The head of the area's braodcasting trade group says the Washington metropolitan area was a "second-rate town" during the 1960s, but the influx of large radio chains and a growing and an increasingly sophisticated audience has made the community a leader in radio programming.

Jerry Lyman, chairman of the Washington Area Broadcasters Association and president of RKO Radio's FM division, said in a recent interview that the Federal Communications Commission's radio deregulation proposals will be further incentive for the area's 32 radio stations to fulfill their potential.

Lyman's comments are not surprising. He is the manager of WGMS-AM and FM, the classical music station with headquarters in Rockville, and runs a thriving chain of six radio stations in markets such as Boston and Los Angeles.

Lyman said one factor spurring the competition for better programming in the D.C. area is the aggressive way in which NBC and ABC run stations here, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per rating period on advertising and promotion ventures.

In the 1960s, Lyman recalled, local stations were not doing the complex research they are today. Station programmers stuck to limited formulas, and new and public affairs operations were smaller and given only limited resources, he said. "Local ownership tended to keep Washington radio in a status-quo situation," Lyman noted.

"Programming and management here has been upgraded dramatically," he contended. "New ownership has brought a professionalism to local radio that didn't seem to exist as much before."

Lyman said listeners should not be concerned about the lifting of FCC regulations governing how much time stations can sell to advertisers and requirements regarding news and public affairs programs. Lyman says the local listening public is the best regulator of radio content.

"I don't know of anybody who's saying, 'Now I don't have to run this stuff,'" Lyman said of news and public affairs programming. "I think it's something that's been overplayed. Everybody is still and always will be paranoid about license challenges, so we'll go the extra mile."

The new flexibility, including the FCC's lifting of "ascertainment" requirements -- FCC rules that forced licensees to survey their towns for local needs -- will only encourage station managers to deal more creatively with local issues, Lyman said. "It means an end to the 'Big Brother' concept."

The broadcasters association will help sponsor a series of meetings in most regions of the metropolitan area to keep community leaders in touch with local braodcasters. "One of the problems is that you tend to hit the same people over and over again," Lyman said. Stations will be able to cut their surveying costs and stay attuned to community issues, he said.