1 p.m. EST: Tuesday, January 18, 2000
With Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Frank Ahrens covers radio for The Washington Post. His column--"The Listener"--appears every other Tuesday in the Style section. Frank is also a general assignment feature writer, and his reporting subjects have included everything from minivans to murders, from baseball to bandwidth.
If you're wondering about the inner workings of radio in Washington, around the country and on the Web, or want to know what Frank really thinks of minivans, then don't touch that dial . . . um, mouse! Please join us!
Here is a transcript of today's discussion:
Good afternoon Frank, what's on your mind this frigid January day?
Frank Ahrens: Sorry so late today, folks. Had to go the FCC for a briefing on the low-power FM vote which is skedded for this Thursday. The FCC will decide on whether to believe their physics reports--which say you can squeeze low-power stations on the FM band--or the National Association of Broadcasters' reports--which say you can't. Vote is Thursday. Let's go!
I run a student radio station in Washington, and am very concerned about the neutered version of Low Power FM likely to be passed on Thursday by the FCC. Will there be any opportunities for stations in the district? The the NAB buy themselves a rewrite of the original proposal?
Frank Ahrens: Which station do you run? Georgetown? The FCC's tech reports, which I believe you can see on their Web site, say that the FM band in Washington will NOT accommodate a 1,000-watt station but can accommodate about 4 100-watt stations, which, with an antenna height of about 100 feet, give you a broadcast diameter of about 7 miles.
Stevens and Core show - what happened to Stevens?
Frank Ahrens: Brooke Stevens was fired a couple of weeks ago. She's landed as a vice prez at a Virginia p.r. firm but is still seeking radio work, I understand. WMAL believed the ratings for Stevens and Core weren't what they should be and Stevens' contract was up in February anyway, so they acted early.
sorry if you've answered this question before, but i haven't seen it...
what's the deal with WTOP? I get perfect reception for it when i'm 30 miles outside DC in the virginia burbs, but I can't hear it through the static when i'm actually in town! What's up with that? I really want to listen to it driving in town, but the static drives me nutty!
Frank Ahrens: This is a real problem for the station. The buildings really hurt the AM signal. When I'm listening to the station in the city and heading, say, down 14th Street, the signal craps out around E Street. So I switch over to 107.7 FM, WTOP's simulcast FM signal, which I can get pretty well. For at-work listeners, the station has been pumping its Web site, WTOP.com.
HI Frank. Love your column. Would you be willing to comment on RADIOAMERICA, the "conservative" news network? I enjoy their 24-hour political-talk lineup and am surprised that there is no other network like it here in DC. I listen to them on the internet and am wondering why that format must be so unpopular. It seems to me that, in DC at least, AM political-talk radio should have a home. Would you speculate on why we don't have any AM talk personalities out of DC and why a network like Radio America isn't more popular, especially here in an election cycle. Thanks.
Frank Ahrens: I don't know a lot about Radio America. Is that the network that has Oliver North and Michael Reagan?
Have the programming changes at WTEM increased its ratings over the last six months? I think it's a great station. Am I and my three friends the only people who think so?
Frank Ahrens: The next Arbitron ratings book is due out on Feb. 8. Then we'll see what the shuffling at WTEM--moving Kornheiser to mid-days, shaving an hour off of Rome--has done, if anything. I think WTEM is spotty--good in some things, week in others. I think it is hurt by its AM signal, though it is a strong signal. D.C. is just not an AM town, as New York is, where WFAN sports-talk rules. (You can get it at nighttime here, btw, at 660 AM). One thing that makes a good sports-talk station work is the ability to get good guests in a timely fashion. John Thompson has helped WTEM in this respect--he get Charles Barkley right after his retirement. But Thompson doesn't have as many contacts outside of basketball. WFAN, for instance, benefits from being in New York and having regular listeners such as Wayne Gretzky who likes to call up and talk baseball. WTEM needs more starpower, better promotion and maybe an FM signal.
Hello?? Has Frank been postponed?
