Change is in the Air (Waves)
How much do you really love your favorite local radio station? You'll find out when it goes off the air.
Say you have this old friend. You two used to be close, but you’ve grown apart in recent years. Changing lives, changing interests, it’s a typical story. But now you hear that this old friend has fallen on hard times. You try to get back in touch, but it just feels awkward. You wonder whether you have any right to feel bad, given your current weak ties. And let’s be honest, the relationship was always pretty much one of convenience. Should you just let it go?
Now imagine this friend is a radio station.
I encountered this scenario twice over the past few months, as two venerable Boston radio stations went through major format changes. First was WFNX, the rock station associated with alternative weekly paper, The Boston Phoenix, since 1983. The station was recently bought by Clear Channel, which promptly laid off the majority of the staff; rumor has it that the station will change to a country or Spanish talk station soon enough. Not surprisingly, the sale set off a storm of hand-wringing among the listening public, who lamented the loss of a major independent voice.
In June, another longtime staple of the local airwaves, WODS (aka Oldies 103), announced that after 25 years playing hits from the '50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, it would be changing to a contemporary pop station. While the shift did not go unnoticed, it didn’t stir up quite the same fervor as the WFNX news, at least not online. Demographics play a role here, to be sure; the older core audience has less of a web presence, and has likely grown used to the inevitable decline of its favored media to put up much of a fight. There's also not as much of a shortage of the kind of music that WODS played (I'd guess the station is responsible for roughly a quarter of the six million times Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" has reportedly been aired nationally), whereas a quality alternative rock station is perplexingly difficult to find on most local airwaves.
But despite the service that WFNX offered to ears tired of "Call Me Maybe" and the like, I have to admit that the WODS news affected me more strongly. When I was growing up, the Rubenstein car radio was controlled largely by my parents, which meant a steady diet of Oldies 103 during any car trips. The station introduced me to The Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann", Ernie K. Doe's "Mother in Law", the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" and all the rest. Sure, I still gravitated toward Kiss 108 when left to my own devices, but those songs are as much a part of my childhood as anything Rick Dees introduced me to.
That said, I couldn't tell you the last time I tuned in to WODS for more than the span of a few Beatles tracks. While WFNX has gotten more of my ear -- as I said, it's been a rare bright spot in what's mostly a desolate landscape – it's not really that much. When in the car, I tend to focus on talk radio (NPR, sports banter) and turn to CDs or my iPod when in the mood for music. My relationship with music radio has really declined in recent years – it's both of our faults, with me moving away from familiar stations, and the overall options getting progressively worse – and it typically doesn't extend beyond the confines of the car.
Around the same time that WODS made its announcement, the WFNX fans got some good news: Boston.com, the entertainment-focused website of the Boston Globe, announced plans to launch a music-streaming service that would pull much of its on-air talent from the station’s former staff. Based on early details, it seems to be WFNX 2.0.
If it's just that – an online-only reboot – I wonder how it will fare. While most stations, including WFNX, currently offer some way to listen to them online, there's a big difference when it's the sole option. It's more difficult to listen to in the car, for one. If you're going to fumble around with a smartphone in traffic, why wouldn't you just use Spotify or Last.fm? The loyalty of longtime listeners will be tested with this new packaging. If Boston.com is betting that people will take that extra step, not only in the car but also at their desks and at home, with all the other options and distractions available to them, then there has to be some reason.
It all leads to a larger question, one that station managers have likely been trying to answer for a few years: What does a traditional radio station really offer now that we can create our own, customized stations with a few clicks? What drives that relationship beyond convenience?
I asked some friends for their opinions, and while some share my general ambivalence toward the airwaves, a few offered reasons for their continued devotion to music radio, outside of traffic jams. For some it was about nostalgia and an attachment to a specific place (a favorite hometown station that's out of range); others seek out shows and personalities that serve as tools for discovery (shout out to Herb Kent the Cool Gent in Chicago). One friend noted radio's "subtle live energy" and "spontaneity" that canned playlists, no matter how well-curated, just can't duplicate. In other words, it's just more human.
Some music stations have done well at inspiring this kind of strong relationship by providing high-quality content that is accessible in various ways. Seattle's KEXP comes to mind, with its widely available podcasts and events; BBC Radio 1 has also been successful in providing chunks of content ideal for online listening. Both employ a range of DJs with unique personalities and distinctive tastes (in a medium where most stations sound the same, this is important), and while they clearly have local flavor, they also appeal to a wider audience. (NPR is another obvious choice, but it's not just about music.)
For Radio Boston.com (aka Radio BDC) to achieve similar success, it can't simply be WFNX, a radio station that people enjoyed under the right conditions. It needs to be a multi-faceted provider of entertainment that people actively seek out and engage with on their own terms. As we're now endlessly hearing, content is king. The platform by which it is delivered (by radio, smartphone or desktop) is ultimately secondary. WODS, for all its charms, offered a product that was no longer in high demand, and disappeared; this second chance allows WFNX to avoid the same fate but only if it builds on its current offerings.
Radio BDC's newly formed staff is already building a social media following, promoting the new project. The station's website offers some clues about how the new incarnation might shake out, with its mix of blogging, song requests and promotion of offline events (the old WFNX site did this stuff, too). More changes are likely to come, and they should. Because while WFNX's transformation might mean the loss of some of the station's oldest friends, it could signal the start of some new relationships that are a whole lot stronger.