Later this month, Doug "Greaseman" Tracht will face his old boss, the owner of Classic Rock 94.7, in an arbitration hearing stemming from the shock jock's firing in February for an on-air racist slur. After a tussle over the Greaseman's severance package, Infinity Broadcasting is suing Tracht for $100,000, claiming that's how much lost advertising Tracht's slur cost the company.
While the hearing may resolve that bit of fallout from the firing, a bigger issue remains among radio listeners: Was WARW-FM dealt a significant blow when it had to dump the Greaseman, the flamboyant personality the station had built itself around during his nearly two years there? After all, he was usually rated among the top five of the Washington area's morning-drive deejays.
The truth is, aside from the Greaseman's time slot, WARW has had consistently disappointing and stagnant ratings, a puzzler since 94.7 is the area's only classic rock station, the sole provider of music that an entire generation considers beloved.
Over the past couple of years, the station has ranked among the lowest of major area stations among all listeners (17th in a field of 36, with most of the stations below it having very small audiences). It does slightly better among its target audience--listeners 25-54--usually finishing in the middle of the pack (WARW pulls its best ratings in the moneymaking category, men 25-54). Tomorrow, the Arbitron ratings for the summer quarter will be released. If they follow the most recent "Arbitrends," the in-between-reports snapshots, the story will be pretty much the same.
In the eight months since Tracht was fired, the station has scrambled to reinvent itself. The most noticeable change is WARW's transmutation from being a station formed around a major personality to one with very little personality, with a focus almost exclusively on the music. It's an against-the-grain move: Many stations are urging their deejays to do more than just announce records; they are pressed to have their own distinctive shticks, to be more like stand-up comics. Instead, WARW has responded to listeners who've told the station to "shut up and play the music," says Program Director Phil Locascio.
Recently the station began playing "seven-song super sets"--seven classic rock songs in a row, uninterrupted by commercials--and to kick it off, the station really "shut up" the deejays: WARW went jockless during the first weekend of super sets.
Even since the introduction of the feature, the complaint that I hear most often about WARW does not involve the deejays--it involves the music. Every time--honestly, every time--someone asks me about WARW, it starts with: "Why do they play the same songs all the time?"
Many classic rock stations wrestle with this.
In theory there should be a huge pool of music from which to choose. But classic rock stations are not "oldies" stations, so that cuts off most music before about 1965. Further, they are not "mix" stations, playing pop songs from the " '80s, '90s and today"; so although their playlists keep edging forward (recently heard on WARW: Steve Winwood's "Higher Love," from 1986), classic rock stations usually top out at about 1983. Add to this the so-simple-as-to-be-overlooked fact that there is no more music being made between 1965 and 1983.
Then the question becomes: Which songs do you play from those years?
Locascio believes that, to be a "mass appeal" station, his station has to stick to the hits. Research tells him that's what WARW listeners want, he says.
Other classic rock stations have used the "it doesn't have to be old to be a classic" format; say, at the beginning of a four-song Rolling Stones set, a station will play a recent Stones song. Then there's the "deep cuts" tack: Stations play songs you've seldom heard by artists you know. This satisfies the half-dozen B-side Zeppelin fans, but causes everyone else to switch stations. Locascio says WARW will likely not experiment with either format.
It's unclear what WARW can do to increase its ratings. The station is hampered by the fact that it is located in a radio market that's about 38 percent nonwhite. According to Arbitron, Classic Rock 94.7 is among the area's "whitest" stations (about 95 percent of its listeners are white). In fact, more black and Spanish-speaking area residents typically listen to commercial classical station WGMS than to WARW and its classic rock.
What, then, sets a great classic rock station apart from others? Presentation of the material. Or, in other words, getting people excited about musty tunes.
I was in Orlando in early September and listened to WHTQ, a very good classic rock station there. The playlist was not significantly different from WARW's, but the station felt more energetic, with deejays who sounded excited about the music. (Orlando has a significantly larger white listenership; WHTQ consistently hits the top three in its target market in Arbitron ratings.) More important, however, WHTQ themed its music cleverly: It presented old tunes in a fresh manner.
For instance, WHTQ aired a "Greatest Year in Rock" theme. One of the deejays was going through his huge collection of vinyl and found that some of the best, most influential rock albums were released in 1969. So the station focused on tunes from that year over the course of a few days, tying in contests and giveaways. It should be noted that not all of the tunes were instantly recognizable hits. After it was over, the listener was not only entertained, but felt a little smarter: Who knew all this great music came out in one year?
This is the sort of intelligent repackaging of old material WARW could emulate with success. And area classic rock listeners--who have only one place to go to hear the tunes of their youth--would no doubt be grateful.
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CAPTION: Since Doug "Greaseman" Tracht was driven off the air earlier this year, WARW's ratings have tanked.