Frank Ahrens: I'm here, I'm here!!!
Stop me if you have heard this, but if the deal with the low power stations is approved, is there anything stopping them from broadcasting the Internet as well? Is that too simplistic?
Frank Ahrens: Hi, Laurie. No, nothing is stopping anyone--you included--from broadcasting on the Internet, where there is no FCC, no FCC regulations and can be heard, theoretically, by anyone in the world with a phone line. In fact, that's the tack that the National Association of Broadcasters has been urging--they've been fighting the low-power issue tooth-and-nail: they think the low-power signals will bleed onto their signals; also, they don't want the competition. But the NAB has been urging would-be broadcasters to drop the idea of having your own radio station and instead broadcast on the Internet.
Have you heard about WZBA out of Baltimore?
They're sporting a format I've never heard of before, "Rock, without the hard edge." They seem to fit somewhere between classic rock and modern rock, while leaving out the violent-suicidal-self abusive content component of a typical modern rock format. If WZBA could boost their signal to reach past northern Gaithersburg, I'd probably give up WARW's limited play list for good!
Frank Ahrens: That's exactly what we need in the market: the trendy and ever-growing Self-Abuse Format, designed to target males, 12-18.
I don't know WZBA but I do know the format. WARW tried this a few years ago--more Seals and Croft and less Zeppelin. Didn't go over so well with the listeners. If it's the only classic rock station in the market, it doesn't tend to stand up as well as a "classic" classic rock station, such as WARW.
Hasn't WMAL become RadioAmerica?
Frank Ahrens: Hahaha! Well, that's an increasing criticism I've heard of them. A clever discussion participant a few weeks ago sardonically asked if WMAL doesn't stand for "We're Mostly All Limbaugh." The proof will come soon, when WMAL picks its two new nighttime hosts (for the 7-10 and 10-1) shift. If they're politically conservative, then we've got a definite trend.
Are DJ's going to always have to work from play-lists or will they one day, get to play their music of choice again? Is there just too much $$$ in the recording industry? Comment on record company's influence on radio. Generally a good or bad thing?
Frank Ahrens: In a word, No. There is a very cozy relationship between radio stations and record labels and it is inevitable. But I don't think that the emasculation of the deejays has as much to do with the increasing record company control as it does the advent of research. At weekly music meetings, radio station employees sit around--management and younger employees, such as interns--and listen to the fresh music sent to them by record companies. Often, also, there's a record label rep at the meeting, pushing a particular album or two. So the universe of music is largely determined by the record companies, but then the stations go to work with research. They'll introduced a new record based on gut feeling or a good sound or that artist's track record. But then they begin to track the record, monitoring requests, cold-calling listeners, holding auditorium tests, and so forth. And that determines how long the record stays in rotation and whether it's a hit or not. The role of the deejay has been changed to that of "personality," doing his or her particular schtick on the air. Also, the payola scandals of the '60s did a lot to limit the deejay's role as gatekeeper and hitmaker.
Hey Frank, as an antidote to the right-wing basket cases that clog the airwaves with their spew, have you ever checked out the Sunday Lopez show on 98 Rock? Definitely a breath of fresh air. Also gotta give 98 Rock props as the best rock FM in the area, not that achieving that status is particularly difficult.
Frank Ahrens: Good posting, thanks. Will give a listen.
What's up with all of the changes at WMZQ? I'm a regular listener and it just doesn't sound the same. This can't be a change for the good...please let me know what's up?
Frank Ahrens: See if you can get a hold of my most recent column (Jan. 11) which talks all about the changes at WMZQ. Long story short, new management has come in. The station is still owned by the same company--AMFM, which owns 7 other stations in the area--but the management and programming team from Jam'n Oldies--also an AMFM station--has come over the WMZQ and is trying to give the heritage station a does of adrenaline.
Frank, enjoy the chat. Curious about the simulcast thing that Imus does every morning with CNBC. For those who don't know, its basically a tv broadcast of the radio show realtime. Is this a new twist or an old one?I've watched out of curiosity but it seems like a loser. What do you think?
