By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 12, 2007
From sock-hoppers to hip-hop, from disco to downloads, radio has always sought ratings gold in the musical and cultural trends of the moment.
Now a Washington radio station is hoping to tap into increased concerns about the environment and global warming by switching not only its format but also its source of power.
WARW (94.7 FM) is taking several steps to go green, the station manager says, steps that parent company CBS is touting to some of the chain's 146 other stations nationwide.
WARW will pay a premium for electricity that Pepco guarantees is wind-generated, rather than produced by a coal-fired plant. The station plans to build a performance studio at its Silver Spring headquarters at least partly out of green material, such as recycled flooring. And WARW's gasoline-burning cars are being replaced by hybrid vehicles. At the same time, "Classic Rock 94.7" becomes "94.7 the Globe," incorporating more contemporary artists into its playlist and Mother Earth into its name.
The move is part of a growing trend of corporations seeking positive public relations -- and perhaps profit -- in showing an eco-friendly exterior. For example, from its pro-environment television commercials and heliocentric logo, one would hardly know that BP is the former British Petroleum, one of the world's largest oil and gas companies. Major record label Warner Music Group has said it will begin using recycled paper in its CD cases.
The WARW format switch also demonstrates how environmentalism has moved to the political center. Thirty years ago, it was considered fringe. Even five years ago, it would have been highly unlikely for a mainstream commercial radio station to align itself with concerns over global warming -- too crunchy for most listeners. Now, WARW thinks such branding might increase its ratings, as environmentalism -- like recycling -- carries a positive and widely popular connotation. Even Wal-Mart buys wind power.
CBS Radio is telling its other stations about WARW's green experiment, said Karen L. Mateo, a spokeswoman for the chain, and already several have asked about taking green steps of their own.
For years, WARW was the Washington area's home to the hoary giants of classic rock -- the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Eagles and so on. From a ratings standpoint, that format has been unable to make a dent in a radio market dominated by hip-hop, R&B, news radio and light pop. The station typically finishes squarely in the middle of the regional ratings pack.
WARW's shift in format and philosophy is the result of those middling ratings, combined with recent shuffling on the local radio dial.
It began in April, when WBIG (100.3 FM) dropped its oldies format for a classic rock playlist, overlapping with WARW. Then last month, classical music station WGMS (104.1 FM) moved into the same format, becoming "George 104" as it traded Beethoven and Mozart for rock from the '70s and '80s.
WARW general manager Michael Hughes thought his station could distance itself from its new rivals and make some hay by updating its playlist to include artists such as the Dave Mathews Band and Coldplay.
But every station needs a hook, an easy way for listeners to remember it. Hip-hop WKYS (93.9 FM), run by Radio One, for instance, is "The People's Station." Top 40 WIHT is "Hot 99.5."
Hughes said staff brainstorming sessions steered the station toward the green theme. It didn't hurt that WARW had something of a green expert on staff: longtime deejay Cerphe Colwell.
Colwell, 55, is a Washington radio legend. He worked at WHFS when it was a cutting-edge indie station in the 1970s. He first interviewed Bruce Springsteen in 1973.
Over the past few years, Colwell and his wife have augmented his deejay salary with a side business: Green Cottage, which builds energy-efficient housing. He has been a vegetarian for 35 years. Now, mainstream culture is catching up with him.
"It's not weird anymore," Colwell said. "Suddenly, this seems to be a real issue." He said that some of the artists played on WARW, such as Tom Petty, are eco-oriented and will give deejays a jumping-off point to talk about environmentalism.
Colwell has advertised Green Cottage on WARW, Hughes said. But now, he said, Colwell and the station will have to be careful about mentioning the business on the air for fear of violating the Federal Communications Commission's rules on "plugola." Plugola is a variation on payola, or paying radio stations to play music. Plugola is unpaid advertising given in exchange for money or services.
"It's a fine line in terms of cross-promoting," Hughes said. At the same time, Colwell's expertise has educated Hughes on "geothermal protection and radiant floor heating and energy efficiency and things I knew nothing about," he said
For Hughes, the switch to green radio could be a bit of an economic gamble. He hopes the new format will boost ratings enough that the station can charge higher ad rates to offset his potentially higher electric bill.
Pepco would not release the terms of its contract with WARW. However, a comparison of residential rates shows that Pepco charges $0.1008 per kilowatt hour for coal-fired electricity and $0.1234 per kilowatt hour for wind-generated juice. WARW's rate would be lower because of the volume of power the station uses. Depending on season and demand, Hughes said, the wind power may cost more or less than what the station is now paying.
Commercial radio stations cannot afford to turn down advertisers, so the new green WARW will not refuse ads from companies that have been criticized for their environmental record.
"We're not in the business of censorship," Hughes said.
Commercial stations also cannot afford to take radical political positions. As their revenue comes from ratings-generated advertising, they must appeal to as many listeners as possible or dominate in specific demographic categories.
FM stations became the voice of the counterculture in the late '60s only because AM stations were the big moneymakers and FM stations were an afterthought. Owners were happy to let the station hippie play entire albums and ramble on, as long as he didn't cost the station its license. Once FM stations started making money, they became more conservative.
Likewise, Cumulus Media's country radio stations took what appeared to be a strong political stand against the Dixie Chicks in 2003, after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized President Bush and the war in Iraq. But in truth it was an easy call for Cumulus, and one that made business sense. At the time, the United States had just launched the war, Bush's ratings were high and the Cumulus stations were flooded with anti-Chicks calls from country listeners, a fairly patriotic demographic.
But the Chicks have long been back on Cumulus -- which is why 94.7 the Globe will not be Granola Radio.
"This can all be accomplished without preaching and talking about recycling every five minutes," Colwell said