In between the songs, in between the commercials, there are several radio wars going on in Washington. Listen closely.
The typical radio station aims for a narrow demographic group, which usually puts it in direct competition with one other station, two or three at the most. Because the stations play many of the same songs, they have to find some way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. One way is trumpet your strengths, which, by implication, are your rivals' weaknesses. If you listen closely, you can crack the code.
Consider the ongoing competition between black-hits FM stations WPGC (95.5) and WYKS (93.9). Both consistently jockey for position atop the area Arbitrons. A percentage point gain or loss in ratings can mean millions of dollars in ad revenue. Both stations play essentially the same music.
Up until a year ago, WKYS and WPGC staffers would crash each other's live broadcasts, handing out station paraphernalia and generally making their presence known.
WPGC is owned by CBS Radio in New York, where the top radio executive is white. WKYS is owned by Radio One, the nation's largest black-run radio company, based locally. So even though WPGC deejays are black, as are most of the station's employees, WKYS broadcasts--and vans--carry the slogan "The People's Station."
WPGC counterattacks with community programming. Recently the station resurrected its "Stop the Violence" appearances, where popular deejays such as Tigger host live "town meeting" broadcasts from violence-plagued neighborhoods, where residents can air grievances to local officials. The station inaugurated the campaign during the "crack wars" of a decade ago and resumed it last month with a broadcast at the District's East Capitol Dwellings after the nearby shooting death of grandmother Helen Foster-El. WKYS counters with its own community appearances and charity work in black neighborhoods.
The rivalry is less in-your-face nowadays, says Maurice DeVoe, WPGC's assistant program director. The two stations called something of a truce after they found out that listeners didn't like the fighting, he says. Steve Hegwood, Radio One vice president for programming, agrees up to a point, but cautions that the rivalry with WPGC has been "more than three years of an ugly war that doesn't seem to be going anywhere any time soon."
Among rock stations, DC-101 (WWDC-FM) and WHFS-FM vie for the same 18-to-34 listeners. DC-101 was more of a hard-rock station until a few years ago but has since changed its format to "active rock" with a playlist often indistinguishable from that of alternative-rock WHFS.
To track the struggle for listeners between DC-101 and WHFS, listen to each station's promotional "signers"--its jingles, slogans and songs.
DC-101 calls itself "the only station that really rocks," a shot aimed at WHFS, whose format leans heavily on such light alt-rockers as Jewel and Semisonic. The hair-splitting claim is clearly open to debate, as WHFS plays plenty of muscular acts like Limp Bizkit and Hole.
Witness, too, DC-101 signers that tout its strong broadcast signal--another shot at WHFS, whose signal has slightly better coverage in Baltimore than in the District. WHFS has countered with a recent promotional song that assures listeners that the station's signal is strong in both cities. Also, WHFS's longtime identity--the home of "modern rock"--is an implicit shot at DC-101 and the occasional dinosaur rockers that lumber around its playlist.
Sometimes the on-air volleys are so plain as to require no decryption, as in the struggle for news consumers between all-news WTOP (1500 AM) and news-talk WMAL (630 AM).
"Washington's only all-news station," trumpets WTOP, taking a shot at WMAL, whose schedule is filled with talkers like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger.
When WMAL beats WTOP to the airwaves with news, WMAL quickly follows with mocking promos, asking: Where was Washington's all-news station?
Even public radio stations mix it up.
WETA (90.9 FM) added "Morning Edition" to its lineup in May. WAMU (88.5 FM), which had been the area's sole provider of "Morning Edition," fears that it will not only lose listeners to WETA, which has a stronger signal, but pledge dollars along with them, because "Morning Edition" is National Public Radio's biggest pledge-drive moneymaker.
WAMU counterattacks by telling listeners they ought to stay with its version of "Morning Edition" because the station has reporters who give local news during the show, while WETA has no reporting staff.
Doug Gilmore, fired as the morning man at WMMJ (102.3 FM) in November, is back on the air, doing afternoons at WHUR (96.3 FM). Gilmore returned last Friday, and will appear on the black adult-contemporary station daily from 3 to 6:30 p.m. Gilmore's producer, Tim Gordon, says Gilmore's show will have a "morning show vibe," meaning high energy, humor and a mix of music and talk. Gilmore was fired from WMMJ for low ratings, but his replacement, Les Brown, has fared worse at the black oldies station. Even though Gilmore moves from mornings to afternoons--one step down for a deejay--the move to WHUR is a good one for him. WHUR's afternoon ratings among listeners 25-54 are already higher than Brown's morning ratings on WMMJ.
Listen to This
On Friday (the 13th), WMAL nighttime host Chip Franklin will broadcast live from Burkittsville, Md., setting of this summer's fright flick "The Blair Witch Project." At 11 p.m., Franklin and two listeners--armed with cell phones (sissies!)--will enter the woods, emulating the film's ill-fated documentary crew. If Franklin is any kind of broadcaster, he'll score an interview with the witch.
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