Frank Ahrens: Must be cold in Gaithersuburrrrrrg.
Not a new thing...Imus has been airing his show on MSNBC for some time. It depends on whether you like looking at Dom Imus's mug--a questionable concept at best. Same can be said for Howard Stern, who also does a TV show. But his show is helped by the presence of half-dressed hookers. Ever hear that old expression, "He has a face for radio?" Why do you think I'm in print and not on TV?
In the opinion of my male employer,
did WMAL think maybe it was Chris Core that was the problem?
Frank Ahrens: That's a good question. Chris Core has a long, long history at WMAL--he's been there since the 1970s, when he was teamed with Bill Trumbell. I think the station simply valued Core more than Stevens and decided to let Core fly solo for the first time and see if he could handle it.
I used to work with Washington radio veteran Ed Walker back in the 80's producing the highly successful "Play It Again, Ed" show on WMAL. I have since left the D.C. Metro area for the mountains of Western Maryland....What's Ed up to these days?
Frank Ahrens: Ed Walker called me a few weeks ago when I was doing the Greatest Radio Moments of the Century column. The daytime number he gave me was in Willard Scott's office at NBC. Of course, Walker and Scott go way back to the Joy Boy days at WRC. But I don't know what Ed's doing.
Did you hear the DC101 morning show this morning? They were interviewing the wrestler "Mankind" and he and Brett proceeded to say some pretty vicious comments against each other. Was it just a stunt or was there something more to the interview?
Frank Ahrens: No, I didn't hear it. Tell me what they said. My guess is though, without hearing it, is that they were just trying to do "good radio." Elliot Segal has been riling things up in the local radio enviro, taking shots at Jack and Bert at Mix 107.3, etc. Elliot sometimes tunes in to these chats. If he's out there, maybe he'll fill us in. Elliot?
Frank, this is sort of a techie question, but you, being all-knowing radio god, will know the answer. I've often been curious about why on certain songs on FM I get full blown stereo, i.e. different tracks coming out of different speakers, and other songs sound mono-flat. Is it the cut or the signal, or what do you think?
Frank Ahrens: Holy Circuit City, Batman! I'm afraid that I can only be the semi-knowing, radio demigod on this one. My expert technical advice would be: jiggle the wire at the back of your speaker.
Anyone out there got any ideas?
P.S. Could be the remastering of the disk, btw. Lots of older records were recorded in analog and remastered into digital when re-released on CD. Perhaps in that process...?
WZBA is the new identity of WGRX 100.7 from Westminster -Balto.-, MD who was last known as Froggy 100.7. No dice on more signal towards Virginia, as there's a station in Harrisonburg.
Frank Ahrens: Many thanks, to my fellow WVU alum.
Can you elaborate on the payola scandals of the '60s ? I hadn't heard of that....
Frank Ahrens: Sure. Back in the late '50s and well into the '60s, some record companies would routinely pay deejays to play music by their artists. As this was way before the era of research and powerful chain ownership, the deejays had most of the power at radio stations and they had almost sole authority over what got played. Therefore, they were ripe for bribery. This was such a widespread practice that the Department of Justice and FCC intervened. WOL here in town was sold in an FCC "distress" sale by the FCC to avoid being charge with payola violations--it essentially was taken away from its corporate owner. At WOL, the deejays were bigger stars than the musicians they played, and they had various and sundry outsinterestsrsts, such as promoting concerts, etc. But this was by no means limited to WOL; they just got a lot of attention from it when one of their deejays, R. Seavy Campbell, was found murdered, execution-style, in the mid-70s.
Big Frank: Are you aware that all the other web sites which are "on" at this time have a big, red NOW by them, while yours doesn't. Does this mean - 1- you're very shy, 2- there is a conspiracy against you inside the POST or 3- it's a late Y2K collapse? Please advise.
Frank Ahrens: Hahaha! "Very Shy." Mary, my Tall and Efficient producer, tells me that you need to refresh your browser to see the Now in front of my name.
