Rock Radio's Hard Place In Washington

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007

Long live rock?

The music is far from dead, but rock radio in Washington seems to be long past its heyday, and is trudging ungracefully into its sunset years.

Local rock stations have struggled to hang on to listeners, who are drifting away to other kinds of music and other ways of hearing rock, such as via the Internet, iPods, satellite radio and even cellphones. Once the preeminent sound on the airwaves, rock has been reduced to an increasingly smaller niche.

The latest sign of rock radio's increasing creakiness: the so-so reception for the restyled WTGB (94.7 FM). With an eclectic playlist, WTGB calls itself "the Globe" and promotes eco-awareness alongside "classic" tunes by Tom Petty and more recent ones by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The format, introduced in February, was supposed to spruce up the graying all-classic rock format of its predecessor, WARW, known as "the Arrow."

Instead, the inconvenient truth is that WTGB is attracting a smaller share of the audience than the station it replaced, according to ratings figures released yesterday by Arbitron Inc. A year ago, as all-classic Arrow, it captured an average of 2.2 percent of the overall audience and 3.0 percent of older listeners (25 to 54). This summer, the numbers fell to 1.8 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively.

Over at DC 101 FM (WWDC), the region's perpetual rock powerhouse, the news was better, or at least not bad. The station's share among all listeners, and among the young people (18 to 34) the station targets, slipped just a bit from last summer.

These days, losing just a small audience share constitutes good news for rock stations. The format has been on a downward track for years, both here and across the nation. The portion of listeners tuned to rock stations (a hodgepodge of sub-formats that includes "classic," "alternative" and "active" rock) fell 24 percent between 1999 and 2007, Arbitron says.

This exodus has led radio companies in Houston, Miami, Philadelphia and New York to abandon once-popular rock stations for other formats in recent years. The Globe's owner, CBS Radio, pulled the plug on legendary local alternative rock station WHFS in early 2005. For part of 2005 and 2006, no station in New York City -- heart of the nation's largest radio market -- played contemporary rock.

To be fair, rock isn't exactly an endangered species on the radio. In addition to the all-rock stations, several others -- classic hits WBIG (100.3 FM), soft-rock WASH (97.1 FM), adult-contemporary WRQX ("Mix" 107.3 FM), among others -- mix rock and pop music.

But for years, many of rock's most loyal listeners have been getting their Springsteen and Radiohead tunes via new technologies. Satellite radio companies courted these listeners early on by devoting more channels to rock than any other genre (Sirius Satellite Radio has 19 such channels, including one devoted entirely to the Grateful Dead; XM, based in Washington, offers 14). "There are still good terrestrial [rock] radio stations out there, but they're getting harder to find," says XM spokesman David Butler. Rock fans, he adds, "are passionate and starved for choice."

Rock isn't declining on traditional radio so much as other formats are rising and grabbing audience share, argues Michael Hughes, who manages the Globe and two other local CBS Radio stations. Traditional radio, he says, is mirroring the changing demographics of American cities, which have growing African American and Latino populations. Indeed, CBS and Hughes replaced WHFS with "El Zol," which plays Spanish-language pop music.

As for the Globe, Hughes is keeping a light on. "We knew it would be a slow and steady build," he says of the station.

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