Stick It To the Man: CD102.5's Quest for Independence

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

It's a hectic summer morning at CD102.5's headquarters on Front Street in the Brewery District. Indie-pop band Best Coast is getting ready to play a set in the upstairs Big Room, a performance space that used to be the checkered-floor dining room of a Swiss supper club. In a couple of hours, Metric will play an acoustic set here, too, before hitting the stage at Nationwide Arena.

In the back of the Big Room, behind an under-construction bar that CD102.5 owner Randy Malloy was working on late last night, the crew of "Good Day Columbus" is setting up for an on-site shoot that will feature a live performance by local band Angela Perley & the Howlin' Moons.

After Best Coast finishes three songs and answers a few questions from veteran DJ Brian Phillips, the band poses for a picture with some lucky fans who finagled passes for the intimate performance. "Hey," Malloy says, grabbing my arm, "let's go photo bomb this picture!" We jump on a couple of chairs and wave our arms while making goofy faces, effectively bombing the photo.

Malloy, whose silver-streaked hair grazes the top of his shoulders, looks more like a TV actor than a behind-the-scenes radio guy. He's built like a linebacker, and his energy is matched only by his charisma-a rock 'n' roll version of Jack Hanna. When speaking, he leans forward bit by bit until he reaches his climactic point, then leans back and repeats the process. He talks fast, rarely finishing one sentence before starting a new one, and his overworked voice is perpetually husky.

Being the boss at CD102.5 means constant multitasking. While we chat, Malloy keeps tabs on everything around him. "Hey, grab that drill back there and take those two screws out," he instructs a staffer, who removes a demising wall that leads to the kitchen area of the station's forthcoming restaurant venture, the Big Room Bar, which will double as a rock club run by local musicians Kyle Sowash and Justin Hemminger.

It may seem odd for a radio station to get into the restaurant business, but CD102.5-call letters WWCD, formerly CD101-is an anomaly. This month marks the station's 25th anniversary-an eternity for any radio station, much less an independent, standalone, commercial rock station. Most stations have been gobbled up by conglomerates like iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel), Cumulus Media and CBS Radio. Smaller companies often bundle stations that share resources and personnel under one parent company. (Rock station 99.7 The Blitz, for example, is owned by Columbus-based North American Broadcasting Co., which also owns 103.9 Jack FM and WMNI AM920.)

CD102.5 is an island, and there have been times when it looked like it might collapse into the sea. In 2010, the economy was still trying to recover from the recession. Advertiser dollars were drying up. Plus, the station was being forced out of the location it had been broadcasting from for years, and it hadn't found a suitable replacement yet. At the same time, CD101's ratings were tanking as they simultaneously broadcasted from two frequencies during the transition up the dial to 102.5.

Then, that July, beloved program director Andy "Andyman" Davis died in a drowning accident while vacationing with his family.

Things could not have been worse, but it wasn't the end. Malloy, then general manager, bought the station from previous owner Roger Vaughn and soldiered on with the rest of the staff. Malloy moved the station up the street into the old Swiss Chalet space, building the downstairs offices himself and salvaging everything he could from the old studios. CD102.5 survived.

Survival, though, is an uphill climb. Instead of making the 25th anniversary purely celebratory, the station has turned the milestone into a gutsy crowdfunding campaign. CD102.5 currently pays $20,000 a month to rent its tower and frequency, and in November the rent will climb to $25,000, on top of the roughly $10,000 per month the station pays in royalty fees. And so, CD102.5 is asking its listeners to donate $1 million or more so it can negotiate a new lease or purchase the broadcasting license outright. It's a big ask-one that will determine the future of CD102.5.

"I think we'll make history," Malloy says.

When Brian Phillips was a teenager growing up near Seattle, he'd come home from school and unplug the cable from his TV, then run speaker wire to his room, wrapping it around the antenna of his boombox. That was the only way he could tune into Seattle radio stations.