The person wondering about mono-stereo doesn't -of course- give enough information. Could be the CD, or it could be the signal, especially if the listener is in a car. FM radios in cars smoothly shift from stereo to mono to knock down the noise in a weak signal. I could submit you to tortuous math to prove this, but I won't.
Frank Ahrens: Thank you, and thank you (for excluding the tortuous math).
Ed Walker can be heard Sunday evenings 7-11 on WAMU doing "The Big Broadcast"
Frank Ahrens: Many thanks for Ed Update.
tell us more about the fcc briefing - what is the sense among those in the know regarding their technical concessions? is the nab really going to keep fighting this?
Frank Ahrens: Hi, Tuscon. It's Minus-100 here. Bet it's not there. And would this perhaps be Carrie Arnett, who hopes to start a student low-power station there?
Though the FCC staff persons demurred on what they think will happen in the Thursday vote--that is out of their hands and in the hands of the commisioners--they feel that they've done adequate testing on a variety of radios (but not all, more later) and that low-power FM will work in a number of markets without significantly interfering with established broadcast stations. That being said, the FCC did NOT test clock radios or Walkmans, which have very low reception tolerance and possibilitylity for a LOT of interference. Also, I bet a LOT of people listen to radio on these cheap radios (about 44 percentfolksolsk listen primarily on car radios, which offer just about the best reception you can get), so this could be a problem. The National Association of Broadcasters is adamant that low-power WILL NOT work. Their rhetoric claims that FCC trying to "bend the laws of physics."
BTW: since i started late today, I'll go a little longer.
Where are all the "liberal" talk show hosts? We are already subjected to the likes of Limbaugh, that self-styled "Dr." Laura, and the other stable of conservatives at WMAL. Why won't moderates-liberals -a word that to hear Liddy and Limbaugh use it equates to "commie pinko" in 1954 America- get on the air and counter their accusations? It gets HIGHLY TIRING and IRRITATING hearing the one point of view.
As for G Gordon Liddy - I wish he would stick to his FBI, prison, Mrs. Liddy, and car stories. Those stories are highly engrossing, but once he gets into "my car won't start because Clinton exists" or "I have constipation because Clinton exists" rants, pass the vomit bag, please...
Frank Ahrens: I love the Liddy riff. Briefly, it is the conventional wisdom in the radio industry that, because conservative talk hosts tend to be more confrontational, and, simply, because we've had a Democratic president for 7 years as a large, unmoving target to rail against, that they're better radio. Liberal talk hosts, such as the mix that WRC tried a few years ago, just didn't pull the ratings. Also, there have been a number of notable failures, such as Mario Cuomo, who tried to host a talk radio show and, while he is a notable orater (and also was, I believe, a minor league baseball player), he simply did not pick up the tricks of the radio trade and his show was not good.
Sportz Fan, Reston VA:
Whats the deal with the Rome show - Why
won't Sportstalk 980 play the whole thing?
I initially thought he was a jack*&!@, but have come to appreciate his style and wish we could get the whole show. Tony Kornheiser is most definitely -not- nearly as interesting, despite being a DC favorite.
Frank Ahrens: This is a good posting simply because we get so many Rome-bashers. WTEM took the hour away from Rome to give to Tony.
Frank, I was the one who posted the question about DC101 earlier...from what I gathered...Elliot and his crew were interviewing Mankind about some book he has coming out -or is already out...i don't remember- and Brett started slamming him for not being a "good parent" and making statements regarding how wrestling is contributing to the "dumbing down of america", etc. Mankind obviously did not appreciate this and began to attack Brett and what he does for a living at Fox 5. I don't think this was a set-up...I honestly think they were at each others' throats...any input from you or your online chatters would be great. Thanks.
Frank Ahrens: Hmmm...good stuff. It sounds unrehearsed, but never believe that it is. I mean, consider: Mankind is a professional wrestler, and is accustomed to following scripts and and creating controversy.
