connect with their audiences. “That's something that satellite radio can never do and won't ever be.”
Johnson knows the value of audience and loyalty. In April, he took over the afternoon drive-time slot at 610 WTVN-AM after the sudden death of local radio icon John Corby, in addition to keeping his morning gig on WCOL. “I can't explain my decision because it doesn't make a lot of sense at this point in my life to double the length of one's day, but John and I were friends for years, so maybe there's something to that.”***
The Cool Kids: WWCD
In 1990, WWCD seemed destined to become just another station acquired by a faceless corporation looking to flip an under-utilized radio frequency for big bucks. But just a year later, a new owner—Columbus native Roger Vaughn—came along with a vision for a progressive rock station and brought in a new crop of DJs, solid music devotees determined to bring listeners an original playlist of music.
One of them was Curt Schieber. You might know him from his 1980s-era campus record store, Schoolkids Records, or his concert reviews in The Columbus Dispatch. Perhaps you've seen him behind the register at the Lennox Barnes & Noble or at Used Kids Records. The guy has great stories and deep musical knowledge, which is the key to the success of his Sunday night Invisible Hits Hour program on CD 102.5.
Throughout his long radio tenure, Schieber has seen both reach and revenues drop. But he also sees a continual thirst for the cutting edge, providing listeners with something they can't get elsewhere. “Without the show, I wouldn't get to play the range of music I get to play,” Schieber says.
His mission has remained the same from the day he went on the air: “I'm going to help you, the listener, find another way to listen to music.”
Around 2010, a confluence of events nearly killed WWCD: the sudden death of popular program director John “Andyman” Davis, the sale of its original frequency (101.1 FM) to WOSU and the loss of its lease. Determined to save it, station manager Randy Malloy cashed in his 401(k) and drained his savings to buy WWCD, and then worked 100-hour weeks to rebuild the station that gave him his start in radio as an intern. He found it a new home at the former Swiss Chalet on Front Street after the station was forced from the Worly Building. He found himself a talented new program director, Lesley James, to replace Andyman (James moved to New York in December) and rounded up a host of independent investors to help pay the bills. Through it all, he maintained a focus on great music. “There's so much music out there,” he says. “Who tells you what's good and what's not? We have a team of music professionals do that for you, all day long, every day.”
CD 102.5 also works to cultivate the next generation of DJs. Glenna Hayes entered Wright State in the fall of 2010 with a vague notion of what she might do with a business degree. Then she took one look at the student-run radio station on a campus tour and said, “Oh, I want to do that.” When it came time to find an internship, there was only one option for Hayes. “I constantly called [then-on-air talent] Joe Jewett,” she says. “Finally, the receptionist said, ‘If you call the request line, you can talk to him direct in the studio.'” Thus began her first of two stints with CD 102.5 in 2013. “I went to as many events as I could; we like to have a big presence at events,” says Hayes. The station has always had a large stable of interns who aren't there to fetch coffee. They are fully immersed in the business of radio and constantly out in the community engaging with the public. A year later, Hayes officially joined the ranks as a weekend jock.***
The Real Deal: WRKZ
The North American Broadcasting Company, which owns WMNI (Easy 95.1 FM and 920 AM), WJKR (103.9 Jack FM) and WRKZ (99.7 The Blitz), is a unique blend of heritage and cutting edge. It's been owned by the Mnick family of Columbus since 1962 (WMNI's call letters are said to be derived from station founder William Mnick's first initial and first three letters of his last name) and the station conference room is lined with framed newspaper clippings of men in suits and women with bouffants. Just down the hall, though, in a room that resembles your first college apartment, is where the magic happens.
If there were ever two people made both for each other and radio, it is Jeremy Loper and Randi Rasar. Originally from Portsmouth and New Orleans, respectively, Loper and Rasar were well into separate careers in radio when a CBS talent scout teamed them together in Florida. After seven years there, the now-married couple was summoned to The Blitz in 2012 to rebuild the morning slot after Howard Stern, whose syndicated show was the morning staple on The Blitz for nine years, took his show to satellite radio. It was a big job, but Loper & Randi in the Morning proved popular with Columbus listeners—and Columbus has become popular with the couple. In the years since their Central Ohio debut, they've had offers to move on. They've declined them. They like the family-owned environment of the station—an increasing rarity in the profession—and they've put down roots here.
On the air, the two have managed to break the two-dudes-and-a-chick morning-show mold (known in the industry as “the dick, the dork and the dear.”) “As a talent, it's exciting to work with someone who makes you better,” Loper says of his wife and partner. There is little separation between their lives on and off the air. “Shows like ours are a conversation between friends,” says Rasar, crediting co-stars Kelly Quinn and producer “Thick Rick”—Columbus natives and local radio veterans—for the size and loyalty of their audience. But it is the energy and the exceptional improvisational skill of the headliners that set them apart.
There are companies out there that compile “ready-to-read” prep materials for radio morning shows. Loper and Randi won't subscribe because they want to maintain their originality. “I have my life,” says Loper, “and I'm going to use that.” The partners can stretch the ridiculous details of a trip to the gym or their suburban life with four kids into an ordeal that will make you late for work, sitting in the parking lot waiting to find out how it all worked out.
Of the morning shows around town, Loper and Rasar perhaps most effectively plug into social media to engage with their listeners. Their feeds are consistently updated with new content. They vlog. They are out in the community at events and appearances, with Rock on the Range as the highlight of their year. “We love it,” says Rasar. “It's like a reunion with every listener we've ever met because they will all be there.”
Loper and Randi often step outside their active rock format to expose listeners to new music (including K-pop, country/rock and indie folk). Every Friday, they enthusiastically present a cavalcade of new releases and are confident enough to let the comments roll in via text and social media.
“We're in an era where you're starting to see the new face of what broadcasting is going to look like in the next 20 years,” says Loper. “There was a time when stations got rid of their talent because of the expense and just focused on the songs,” he says. “Now everyone has access to those songs. It's a good time to be talented. Things are changing, and it's exciting.”***
The Persister: Shawn Ireland
Shawn Ireland is one of the few on-air personalities in town who is not directly associated with any particular station. That's because she's been affiliated with a bunch of them—four separate incarnations of WNCI's Morning Zoo as well as stints on WWCD and WSNY. Despite being “unceremoniously pushed out” on a few occasions, she still loves radio. “I wasn't going to have that love taken away from me.”
In 2008, she came up with a structure for SIS (“Shawn Ireland Show”), as a “plug-and-play” podcast format, which means it is prerecorded and can be sold to stations as a syndicated program in a traditional time slot. She now partners with Columbus on-air personality Kate Burdette on the Shawn and Kate Show, heard weekends on 93.3 FM in Columbus and on a number of other stations, including 97.5 in Southern Ohio, 94.5 and 105.9 in New Lexington, 98.7 in Marysville and 92.9 in Delaware, as well as on iTunes, Google Play and TuneIn.
Ireland says the challenge of podcasting is infinite competition. Another is the changing listening habits of the public. “I work with a lot of millennials,” she says. “They just don't listen to terrestrial radio in ways those over 30 do; they want tiny doses.”
The key to survival, she believes, is giving people many different ways to listen and to specialize. Ireland's niche audience is women, and events are a big part of how she connects with them. An annual slumber party at the Renaissance Columbus Downtown Hotel—complete with wine, movies and makeovers—now draws a crowd of 300. Her goal is to keep adding stations and appealing to more and more women. “I'm working all the damn time, but I really do love it.”