"I was a quiet, nerdy kid who loved music," Phillips says. "I would come home and eat my three bowls of cereal and listen to the radio. I was a complete junkie."

Phillips went on to work for Seattle rock station KXRX in the early '90s before packing his bags in 1994 to come work for CD101 in Columbus, a city he had never been to and knew nothing about. But Andyman Davis was there, and so was Malloy, who started as an intern under Davis in 1991. A month after Phillips moved to town, Davis introduced him to the woman who would later become his wife.

"Andyman and Randy took me under their wing and made sure I felt at home," says Phillips, who was the station's morning DJ for a decade and is currently on air 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays.

Davis' influence on the station can't be overstated. He was the heart and soul of CD101 and a Columbus icon. Not one staffer who knew him can talk about his death without getting emotional. His absence is still felt daily, and his legacy is motivational.

Lesley James, who earned a job at CD101 in 2004 after visiting the station as a guest DJ and handing Davis her resume, took over as program director in 2010. James now hosts the 3 to 7 p.m. shift, works in tandem with fellow DJ Tom Butler, the 7 to 11 p.m. weeknight host who has been with the station since 1998.

Unlike most commercial radio stations, the music played on CD102.5 isn't based on Billboard charts or other data, nor is it mandated from above. Malloy gives James free rein. The playlist is homegrown, and it's larger than most. According to Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems, in the first full week of July, CD102.5 played 827 different songs. Compare that to an iHeartMedia Top 40 station like 97.9 WNCI, which played 238 different songs the same week, or rock station 99.7 The Blitz, with 419 songs. Forty new songs are in rotation at CD102.5; the average station plays only about 15 new songs at a time.

James uses several tools to determine what goes on the radio. One is the weekly music meeting, during which James, Butler, DJ Nate and a few others gather on the couch and chairs in James' office to listen to the first 90 seconds of 20 to 30 new songs. After listening to a track, each person gives it a rating between 1 and 10. When I sat in on a music meeting, a listener had emailed James about a new song by the band Local H, so she gave it a spin. That one didn't do so well (6.8 average), but a track from new band FFS got an 8.4.

From there, new songs go to DJ Nate's Sunday night music show, "In the Stack." If they're on the fence about a song, it will get tested as a "Diamond in the Rough" pick of the week. Some are no-brainers and get added immediately. If Beck comes out with a new song, CD102.5 will play it. When Blur unexpectedly released an album, James bought it on iTunes and put it on the radio that day. Weekend DJ Rachael Gordon says James also has helped balance the station's playlist in the past few years to include more female-fronted acts.

All along the way, the station solicits feedback. "The listeners play a key role in what gets played at this radio station," James says. "They have a major voice."

"If somebody is excited enough about something to write or call and say, 'Hey, you should check this out,' then we should check it out!" Butler says.

Author Michele Hilmes, a radio-industry expert andprofessor emerita in the department of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin, says a locally generated playlist is highly unusual in radio today.

"Even with some stations that are somewhat more local and independent, they're still often working from a generated satellite feed and formula playlists," she says. "Things like that do go on at community radio stations and college radio. But it's very hard to imagine that process happening in more than a handful of [commercial] radio stations."

As program director, James considers a lot of variables when choosing music. She has to listen with the ears of Columbus music fans. She and Butler have to come up with a playlist for an independent alt-rock station that prides itself on playing new, edgy music that is in sharp contrast to cookie-cutter playlists. Yet it can't be too edgy. This isn't college radio. The songs have to appeal to a broad enough swath of rock fans.

According to Nielsen's Arbitron ratings for March, April and May, CD102.5 sat well below iHeart classic hits station 93.3 and classic rock station QFM 96, but it consistently beat out iHeart alt-rock station 105.7 The X. CD102.5 doesn't actively engage in rivalries with other rock stations in town (other than a 99.7 The Blitz sticker strategically placed in a bathroom urinal), but it is competitive, and it does pride itself on being the first station to play bands that other stations don't add until after they've become huge.