I'm a regular listener to WETA on the way to and home from work.
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to what I thought was segment about the composer Mahler, waiting for the hook of why it was newsworthy, when it finally became clear that it was a news segment - length advertisement for an upcoming Kennedy Center concert.
A few days later the same thing happened with an upcoming Eleanor Roosevelt program on WETA-TV.
Both segments were by the same correspondent - Andrea Mitchell, I believe.
This was a distinctly different situation than the correspondents reading company taglines that happens in the afternoon and are clearly "commercials" for sponsors.
These are the first instances I've noticed - do you know if this is a new trend? If so, why can't they have those spots voiced by a non-regular correspondent? They may have succeeded in keeping from turning the station during the Mahler commercial, but I won't listen to another - particularly since every time that correspondent comes on I assume a 50-50 chance its a commercial. To me, it brings her credibility-seriousness into question.
Frank Ahrens: I hadn't heard of this but it is defintely worth looking into. I will do so. Many thanks.
Everyone takes shots at Jack and Bert. Are they just easy targets, or are they really that disliked in the radio community?
Frank Ahrens: The most recent ratings book for Jack and Bert shows them having a 6.6 share, or 6.6 of the listening audience, for men and women between 25-54, the show's target audience. That's not quite Tom Joyner or Howard Stern numbers, but they are very solid. Also, they are good moneymakers for the station. I think the shots against Jack and Bert have come primarily from Elliot Segal at DC101, and that's just his style.
New Bern, NC:
Frank have you been tracking efforts by the NAB to have Congress declare illegal the whole LPFM issue? -Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act HR 3439-.
Frank Ahrens: Yes, New Bern, and, in fact, this afternoon, I have an interview skedded with the sponsor of that bill, Rep. Mike Oxley from Ohio.
Thanks for the payola information. Funny, though, I guess it's a more accepted practice now, since it's corporation-to-corporation, huh?
Frank Ahrens: Well, that's one way to look at it.
Silver Spring, MD:
Frank, I'm looking for good alternative-progressive radio on the internet. My favorite station, when I'm driving between Baltimore and New York, is WXPN in Philadelphia -home of David Dye's "World Cafe"- still has no internet link. Progressive WRNR FM 103.1 out of Annapolis is on the web however, at http:--www.wrnr.com
Pittsburgh's progressive WYEP hopes to have a feed in the near future as well.
Anybody have any suggestions for current offerings on the 'net?
Frank Ahrens: My ever-bright Style section colleague, Ann Gerhart, suggested that, at the end of every Listener column, I include an Internet radio site that folks can find and listen to. I think that's a swell idea. Also, I'll be depending on you guys to submit idea for your favorite Internet radio stations...I'll listen to them and include them in the column. You can e-mail them to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The gloves are off.
What's with all of the whining about WMAL? Are Washington's leftists worried? I'm glad we have something to offset the generally pathetic liberal drivel we hear on the radio these days -WHFS, DC101, etc.-
I hope WMAL keeps up the good work.
Frank Ahrens: All RIGHT!! I love the mix-it-up. Good posting!
Let's get ready to rummmmmble!!
New Bern, NC:
Frank, I just wanted to let people know of some really obscure legal issue which makes broadcasting an internet-only -ie.- not broadcasted in any format- "radio station". Because of the copyrighting issues -both "mechanical" and others-, not just anyone can "broadcast" on the internet. Broadcasters are grandfathered in aggreements with ASCAP, BMI and SESAC to allow them to broadcast songs, and there are provisions for streaming the sound that you broadcast over the internet. However, if you try to broadcast songs that you did not write, perform, or copyright, and you manage to become successful-- they will come find you and shut you down. You can check out all the relevant copyrighting information -as understood by the Recording Industry suits--obviously they have their bias- here at www.riaa.com-weblic-wlwcast.htm and www.riaa.com-weblic-wldmca.htm . As always enjoying the chat Frank. Also, Sammy Hagar or David Lee Roth?
