Bob Chandler, the music master and visual symbol of Washington's No. 1 radio station, winces at his celebrity. People have started yelling at him in stores. "You're the guy with your feet up," they'll shout.
Chandler doesn't really feel comfortable putting his feet up on his desk. But that's the relaxed image he and the easy-listening WGAY-FM have been projecting for almost three years, and the mood that 402,400 Washingtonians choose every week.
"They seemed to have made a nice impact," says Chandler of the tranquilizing ads. "The hook with the feet up was a nice idea. And that's what people remember."
The current commercials were filmed last year, summer and winter versions on the same day. "It was 95 degrees. We had the fire going in the fireplace and the air conditioning fighting it. It was shot on the patio first and I put my arms back, and the perspiration was -- I had to run in the house, tear the shirt off and iron it out to dry it out. It was kind of tacky."
On this morning the commercial spokesman is dressed not in the Perry Como-style sweater of his ad, but in a navy three-piece suit. His office is typical of a radio executive's: speakers suspended from the ceiling, a turntable here and there, books of musical biographies and lyrics, and an antique Westinghouse radio.
In the last two years WGAY has been the favorite station in the area four out of seven periods measured by Arbitron Ratings, and some people are wondering whether a special chemistry exists between its parade of soft sounds and the kinetic pace most locals keep.
Andrew Ockershausen, former general manager of WMAL, has a theory: "There is such a babble of noise and conversation all the time that listening to WGAY is very relaxing to some people," he says. "You need that occasionally in your life -- but you are not listening to get provoked or informed."
Chandler himself doesn't have a ready answer for WGAY's popularity. "It is strange," he says. "You can understand Tampa, Miami. But for us to do pretty well in this market, which is a young market, not a retirement market, is unusual. Washington is a transient city. It is different from a Cincinnati and a Cleveland."
And what of the unscientific theory that stress-packed Washington needs a break? "I don't know if that is any more true of Washington than New York or Los Angeles. I think everybody can use that . . . take it easy, put their feet up."
Fred Weinhaus, the new WMAL vice president, who directed a beautiful-music station in New York, says listeners find the format appealing no matter where they live. " The stations don't get in your way. People, particularly as they get older, find that sort of radio peaceful."
WGAY's domination of the largest group that Arbitron measures -- all listeners over 12 years old -- is not a signal of widespread popularity, numerically or demographically. It's more a measure of just how popular the station is with the people who do listen to it: It means that WGAY's primary listeners -- 93,400 of them are 45 to 54 -- listen for long periods of time. In fact, even easy-listening detractors agree that the format hooks a listener into a longer visit, therefore providing a suitable environment for offices and stores.
For men 55 and older, WGAY is by far the favorite station in the area, with a 20.7 share of the market, according to the latest Arbitron ratings. But even more men between the ages of 45 to 54 listen. Overall, however, more women listen to the station, building a base that Chandler calls "more loyal, more steady." Like many beautiful music stations, WGAY shares its audience with a news station, WTOP, and a more active middle-of-the road sound, WMAL; listeners get a quick fix of news and personality and then return to an easy home base.
To advertisers, most station managers agree, the most important age group is 25 to 49, the group believed to be the most reachable and reliable spenders. An analysis of the statistics for this target group shows that more of them listen to eight other stations at some point during the week. WGAY prefers defining the choice demographic as age 25 to 54, a definition under which WGAY is tied for fifth in the number who tune in for 15 minutes or more, and sixth in the number who sample the station at least once during the week.
To make the WGAY audience more attractive to advertisers, President Ted Dorf has been actively campaigning among advertising agencies to convince them that the 35- to 65-year-olds are the choice market of the future.
The easy-listening stations' dilemma is how to please their aging audience and attract the younger crowd at the same time.
"Easy-listening stations are faced with the problem of the audience growing older, and trying to get Madison Avenue to buy that audience . . . They are playing more contemporary music and more vocals. Some will play eight an hour and some will do a 50-50 mix, one instrumental to one vocal," says Chandler. Of the 20 songs WGAY plays in a typical hour, four are vocals.
However the pie is cut, WGAY remains an influential and inescapable local institution, providing a quiet sound in many physicians' offices and stores around the metropolitan area. And its imitators are quite candid about its influence as they try to capture a share of the easy-listening market. The light rock sound of WLTT is keyed to 25- to 49-year-olds; the vocal-heavy sound of WTKS is aimed at 35- to 44-year-olds; and the mini-format "Soft Tones" of WHUR to black adults.
The touch that has pulled much of WGAY's success together belongs to Chandler, 52, a Kentucky native who has been in Washington radio most of the time since he took courses at a local broadcasting school while he was an Air Force cryptologist at Bolling Air Force Base.
Chandler worked as an announcer at WFCR-FM in Fairfax; a station in Cynthiana, Ky.; WNAV-AM in Annapolis; and the then middle-of-the-road WOL-AM, where he also did some programming, before joining WGAY in 1965.
"I liked the idea of the glamor of it, or what I thought was the glamor at the time," he says of his radio beginnings. "That made me stay with it, with the hopes that I could become a personality and command a huge audience and acclaim. It never happened, but I guess I had that thought in the back of my mind."
He began selecting the music for WGAY in 1966. "Your own taste, background and instinct come into play. Although I am pretty conservative, I'd like to think most of what I've chosen to put on the air the majority of the audience likes," he says.
In the next 20 years, the station developed from a busy, talky, easy-listening sound to the first 24-hour beautiful-music station in the country, to a polished format that helped set the trends for the 1970s' clustering of music for other formats, to the only station that records custom music for itself and other easy-listening outlets.
Over the years, most of the other beautiful-music stations disappeared, and, among the family of 300 to 400 easy-listening stations in the country, WGAY has become what Chandler calls "one of the most consistent" -- in listenership and finan- cially -- of any. In the summer of 1984, WGAY led the highly competitive market for the first time.
It was the declining supply of recorded orchestral music in the early 1970s that prompted Chandler to travel to London to have some arrangements of recognizable songs recorded.
Since then Chandler has produced 500 titles, and custom music is 20 percent of WGAY's own play list. And that list is eclectic. On his recording trip last week -- by his count his 38th to London for professional and personal reasons -- Chandler produced orchestral versions of "I Remember You" by Johnny Mercer, "Sara" by Starship, "Everyday" by Buddy Holly, "You Are My lady" by Freddie Jackson, "Love Theme From St. Elmo's Fire" by David Foster and "Go Home" by Stevie Wonder.
In the commercial, when he puts his feet up Chandler says the job "lets me do a lot of my work at home." However, that isn't 100 percent true. He laughs drily and says, "Well, on occasion I do some paper work at home." Most of his free time is spent reading novels and biographies -- he just finished one about Charlie Chaplin -- and exploring country inns.
What worries him most about the commercial and his visibility is the wait for that one embarrassing public moment.
"I am waiting for someone to say, 'I saw you on television and you stink,' " he says.