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Rating the music radio formats in Pittsburgh

Sunday, March 10, 2002

Our critics weigh in on the state of radio in Pittsburgh ...


There are few places better to learn about jazz music than the radio. Most times, listeners can count on variety, consistency and content-oriented programming.

Radio has an obligation to expose people to the music, but education remains an individual pursuit.

In high school, I was introduced by radio to the small group of recordings by saxophonist Johnny Hodges, and I promptly went out and started collecting his records.

Radio, whether commercial or public, operates under different imperatives.

Often stations must walk a tightrope between what they are and what they would like to be: How can they satisfy core listeners while attracting new listeners?

It's no secret the number of stations that carry jazz is decreasing nationwide. The irony is that the number of jazz listeners is on the rise.

In Pittsburgh last spring, about 160,000 people tuned into WDUQ-FM (90.5) every week, according to general manager Scott Hanley. Within that audience, 105,000 identified themselves as jazz listeners. That's not an insignificant number.

But should we expect more? Should we expect programming that helps us learn about jazz or the kind of programming that targets only the knowledgeable?

"The stations that are becoming more successful with mainstream jazz are trying to be more accessible to the neophyte," says Hanley. "If you think of Willis Hanover on Voice of America, a lot of what he did was walking people through the path and clearly saying the names of the people playing. [He made sure] the canon of jazz classics were being heard. ...

"There may be some things that are brought in out of the norm, that push the envelope. But we repeat the classics -- the things people can hum and sing."

Ah, so we have a quandary: What's it gonna be, new or old music?

Like all stations, 'DUQ hopes to do both without alienating listeners of either. We can argue the merits of that approach, but it's dictated by a logic beyond debate.

-- Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette jazz critic


Look, I'm a music geek. I'm not supposed to be appeased by what they play on stations like the X (WXDX-FM, 105.9). It's not the station's fault that I would rather listen to the Minus 5 than Hoobastank or Local H.

It's my fault.

And I don't complain.

If people listen, which they do, then great, the station's doing everything it's meant to do, appealing to the masses by repeating songs that tested well until you know the words.

And on occasion, they play something even I, a music geek, would want to hear. The Strokes. Gorillaz. Weezer.

As Elvis Costello would sing (but not on mainstream radio), "I used to be disgusted/Now I try to be amused." I hated radio when I was young and had more time to get worked up about the little things. But over time, I came to understand that radio, like life itself, is not about what I want. And it's not about what you want if it doesn't make you happy. Go buy records if you care so much about what's being played. Or tune to college radio, where you can find a lot of stuff they wouldn't -- some would argue shouldn't -- play on stations like the X (or local ratings champ, WDVE-FM, 102.5).

We've got two brilliant college stations here in Pittsburgh -- WRCT-FM (88.3) and WPTS-FM (92.1). I'm frequently amazed at just how great the songs are on those stations.

If you'd rather indulge a mellower, more adult alternative to what they're playing on the X or 'DVE, then your best bet is, as always, 'YEP.

It doesn't rock enough for me. But then, it isn't trying to.

-- Ed Masley, Post-Gazette pop music critic

Contemporary hits

For some people, pop music is the soundtrack to their lives. The slick R&B, rock and hip-hop of contemporary hits radio sounds a lot like young, white, middle-class America.

Pittsburgh's contemporary hits stations, Kiss (WKST-FM, 96.1) and B-94 (WBZZ-FM, 93.7), stick to the hits, songs that are either already huge in other cities or are soon to become huge. Britney Spears, Pink, No Doubt, Usher, Creed and Ginuwine are on both playlists, but in slightly different proportions and with unique personalities spinning the discs. Kiss, which recently surpassed B-94 among 18- to 34-year-olds in the Arbitron ratings, hopes now to skew to the older end of the Top 40 crowd.

Trade magazines report that Pittsburgh's contemporary hits listeners are getting pretty much the same music as those who choose the format in other cities. That's why they call them "hits." It's a format that proudly stakes out the center of mainstream, with artists who can be sky-high today and forgotten tomorrow. It's music played as an ephemeral fashion statement -- the definition of pop art.

From a business point of view, the format is highly lucrative, competitive and risky. In Pittsburgh, the two high-rolling stations spin subtle variations of the same song selection for listeners who don't have strong loyalties to either camp. Stay on Nelly Furtado longer than your competitor and -- whoops! -- station dials across the city could start turning. And in the radio business, if too many dials turn away too often, two things happen: Ad rates go down and someone is out of a job.

-- John Hayes, Post-Gazette staff writer


WAMO-FM -- or 106 JAMZ -- is more than a radio station. It's a legend.

Eight years after debuting in 1948 as WHOD, the station changed its call letters (W-A-M-O for the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers). It went FM in 1960. In 1974, the station's FM operation went strictly R&B. Since then, it has attempted to program the preferences of Pittsburgh's African-American audience. WAMO is respected across the country as a beacon of black culture.

But changing times have put pressure on the station. Ratings show that nearly half of WAMO's listeners are young, white, suburban women who like to dance.

Balancing the station's historic responsibility to generations of black Pittsburghers with its need to hold the attention of the white dance crowd is a difficult challenge. Craig David, Alicia Keys, Busta Rhymes and Michael Jackson are among the station's current favorites.

But there's a reluctance at WAMO to talk about how they came up with that formula. Former programming director Jay Michaels abruptly ended an interview about the station's programming policy. He wasn't available for a scheduled follow-up. Within a week, new ratings showed that WAMO had dropped out of Pittsburgh's top 10 stations, Michaels was history and, despite repeated requests, no one at the station wanted to talk about programming.

-- J.H.


One of the most popular albums in the United States has been on the Billboard charts for 61 weeks. It's the second-most-popular country album and rates No. 16 among all music CDs in the U.S., outselling pop heavyweights like Michael Jackson and Britney Spears by a country mile.

It's pure country, but you won't hear it on Pittsburgh's country radio.

The "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" movie soundtrack -- Grammy winner for best album of the year -- appeals to a surprising number of adults who don't normally listen to country music, a cross-over crowd that you might think country radio would be eager to court. But none of the album's songs are in rotation on Pittsburgh's third-biggest station, Y-108 (WDSY-FM, 107.9), or Keymarket Communications' upstart WOGI (98.3), whose new centrally located tower promises a country showdown in Pittsburgh.

It took a long time for country radio to accept pop-twang and '70s-style country-rock. Y-108 and WOGI play "new country" hits -- songs that became hits elsewhere. They're pretty sure that people who like Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and the Dixie Chicks won't change the channel.

Country is a broad genre that stretches from Appalachian folk to pop ballads to alt.country rock. Hits radio plays a narrow sliver in the middle.

Who don't you hear?

Established stars like Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash and Dolly Parton, whose age and current projects place them outside the mainstream.

*The songwriters behind the hits (Shepherd & Newton, "Riding with Private Malone" by David Ball; Billy Yates, "Choices" by George Jones).

Anything that sounds more like Austin swing than like Nashville pop.

Country-influenced misfits from the rock underground.

It's not a matter of oversight or even time considerations. Pittsburgh's country stations are spinning more or less the same songs, mimicking what's played at other mainstream country stations across the United States, particularly those north of the Mason-Dixon.

If the three rivers flowed out of west Texas, Pittsburgh likely would have a half-dozen country stations, each focusing on a particular style of country. As a Northern town, however, we're lucky to have two mainstream country entities and one noncommercial station (WYEP-FM, 91.3) that programs some of the Americana music bypassed by commercial radio.

-- J.H.

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