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.

The Cleveland Sound

Most insiders say terrestrial radio isn't going away, and could even thrive by embracing its local roots. As it stands, terrestrial radio is challenged by digital services like Spotify.

According to the Pew Research Center's State of the News Media report for 2012, while most Americans still listen to AM/FM stations weekly, nearly 40 percent listen to radio through portable devices such as smart phones and tablets. With Internet based services like Spotify and Pandora on the rise (not to mention apps like TuneIn, which allows you to listen to any station in the country on your portable device), that could double by 2015. One source familiar with recent local ratings says AM numbers are way down in recent years (especially for WTAM and WKNR), while FM is somehow treading water. Still.

Herschel says that pronouncements of terrestrial radio's death have been exaggerated. Twenty percent of CBS Radio's local audience tunes in via the Internet, and DJs now interact with listeners by blogging, engaging in social media and responding to email. "It's not an either/or option," Herschel says. "We're players in the digital spectrum."

He adds that CBS's total revenues, including events, web and radio ads, are on the rise. Nationally, radio revenues grew by one percentage point in 2011, the Pew study says – yet the bulk of that growth stemmed from a 15-percent increase in digital revenue.

Yet there remains a big hole in the Cleveland market when it comes to rock music. In the fall of 2012, a new station called 87.7 Cleveland Sound went on air with great fanfare and assertions that it would bring back local radio. 87.7 played a mix of rock and alternative, had Cleveland personalities on air, and had some local music.

The new venture attracted a loyal following, yet it lasted just 15 months. Citing a lack of advertising, the owners replaced it with La Mega, a Latin station, in January of this year.

"So much of radio is programmed out of corporate offices, by people who have never set foot in the market ... we'll win because we'll be different and we'll think out of the box," owner Tom Wilson told the Plain Dealer, which didn't dig past his assertions to determine if he was serious. Yet the truth is Wilson was playing a short-term game.

During its brief history, Cleveland Sound lacked a robust marketing budget, never even filled the General Manager position, and rotated through four program directors. Former staffers say Wilson and his partners simply lacked the kind of hands-on management and investment that would have made the station successful over the long-term.

The station also faced an uphill battle given its spot on the left fringe of the dial. Many Clevelanders probably never knew it existed or assumed it was a college radio station.

Gorman, who was approached to become a part of the station's leadership but didn't sign on, offers a blunt assessment: "87.7 was a joke. Cleveland got taken for a ride."

Denny Sanders, former creative services director with WMMS and current brand and marketing manager at Omnia Audio, agrees. "The owners never appeared to be genuine about creating a cohesive alternative station," he says. "The music was all over the place, the marketing was amateurish and the whole thing was run like it was somebody's plaything."

Ex-staffers sound off

What many listeners don't know is that 87.7, as a frequency, is slated to go off-air in September 2015. Some critics say that Wilson was trying to turn a quick buck while the station was alive.  

87.7 operates on the analog audio carrier of a TV Channel 6, which is a technical way of saying that it's a low power (LP) television station that's operating as a radio station. Essentially, folks who want to buy a cheap radio station get a Channel 6 signal and then only broadcast the audio portion. Next year, LPTV stations will cease analog broadcasts and begin operating only in digital. At that time, stations will have a chance to convert to digital operations.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created LPTV service in 1982 in order to provide opportunities for local programming, yet because of lax regulations, many of these stations are now owned by media entrepreneurs. Wilson is a former Gannett media executive who has made lots of money buying and selling radio stations.

In interviews, former Sound staffers said that Wilson's grandiose plans weren't serious. Archie Berwick, aka "Black Mr. Robinson," was living in New York City and dancing for the Gong Show when he learned from a friend that a Cleveland radio station was hiring. An entertainer "since I was in Huggies," Archie says he was excited to apply for the job.

Despite having no radio experience, the owners hired him for the morning drive-time slot because he came "cheap," says Berwick. The learning curve was steep, yet he attracted listeners with comedy, local music and an eclectic mix of rock and soul.

Despite assurances from Wilson that he was doing great, Archie was fired after a year. He doesn't hold any grudges, but says that the owners were never serious about 87.7.

"Everyone who's ever hustled in their lives knows a hustler," he says. "Tom is a good guy, but he's a businessman. I think they're trying to get to a certain point and flip it."

Another staffer, Kelly Standish, left a 25-year career with Sterling Jewelers to sells ads for 87.7. She says that although 87.7 lacked direction from management, the sales efforts were gradually picking up steam and the station broke even in December.

"I don't think the owners were ever really invested in it," says Standish, who now works for 98.5 as a salesperson. "They were putting money into it, but it was poorly managed."