Frank Ahrens: This is a very good legal posting. Many thanks. Check out the Web site. And, as for the musical question: Roth with Van Halen, Hagar on his own. As a frontman for Van Halen, Hagar was Horrible.
Frank, good afternoon.
I'm a female about 35 years old, and I've been in this area for a couple of years. All of a sudden I can't get away from a TV commercial for this Classic Rock station my friends told me about. Are they new? I haven't listened before. They sound good.
Frank Ahrens: If you're talking about Classic Rock 94.7, no, they're not new. But they have been doing some TV advertisign as of late, so they might have raised their profile enough for you to notice them.
Regarding WARW's limited playlist, who cares? They're all my favorites! It's not like it's the ONLY station you can listen to.
Frank Ahrens: Good Classic Rock posting. Many thanks.
Excuse me, but some of us conservatives have to WORK during the afternoons, when Limbaugh, et al. come on. So a little conservative talk radio at NIGHT is kind of refreshing. If the liberal chatters our there don't like WMAL's evening programming, they can do what they always tell conservatives to do anytime conservatives complain about radio-TV-Film: Turn it off or find another station.
Thanks for letting me vent.
Frank Ahrens: No problem. That's what I'm here for.
I was hoping someone else with more knowledege would have responded by now, but I will take the challenge, unless someone else mentioned it and I missed it. There was a question about car radios chasing stronger radio signals and retuning themselves in Europe, and you thought it was the same station fading in and out. The person inquiring was correct. Here's where my info starts to gets weak. A system called RDS -which I forget what it stands for...I intially knew about this 10 years ago- has a data signal in addition to the on-air signal which works with "special" radios that will track this data. I was friends with the guy -M St. Journal- who was developing the data base for the service. Say you want news, jazz or classical -I don't want to attempt to sub-categorize rock formats-. You would have -or program- a button -similar to a channel button- and the frequency display would say "Jazz" and tune to the station squirting out data saying "Jazz." Once the signal starts to fade, it would automaticaly hunt out the next strongest "Jazz" station in that area and tune to it. If there was not another jazz station available, it would go to your second programmed choice of format and start searching for that strongest signal. The service is available in limited amounts here in the US. Blaupunkt makes receivers for this. Trade publications -like Radio World- have occasionally done stories discussing this service. European broadcasters has adopted this service more widely -?-, probably due to state-run networks which dominate the markets. I was in Spain in October, and the rental car's radio displayed 10-12 characters, which listed the "catch-phrase" of the station, -in one case "Rad Catalan"-, a frequency, or city-location. I didn't play with it as much as I should have...we covered a lot of miles on some winding narrow roads. The other interesting thing was that the radio was mid-dashboard, as usual, but this display was top and center of the dash where you might expect a clock, and a lever coming out of the steering column, similar to a washer-wiper control, allowed you to adjust volume, and change stations. Very smart. Maybe some newer cars have such things here. But my '96 Camry didn't. And I had a glofiried econobox there. And with the murky future of digital radio looming, this type of service is waiting in the wings. One item mentioned in a very old article about RDS stated how it was invisioned you would listen to a station, hear a commercial, push a button, and a coupon would print out of the front of your radio. Nothing was said about who would keep it stocked with paper or what-not, but they had big plans in the late 80's-early 90's for this. It just hasn't caught on yet. Also, you could set the radio to seek for emergency traffic and weather information. The radio in my car in Spain had these functions. My limited exposure found RDS to be interesting, but I didn't get to play with it enough to see all the features. And the book in the glove compartment didn't say much, either. Sorry for the meandering note..feel free to just take this info and do a better job on your own. But this stuff is out there....
Frank Ahrens: This is a very long posting, but someone a few weeks ago asked about car radio signals, and this has some good points in it.
Frank Ahrens: All right, that's gonna do it for today. Thanks for sticking with me since I was late. Thanks also for all the good questions...sorry I couldn't get to all of them. I guess Gen X Gurl had class today, or something.
See you next week.
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