The Double-Edged Sword of Radio’s Format Changes

radioflip

Anyone who knows little ol’ me knows that I am probably the biggest radio geek on the planet. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I know that there are places with radio stations that they didn’t even know had places.

My radio geekiness began in 2006 in Atlanta. At the time a popular radio station called 105.3 the Buzz (WBZY-FM Bowdon) was running liners in a continuous loop redirecting listeners to 96.1 WKLS. At the time, the station was the home of 96Rock, a heritage Classic Rocker that at the time was the flagship station for The Regular Guys Morning Show (Larry Wachs, Eric von Haessler, Southside Steve, etc.) as well as the home for Atlanta Braves baseball on FM.

The Braves, at the time also simulcasted on News/Talk 640 WGST.

The new station that was to debut on 96.1 was supposed to be what is referred to in the radio business as “Active Rock” (predominantly current hard rock with a few classics sprinkled here and there)—Project 9-6-1. Clear Channel has since ended ATL’s “Project” and is now airing CHR on 96.1 as “Power 96.1”.

Going back to the original format change in 2006, 105.3 basically relocated to 96.1 just under a new name. 105.3 itself debuted a new Regional Mexican format called “El Patron”, predominantly targeted towards the northeast Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County, where most of metro-Atlanta’s Hispanic population lives.

The fact that radio stations everywhere choose such creative ways to end and debut new formats is definitely pleasing to the ears. Shortly after the change in Atlanta took place, I discovered a website called FormatChange.com that features format changes throughout the years in radio. These include very historic ones, such as the MusicRadio 77 signoff in New York and the debut of Smooth Jazz 94.7 The Wave in Los Angeles.

Recently I remember listening to the aircheck I recorded of the debut of Wild 94.1 in Tampa. The buildup to the change (as for any Rhythmic CHR) was well-ballyhooed, so I figured I wanted to listen to this one would sound like. I didn’t hear the actual format change as can be heard on the 94.1 frequency because CBS Radio maintained the stream as if the station was simply changing its name and not moving to 94.1 from 98.7. In other words, the streaming audio was not the same as the frequency. I’m also guessing it’s why despite the enormous buildup to the flip, it’s why the aircheck didn’t make the Format Change Archive.

Wild’s move from 98.7 to 94.1 took place in 2009. It assumed the position of a Broadcast Architecture Radio Network-affiliated Smooth Jazz station at 94.1 which moved to 98.7. That station has since flipped to Hot AC “Play 98.7” and now as CBS Sports Radio affiliate “98.7 The Fan”.

With technology on the up-and-up as it is, the ways in which radio stations flip formats is more sophisticated than ever. With stations having to fulfill financial and ratings obligations to their owners, the rate of format changes is running at more of a breakneck speed than ever before.

The ways in which a radio station can change formats can vary. It can be simple such as quick transition from one song into a top-of-the-hour liner and a promo featuring the new format. Or, a station can flip its format by a long sendoff with DJs saying their final goodbyes and thank you’s to the listeners, then a sequence into the new format that can sound so dramatic that the soundbytes were plucked from “Gladiator” or “The Scorpion King”.

A station can also “stunt”. Say, for example, Alternative radio station 106.3 the Buzz in New York (DISCLAIMER—not a real radio station by the way) was about to flip formats. It signed off, then stunted as “Akiem 106.3” for a few days. After the stunt, a brief announcement could be made by the station’s general manager into the debut of the new format, which could include a simple intro or a more complex one such as a full intro of the new format. In this case, we’ll say it changed to “Love 106.3”—an R&B station—or as it’s known in the radio biz, Urban AC.

Such soundclips, again, can be pleasing to the ears since we’re hearing things that we aren’t used to hearing on a typical radio station at any given day. I have conversations with many of my radio geek folks on Facebook and Twitter always urging them to get their aircheck equipment ready whenever a format flip is about to come down the pike.

While there is an entertaining side to format flips, there’s also a dark side. A yin and a yang. A black and a white.
Format flips, for the most part happen, because either a station’s ratings aren’t doing so hotly against its competition. Or because the station isn’t making enough money. Usually what happens is that the entire airstaff will get fired prior to the change happening. Adam Carolla once said recently that radio station owners sleazily will fire the airstaff prior to the change occurring because if they gave subtle hints of a flip prior to a station changing, the revolt among the airstaff will be massive. This was the case with the old “Froggy 94” in Memphis. This was a beloved Country station that had a close relationship amongst its airstaff—something EVERY radio station should strive for.

Also, many DJs are put into non-compete contracts. For example, if a station flips and the airstaff gets fired, that DJ can’t be on the air for a certain period of time on a competing radio station. This is why it is advantageous for every DJ (or would be DJ) to have a strong internet presence as a way to get their message out.

We have to remember sometimes (and I’ve thought about this more as I continue my observation of the radio industry) that while format flips may produce ear candy for radio nerds, these are people’s livelihoods as well. The job market for radio can sometimes be so screwed that on-air talent will have to move cross-country just to find their next gig.

The format change bug has since hit home when I learned a month ago of a planned format change at Georgia State University’s student-run Album 88 WRAS-FM, a heritage indie music station in Atlanta. The plan was for the hours of 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. to be used by Georgia Public Broadcasting as WRAS was to become its flagship station for its radio network. The remaining 10 hours would still be used by students and the student-run format would still be available online. The takeover of the radio station by GPB is scheduled to take place on June 29th.

The pushback by fans and students has been noticeable. The format flip will provide fewer opportunities for would-be DJs in the future for which WRAS was a major reason why they chose to attend GSU in the first place.

On the subject of these changes again, I can’t even say that when you hear one format flip then you hear them all. They get somewhat repetitive after a while especially when you know how certain stations will debut themselves. The intro for Cumulus’ Rock stations is almost identical. In the early 2000’s shortly after Clear Channel bought out two other radio companies (AMFM and Jacor), they “Kissed” many of their stations (mostly Rhythmic AC or “Jammin’ Oldies” outlets) with Top 40/CHR. The debut sequence for the Top 40 outlets were almost identical. Don’t believe me? Check out FormatChange.com.

I don’t get excited for format flips the way I used to. Partly because I’ve tried to become more in tune with the human element of radio and realize that format changes mean job loss, and the only reason they lost their jobs isn’t because they did something bad. They’re only because of a certain radio organization’s bottom line.

Also, I’ve listened to so many format flip airchecks that I don’t necessarily get excited for format flip sequences anymore. When Adult Alternative station 95.3 The Peak debuted in Calgary, that one was pretty good since it connected the debut of the station with many other landmarks and famous sites in Calgary and around Alberta.

I liked that one. I’m not saying that radio geeks and aircheck collectors should not crave more format flip airchecks, but let’s just remember who is (or was) on the other side of our radios and computers when we hear them.

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