Kendall Embrescia, who signed on as marketing director, says she had a budget of just $2,000 per month. Without the budget to wrap cars, produce radio swag or hold cheesy promotions, she did a lot of "guerilla marketing" to try to get listeners' attention.

"It was kind of freewheeling," she says. "The owners' expectations probably weren't realistic."

Introducing La Mega

For his part, Wilson says that he was serious, but he couldn't keep plowing money into the station.

"We were 18th-20th in the market; advertisers just can't buy on gut anymore," he says. "We didn't do one stitch of national business. I lost several hundred thousand dollars. Instead of digging myself a hole, I decided that I'd rather fill a hole instead."

Talk of a format change began as early as January 2013, just months after Cleveland Sound went on air. Wilson came to terms with TSJ Productions, a Cincinnati company that runs Hispanic stations in Cincinnati and Columbus, in November. Staff members were notified of layoffs, and, at the end of the year, Cleveland Sound was no more.

No doubt a Hispanic station fills a need within the local market. La Mega Programming Director Daniel Melendez says the response so far has been tremendous. "What I hear the most is, 'What took you so long?' People have been waiting literally decades for a Hispanic radio station in Cleveland. They've responded to us with love and gratitude."

Wilson acknowledges that 87.7 may go off the air in September 2015, but says that he's confident the FCC will extend the deadline and eventually allow the station to become permanent. He won't discuss the possibility that the partners might sell the digital frequency to a TV station. "We're not talking 'what ifs' at this point," he says.

Whatever negotiations may be going on behind the scenes, the FCC maintains that the deadline for LPTV is still effective. "The FCC has established September 1, 2015, as the date for the termination of all analog low-power television service," its website states. "After that date, analog television will no longer exist in the United States."

Just in case the station is forced to go off the air, Wilson and his partners have already applied for a new digital license. Gorman says it's likely that they'll be able to eventually sell that license to a local TV station for millions of dollars. "It's a scam," he argues, blaming the FCC's toothless behavior on deregulation and Bush appointees.

The future of Cleveland radio

If interesting rock radio rises again in Cleveland, it may happen through embracing a new kind of localism. There are some radio stations taking advantage of this already.

Cleveland's commercial radio scene may be bland, yet we're fortunate to have a thriving college radio scene here. The four main stations, WRUW 91.1 (Case Western Reserve University), WCSB 89.3 (Cleveland State University), WJCU 88.7 (John Carroll University) and WBWC 88.3 (Baldwin Wallace) each offer unique independent options further down the dial.

"Cleveland has a really amazing college radio scene that's overlooked," says Shari Wilkins, a local programmer who runs two shows, Ivy's Red Sweater and Number 9. "We have more options on the left side of the dial than most other cities have. Also, college radio here is more freeform. We're lucky to have that kind of radio diversity."

Kramer-Gould believes the only way terrestrial radio can survive is by offering programs that can't be replicated by Spotify. WJCU's program "In the Heights" offers an example.

In some ways, commercial radio is already returning to local broadcasting – but through talk rather than music. 92.3 is now a sports talk station. WMMS brought on Alan Cox to do an afternoon talk show from 3-7 pm. This is a major departure from the past since WMMS, a station that is historically famous for rock music, now plays very little of it.

Cox says that interesting, locally-programmed radio can survive and thrive if owners are willing to develop and invest in on-air radio talent – a trend that he hopes will take place.

"The pendulum is swinging back – people are interested in local radio," says Cox. "The problem is that the talent in radio is really beaten down. Unfortunately, that's the way the entire radio industry has gone. Owners wanted to run stations like jukeboxes."

Herschel says CBS Radio now offers more music diverse options for listeners on its HD stations, which have more new music and rock formats for people that own an HD radio. (Raise your hand if you use one.)

Jim Marchysyn, who was marketing director for WMMS in its heyday, says the future is online. Most online stations haven't built up a large enough audience to lure advertisers, but they will, he says, especially now that it's easier to stream in cars. "It's just a matter of how quickly," he says. "Just as we went from AM to FM, we'll go from FM to online."

In the future, Clevelanders can expect interesting online radio stations to pop up, say observers. Gorman is already working on such a project, but details are under wraps.

Dave Whinham, owner of the sports, entertainment and media firm The Team, says that the success of CD 102.5 in Columbus shows that given the right ownership, Cleveland could have a successful, locally-programmed rock radio station. Whinham is scouting for opportunities to replicate the Cleveland Sound format elsewhere on the local dial.

"There's a lot of great new music that never sees the light of day," he says. "You mix that with live, vital personalities, I think that's the future. But it's going to take time."

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