- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 3, 2002

CEDAR GROVE, N.J. When 13-year-old Dana Marino flips on her boom box, she wants to hear her favorite songs. She often does over and over and over again.
"FM stations overplay popular songs, to the point that no one likes them anymore," the eighth-grader complained after enduring an audio overdose of Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule.
Ed Cronin, 42, rarely flips on his radio. He longs for the free-form format of his teen years, when listeners could hear anything from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello, the Supremes to the Sex Pistols.
"You were exposed to all sorts of other stuff not only the hip and new, but older stuff," said the West Roxbury, Mass., resident. "You can't hear that now."
When it comes to commercial radio, the gripes are coming from all corners except the corporations atop the multibillion-dollar industry. Their stations, they say, are just following the advice of the Kinks' Ray Davies: Give the people what they want.
"We play what people want to hear," said John Hogan, president and chief operating officer of Clear Channel Radio and its 1,200 stations. "And if we play too little of what people want to hear, they're going to go somewhere else."
They already are.
Weekly radio listening per person has decreased from an average of 23 hours in 1993 to 20 hours last year, according to Arbitron numbers.
Those most likely to turn off the radio are teenagers, long among the medium's mainstays. Among girls ages 12-17, the radio is on an average of 16 hours a week. For boys, it's just 12 hours. That's bad news for the country's 11,047 commercial stations.
Why the turnoff?
Some, like musicians Prince and Little Steven Van Zandt, blame playlists so strict that they make the old Top 40 format seem extravagant.
Others blame a 1996 law opening the door for corporate ownership of hundreds of radio stations, replacing often-eccentric local owners with a legion of sound-alike voices and formats.
"FM is creatively tired," said Lee Abrams, a veteran consultant now employed by the satellite radio company XM.
"The attitude is, 'We're making money. Why change it?'
"They make their money, they pay the bank, everybody is happy. And music is very low on the totem pole."
To listeners, music ranks higher and they are willing to look harder for it. Untold numbers have downloaded music off the Internet, and about 25 million people dial up Internet radio daily, a recent study has found. XM predicts its satellite audience will more than double to 350,000 by the end of the year.
When Richard Neer debuted on New York radio in 1971, the broadcast world was a different place.
"It was a time of artistic freedom. And we thought that would last forever," said Mr. Neer, a former WNEW-FM jock and author of the book "FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio."
Competition was cutthroat, with stations waging war for a single tenth of a point in the Arbitron ratings and its corresponding bump in ad rates.
The disc jockeys were the "personalities" many of them larger than life, nearly as large as their egos.
In the '60s, "Murray The K" Kaufman quit in the middle of his shift when handed a playlist. In the '70s, the legendary Frankie Crocker rode into Studio 54 atop a white stallion. In the '80s, WNEW's Scott Muni opened every show with a Beatles tune in memory of John Lennon.
By the '90s, the power had shifted. "Research started taking over," Mr. Abrams recalled. "People wouldn't go to the bathroom without going to a focus group."
The result, said critics, was ignoring the fringes and appealing to the lowest common denominator with a slimmed-down playlist.
"The philosophy was superserve your core audience, rather than hit a broad demographic," Mr. Neer said. "Anybody over [age] 50 was discounted, thrown aside."
Artists were marginalized along with audiences. Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Stevie Wonder suddenly were missing on the FM dial. AM radio had become the bastion of talk radio.
Phenomena like the recent soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" No. 1 on the charts, 5 million copies sold, Grammy album of the year remained invisible to most programmers.
"There's nobody in the mainstream with the freedom to turn audiences on to great old or new stuff," said Mr. Springsteen's guitarist, Nils Lofgren, an old FM favorite. "It's about corporate money, not great music."
With the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress deregulated station ownership. Ownership previously was capped at 40 stations nationally and four in any market two AM and two FM.
Suddenly there was no national ceiling, and local ownership was doubled to eight stations.
Out-of-towners snapped up local stations. Combatants like morning hosts Howard Stern and Don Imus became co-workers. Former competitors did cross-promotions.
Infinity Broadcasting home to Mr. Stern and Mr. Imus now owns 180 radio stations in 22 states.
The big daddy of the business is San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications, which owns 1,200 stations in all 50 states and the District. Clear Channel estimates that it reaches 54 percent of people ages 18-49 in the United States each day.
It owns eight stations in Washington, seven in Dallas. Its ascension to the nation's No. 1 radio operation has raised many questions; the latest involves "voice-tracking," a system that replaces on-air talent with prerecorded material.
Clear Channel's Mr. Hogan defended his company as good for both audience and advertisers.
"We're a big target, and I don't think anybody's bashful about taking a shot at us," Mr. Hogan said. "A part of me wishes we were as powerful as people think."
Independent studies have shown that deregulation has increased choices on the dial. Pre-1996, four companies might run classic-rock stations in a single market. Multiple ownership now allows multiple formats. Mr. Hogan said, however, that some of those formats could mean repeating the same 10 songs ad infinitum.
"It's just fundamental," he said, "that what you put on the air is a reflection of what the listeners want."

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