Why Cleveland Radio Sucks, the True Story Behind 87.7 Cleveland Sound, and the Future of Radio Innovation

There was a time when Cleveland radio was the soundtrack to people's lives and, for a subset of music fans, the soundtrack of rock across the country. Anyone over 30 remembers a time when some song, and some DJ in an actual room spinning it, rocked your world by introducing you to new bands, new sounds, new ideas; and the lore of WMMS runs straight through the middle of any conversation about radio in Northeast Ohio.

Those days, of course, are gone, replaced by repetitive playlists and scripted on-air talk. Across Cleveland's radio dial, the same songs are played again and again, and then again ten more times this hour. There are fewer DJs keeping us entertained, a lot less new music to listen to, and more ads touting the latest breakthrough weight loss pill and miracle laser hair removal.

Fun (sorta) fact: according to the Wall Street Journal, the top 10 songs from last year were played nearly twice as much as they were 10 years ago. Faced with increasing competition from online sources and a generation for whom radio is the last place they'd go for new music, stations are retrenching, banking on familiar strategies to hold onto listenership.

"There's no innovation happening here [in commercial radio]," says John Gorman, who pioneered the Adult Album Alternative (AAA) format as program director for WMMS in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually turning it into one of the most popular stations in the U.S. "The direction they're going is to more syndication, more network programming."

And yet others argue radio retains local flavor, guided by listeners. (You can probably guess where those people are employed.)

Tom Herschel, market manager for CBS Radio Cleveland, says playlist decisions are made based on careful research into consumer behavior. "The bottom line is that people want to hear songs they know when they tune in," he argues. "That's how people use radio these days."

Local music advocates don't agree, saying Cleveland's needs more diversity on the dial. It jumps out as ironic that the city with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn't have a contemporary rock station. Larger market cities like New York and L.A. have greater radio diversity, and even Columbus has CD 102.5, an alt rock station that promotes local music. Few semi-comparable options exist in Cleveland. (We'll get to the ones that do momentarily.)

"We need more local programming happening anywhere on the dial," says Karoline Kramer-Gould, Music Director for The Heights, voicing a familiar frustration among Cleveland music lovers. "Not one song playing every two hours until you feel like you're banging your head against a wall."

Welcome to FM radio: No need to reach for the dial, it's all the same anyway.

Fewer owners, fewer choices

In the 70s and 80s, Cleveland had dozens of station owners and was a top-10 market (today we're ranked 30th). WMMS was the exemplar. Led by personalities like Kid Leo and Ed "Flash" Ferenc, WMMS helped break national artists such as David Bowie and Rush, interviewed rock legends like Lou Reed, and attracted national bands to the Agora.

Fast forward to today: Our market is dominated by two corporate players. Clear Channel claims about 42 percent of the market with nine stations total, including WMMS and WMJI FM/105.7. CBS Radio has 22 percent with four stations, including WNCX FM/98.5 and WKRK FM/92.3. Radio One and Rubber City Radio own stations too.

How did we get here? Before the Telecommunications Act of 1996, there were limits as to how many radio stations an owner could buy. Yet a midnight rider attached to the bill removed these restrictions, and in the late 90s, corporations snatched up stations left and right, often for inflated prices. They were bullish that radio would be a cash cow.

"Suddenly radio stations were the hottest commodity in town," Gorman recalls. Yet soon after the buying spree, the Internet emerged as a major competitor with terrestrial radio.

Like most radio station owners across the country, CBS Radio and Clear Channel have reduced headcount over the past decade. Both claim they're committed to local talent, although using pre-recorded material is still part of the business model. Playlists are based on the idea that when people hear an unfamiliar song, they switch stations.

Herschel says it's a myth that programming decisions aren't made locally, adding that CBS Radio Cleveland has live DJs that program every song. "We believe in live and local," he argues. "This whole meme of mandated radio and mandated songs, it just doesn't happen. Our listeners guide the music that we pick and causes we support." (So, blame yourselves?)

Yet mainstream Cleveland radio is predictably bland. During morning drive time, you'll hear local shock jocks, celebrity gossip and that Skynyrd tune you loved in high school. What you won't hear is any new music beyond the latest Top 40 singles by Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake. And new, contemporary rock 'n' roll? Just fuhgeddaboutit.

"People used to go to radio to hear new stuff, but people don't go to the radio for music anymore," says Justin Markert of Cellar Door Music, a local record label and concert promoter. "I think that's why terrestrial FM radio is having trouble succeeding."

If Cleveland's renaissance is a celebration of all things local, whether art, food, beer, furniture or music, there's one thing conspicuously absent – interesting local radio.

"The best theory as to why radio stations are losing listeners is they're not as compelling as they used to be," comments Michael Dosch, a Cleveland-based radio consultant. "You still have local talent, but it's not the same and listeners can hear that."

You're bound to hear the same voices accompanying those same songs, and that double-down on familiarity is still happening. John Lanigan recently announced his retirement after 29 years on the air. The legend has been at WMJI since 1985; his replacement to join Jimmy Malone will be yet another familiar face (and voice) -- Mark Nolan.

"John [Lanigan] holds a legacy position here and I don't think there's a better job," says Nolan. "A huge challenge for sure and I know much of what happens next is on me, but the team is well established. I did 18 years at Channel 3, more than 20 years in Northeast Ohio in general. People here love personalities that stick around. And it's local, local, local. If you can bring them along with what's happening in the world -- locally, musically, technologically -- you can do well. It's okay that the world is changing. We're changing too."

That last point is up for discussion.

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