"We always want to be first on a record," James says. "We want to break a band."

"This is a very rare station," says Jennifer Waits, cofounder of Most commercial stations no longer have live, local DJs, she says. They're in an office park in a different city, pre-recording their tracks.

"I visit radio stations for fun. I love the culture of radio," she says. "But visiting a hallway with different radio brands, it feels dead. It's like a ghost town. It's sad."

CD102.5's offices are anything but dead. Beers are on tap in the downstairs bar, with two more bars coming upstairs. Malloy's office looks like someone vomited 25 years of radio on the walls; there's a ratty couch, crooked TV, autographed guitars, boxes of T-shirts and empty bottles of Jameson whiskey. Gold and platinum records adorn the station's walls. CD102.5 has only 12 full-time employees, but with part-timers and nearly 30 interns always readying the next promotional event or Big Room performance, it's constantly bustling.

Bands take notice of the environment when they visit. The station gives them access to a washer and dryer, a PlayStation 4, coffee and beer. Sometimes, when CD102.5 plays an up-and-coming band early and often, Columbus is the group's biggest show on a tour. It happened recently with the band Jungle.

"The show they played before us, they had 108 people," Malloy says. "They came to Columbus, and over 1,000 people show up. They were like, 'How do you have 1,000 people?' And we're like, 'Because we play you. You're on our station, and people like it.' And now they're huge."

In an email, Jungle fawned over the station. "We first went to Columbus in December and were absolutely amazed by the love we got," the band wrote. "The guys at CD102.5 have been instrumental in spreading the word on our behalf."

Among local radio stations, CD102.5 has the bumper-sticker market cornered. Drive around Columbus for a day, and you're bound to see that black and white logo on multiple cars. It's a brand rock fans identify with: the hyper-local, independent rebel, bucking trends and blazing trails. When CD102.5 fans see that sticker, they know they've found a kindred spirit.

That strong community tie is essential to the station's mission. When the Big Room Bar opens, the station itself will double as a local restaurant and rock club. The promotions department (or "Scene Team") is on-site at all the major Columbus events. Local bands often end up in the top five most requested songs of the day. Every DJ is local and live. The station broadcasts occasional Blue Jackets games and, new this year, all Crew SC games.

"We program for where we live," Malloy says. "Now, everyone is like, 'We need to localize!' We've never not localized. That's all we know."

The station's longevity and entrenchment in the community is a blessing and a curse. "People don't realize how unique we are because they're used to it," Malloy says. For people in Columbus to donate $1 million or more to CD102.5, the station has to convince a lot of residents of its inherent worth to the city.

Devoid of historical and local context, the crowdfunding campaign is beyond brazen. This isn't a public radio station like WOSU or WCBE, where fund drives are expected. This is commercial, alt-rock radio. And yet, it's not ridiculous if you see CD102.5 the way the station sees itself-as a community partner.

"When I was growing up in New York, radio, to me, was a community partner," Malloy says. "It was the first social media. They were the friend everyone paid attention to. All we're trying to do is continue that tradition."

Hilmes says she's never heard of a commercial radio station engaging in a crowdfunding campaign. "It seems like they're crossing a line there," she says, "but in some ways, it's not so far off from an established community radio station where there's commercial sponsorship, donations, grants and crowdsourcing."

Malloy expects some degree of backlash. "We'll get people who hate on us just because they're gonna hate on us no matter what," he says. But he's optimistic about the campaign. "We're being very transparent. We tell people exactly what it's for. I think we'll find that people will say, 'You're worth preserving. It's worth keeping you in Columbus because you make it better.'"

When the 60-day campaign launched on July 6, the station raised about $50,000 (5 percent of the $1 million goal) in the first 48 hours. At press time, the amount had risen to $74,000. But even if the station falls short, Malloy says, "It's not the end of the world. We've been through enough shit to know that we'll figure it out. We always do."