"PEOPLE use our music for a reason: to study by, to sleep by . . ." said Bob Chandler, operations manager for WGAY. "A guy called the other day from Reston, and he said, 'I'm 30, I like rock, but I like your music, too. I need to relax.' "
Apparently a lot of other people in this anxiety-ridden city use the station. WGAY (99.5 FM, 1050 AM) is Washington's No. 2 station, according to the latest Arbitron ratings book, and is the No. 1 "beautiful music" station in the country, based on the 1982 winter Arbitron book. The Silver Spring station is unique in that it produces a considerable portion of its own music.
"This format is kind of low-profile--it just sits there quietly and finds its audience," said Chandler, who guesstimates there are about 400 to 500 "beautiful music" stations in the country.
Bought in 1959 by "hillbilly entrepreneur" Connie B. Gay, who introduced Elvis Presley to Washington, WGAY was a country station for one year before becoming, in 1960, the first full-time beautiful music station in the country.
"Today 'beautiful music' is kind of a bad name," said Chandler. "More and more stations refer to it as 'easy listening.' In fact, Billboard magazine ignores 'beautiful' entirely. If you ask why, they say it's because the format doesn't sell records. At least they're honest.
"I tend to downplay the name myself. But any music is 'beautiful'--it depends on what you like," said Chandler, who has been with WGAY for 19 of his 26 years in the radio business. He said he finds it helpful to monitor other radio stations and thus keeps an ear on the contemporary music scene. "You don't learn a lot by listening to your own station."
Chandler treks to London three times a year to produce original music for WGAY, which is then distributed to other subscribing stations through the International Beautiful Music Association. Chandler is executive producer for the organization.
"Our number of options for fresh music began drying up in this country, so I flew to London in 1972 to do some music shopping. I think I was the first programmer to do that.
"Record producers really stopped recording this type of music about 10 years ago. The returns just became less and less, because of rock," said Chandler, hastening to add that he enjoys contemporary--other than "beautiful"--music. One of his London-produced arrangements wafts through his office, a sprightly, string-laden rendition of Olivia Newton-John's "Magic."
"The lush, melodic kind of music we use was not as economical to produce as rock, and the record business is soft, and getting softer. Beautiful music is more expensive to do because of the size of the orchestras and the smaller returns. The audience is more limited. Also, I think people who liked that music began to be intimidated when they entered a record shop. They were assaulted by the loud music on the stereo system and faced by young sales clerks who weren't familiar with anything but rock."
When he reached the bottom of Britain's "beautiful music" bins in 1977, Chandler decided to investigate the possibility of custom-producing music for his station. With John Gregory, a young British composer/arranger, and a 36-piece orchestra, he produced a six-song demo of "lush music with contemporary rhythms, contemporary titles."
Why London? "You just can't afford to do custom music in this country," said Chandler, who, though he is not a musician, oversees the recording and often requests changes in arrangements to fit WGAY's format. "We do about 80 titles of our own arrangements a year for IBMA." Chandler estimates the cost per song to be $1,500, which includes the arranger, contractor, orchestra and tape and studio costs. "In a comparable American studio, with comparable musicians getting union scale, the cost would be approximately double. Of course, we don't want to take it out of the country." Chandler said London musicians are "fine, although American rhythm sections are always better."
The music sequences are programmed by Chandler in his plush office, equipped with two turntables, reel-to-reel and cassette tape decks, mixing board and stacks of records and tapes. "I try to tell a short story in each 15-minute segment, through the mood or tempo or emotional undercurrent in a series of songs," said Chandler, who is already putting together music for the Christmas season."We're on tape simply to preserve the music." Live announcers deliver the weather, news and "backtitle"--telling listeners what songs they've just heard.
Does the format anesthetize or "bland-out" the music, as some critics have carped? "Some people think that," Chandler said. "But what we try to do is get the feeling of the original with a softer, more . . . controlled rhythm, less intrusive . . . The similarity to MUZAK is something the format has fought for years," Chandler said. "We're trying to overcome the stigma of 'elevator music.' But anything can become background music."