Could it be: Jam'n Country?

Listeners of country WMZQ (98.7) have noticed a change in the station's sound over the past month. Everyone hears something different--some say the station is "too twangy, right out of Okie-land"; others complain "too much Dixie Chicks!" But what is infallible is the listeners' ears--they hear something, though they don't know exactly what.

What they're hearing is a radio station trying to swim upstream against a lousy ratings trend. And WMZQ is doing it by borrowing a page out of the Jam'n Oldies playbook--by figuratively pumping up the volume.

Through the late '80s and early '90s, WMZQ was consistently one of the area's top-rated stations, riding the popularity of Garth Brooks and other "hat acts" such as Clint Black and Alan Jackson. Country concert tours were among the nation's most popular, and country CDs were the top-sellers. WMZQ's Fan-in-Chief was President Bush, who publicly proclaimed his affection for the station. But that was then.

Over the past six years, country is the only radio format that has consistently lost listeners, nationally and locally. According to the Arbitron ratings research firm, in the fall of 1995, country stations commanded 12.1 percent of all U.S. listeners 12 years and up. Four years later, that number had dropped to 9.2 percent.

Locally, from summer 1995 to summer 1996, WMZQ averaged 5.7 percent of all area listeners. By last year, the one-year average had slipped to 4.3 percent. The ratings decline mirrors the drop in sales of country CDs and concert tickets. And for those looking for a larger meaning in this, forget it: The music and radio businesses are cyclic in nature. Right now, the popularity of rap, hip-hop and Latin artists is rising. Country will likely be back--crossover artists such as the Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill may help lead its resuscitation. But there's a new team at WMZQ hoping to speed the revival by injecting some adrenaline into a warhorse of a radio station.

In early December, longtime WMZQ general manager Charlie Ochs, 55, left the station, partly for surgery to remove a cyst on his neck but also because, as he says, "after nine years you can get a little stale." He says he was not forced out.

Ochs is recovering well at home, but has retired from AMFM Radio, the chain that owns WMZQ and seven other area stations (as well as 457 others nationally). His job has been filled by Bennett Zier, who oversees all the AMFM stations in town. And Zier is most closely associated with the Jam'n Oldies format.

Jam'n Oldies exploded out of California a couple of years ago. It is a slick repackaging of old songs, mostly '60s and '70s hits by black artists--think Supremes meets Earth, Wind & Fire. The announcers tend to be energetic but not confrontational, and the stations share a highly produced sound--lots of musical jingles and sound effects. AMFM spread the format across the country, and it has been a ratings success and moneymaker everywhere it has landed.

Zier introduced the format to New York, then came to Washington more than a year ago, ostensibly to take over sports-talk WTEM (980 AM), which he launched in 1992. But AMFM had bigger plans. Zier converted easy-listening WGAY (99.5) to Jam'n Oldies in April, aping the format in New York. Now that he has taken over WMZQ, he will apply some of the Jam'n formula to one of Washington's powerhouse heritage stations. Indeed, WMZQ's new operations director, Jeff Wyatt, is also the program director at Jam'n Oldies. Zier and Wyatt say they are giving WMZQ an energy boost.

"The jingles are different, much more energetic," Wyatt says. "Sometimes the jocks used to just come on and say the call letters--'This is WMZQ.' Now, we produce that for the listeners."

In addition, Wyatt and Zier say, the WMZQ deejays are being encouraged to become "personalities." Following an industry-wide trend, they're being asked to inject more of themselves into their radio shows--telling personal stories, mentioning whatever's happening in the news and so forth.

For instance, it's been impossible to listen to the station over the past week for more than five minutes without hearing a deejay lovingly speak of the Redskins, a topic considered a sure-fire audience winner. Whether all the jocks can adapt to their lively new roles remains to be seen.

Wyatt has never programmed a country station before, and Zier has limited experience--he briefly ran a country station in Boston. And while Zier acknowledges that country stations have some unique facets--for example, closer relationships with the musicians and audience--he considers WMZQ much like other commercial hit stations.

"One thing we know about radio is that people tune in first for the music, then the personalities and then the contests," he says.

As for the music, Wyatt says, the station will focus on playing hits--mostly contemporary, but also some older country songs if the audience requests them. But don't expect to hear Hank Williams during the morning drive.

"Classic country won't sell," Ochs says. "That's been proven over and over again."

Apparently, it's the only thing that WMZQ can't sell. The station continues to be one of the area's top moneymakers despite the ratings decline. Over the past four years, Ochs says, the station's revenue has risen 30 percent. In 1998 the station made nearly $20 million, which placed it near WPGC (95.5) and WJFK (106.7) as one of the area's top billers.

But for WMZQ's owners, things can always be better: The old WGAY was a solid money-earner and ratings-getter, but its easy-listening format had pretty much topped out. Thus, the switch to the Jam'n Oldies format, with its higher earnings and ratings potential. Now, the company seeks to turbocharge WMZQ, which already has a revenue ace in the hole:

"Country music always sells product," Ochs says. Country listeners are product-loyal, much like NASCAR fans: If Jeff Gordon switches from Pepsi to Coke, Jeff Gordon fans will, too.

Country listeners are deejay-loyal, too. Some WMZQ fans raised a stink last spring when longtime deejay Seth Warner was fired for reasons Ochs declines to discuss. But fans called the station--and this column--to protest. After his firing, Warner worked part time for Wyatt at Jam'n Oldies and Wyatt decided to hire him back at WMZQ as a part-time fill-in, Wyatt says.

Warner likes what he sees at the new WMZQ.

"The station needed some energy, needed to revitalize. They had become complacent in a number of ways," says Warner, 44. After he was fired, the self-described "garden geek" enrolled in a landscaping program at George Washington University. As for his April 1 firing, Warner says that he and Ochs "grew to dislike one another" and that he had "seen it coming."

WMZQ marketing director Mark Lapidus sums up the station's new philosophy: "We want to go from what we perceive as being more of a background source [of music] to a foreground one," he says. The station knows it can do little to reverse the cooling of country music's popularity. What it can do is spice up the presentation--by spreading on some Jam.

West Meets East Quietly and suddenly, the troubled Pacifica Foundation radio network has moved its headquarters from Berkeley, Calif., to Washington. The leftist public network, which has five stations across the country, has been besieged by a nasty labor struggle over the past year, pitting the foundation's board of directors against its employees.

The conflict has included the firing of longtime air personalities and frequent censorship of its own news programs that have tried to cover the troubles. WPFW (89.3) here in Washington has been among the most egregious censors. The network says it has moved east to put its staff closer to federal agencies and public-interest groups based here. But consider this: Last summer there was a 10,000-person free-speech march against Pacifica in Berkeley. Here in the District of Columbia, WPFW has been relatively unbothered. Do the math.

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CAPTION: The Dixie Chicks and other twangy performers are replacing hunky "hat acts" like Clint Black on WMZQ.