- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

The Baltimore-Washington Parkway at rush hour. The all-news station’s endless rotation of weather and traffic reports have grown stale, so you reach for the scan button on the car radio.At 102.3 FM, the smooth urban sounds of the Isley Brothers.At 103.1, obscure rock guitarist Joseph Arthur.At 103.5, Bach’s “Overture No. 3 in D major.”Wait a minute. Joseph Arthur? On the radio?When the station playing him is WRNR-FM (103.1), you bet.The Annapolis broadcaster is the last of the Washington area’s maverick rock stations, even if it isn’t quite the old-style, “free-form” station it used to be.Until a few years ago, WRNR’s disc jockeys played whatever they chose. Today, the station sticks to a playlist, but it is easily the most eclectic on the region’s airwaves.Local acts. National acts you don’t hear on other stations. Acts you’ve never heard of. Acts you’ve forgotten about. WRNR plays them all.”We don’t have to answer to some executive vice president of programming in Atlanta who has never even heard the station. We decide what we play,” said Alex Cortright, program director and morning-drive host.Local radio mogul Jake Einstein founded WRNR in late 1994, a few years after he sold the region’s original free-form rock station, WHFS-FM (99.1). WHFS, part of the Infinity Broadcasting Corp. chain, now plays more mainstream rock.Mr. Einstein used the same free-form format for WRNR that he used during WHFS’ heyday. In 1997, he sold WRNR to a group led by Steve Kingston, program director at New York’s WXRK, Howard Stern’s home station.Mr. Kingston, who grew up in the Washington area before becoming a New York radio executive, has preserved WRNR’s progressive spirit. The new owners introduced a playlist in 2000 to give the station a more consistent sound.Mr. Kingston did not return a telephone call for this article.WRNR’s playlist is so diverse that many longtime listeners don’t realize it is no longer a free-form station, said Damian Einstein, Jake Einstein’s son and WRNR’s music director and evening host.”If you do it right, no one knows the difference,” Damian Einstein said.On a recent afternoon, midday disc jockey Amy Freedman played Chris Isaak’s “Let Me Down Easy,” followed by Joe Jackson’s “One More Time,” Ziggy Marley’s “True to Myself,” Radiohead’s “Creep” and Rhett Miller’s “Come Around.”“You don’t want your segues to sound like a train wreck. The idea is to mix it up but also have it flow,” said Jon Peterson, operations manager and afternoon-drive host.The station’s sound has made it a popular stop with touring musicians. Mr. Arthur, the obscure singer-songwriter, dropped in last week. When Steve Van Zandt, bassist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, dropped in last year, WRNR turned over its airwaves to him for an hour. Other recent visitors: Suzanne Vega and Aaron Neville.”There are a lot of people in a lot of American cities that wish they had that station in their town,” said Sean Ross, editor of Airplay Monitor, an industry trade publication.But WRNR is far from being a powerhouse.Its tower is on Kent Island, off Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The signal doesn’t cover Baltimore or the District completely, but it can be picked up along the New York Avenue corridor in Northeast, Dupont Circle and other neighborhoods near downtown Washington.The farther you get away from those areas, the harder it is to pick up WRNR. An adult pop music station in Frederick County, Md., and a country station in Culpeper, Va., also use the 103.1 FM frequency.In the winter, WRNR averaged about 45,200 listeners ages 25 and 54 a week, said ratings researcher Arbitron Inc. By comparison, rival Baltimore rock station WIYY-FM (97.9) averaged 162,200 weekly listeners ages 25 to 54.”It really doesn’t matter what kind of ratings WRNR gets. If they can build a loyal enough following for advertisers, that’s all that counts. If Joe’s Flower Shop on the corner advertises on WRNR and they help Joe sell his flowers, that’s all that matters,” said Alex DeMers, a Philadelphia radio consultant.WRNR generated $1.2 million in revenue last year, up from $800,000 in 2001 and $1 million in 2000, according to estimates by media research group BIA Financial Network Inc.After it was sold to Mr. Kingston’s group, WRNR reconsidered its branding and considered marketing itself as a mid-Atlantic rock station. It eventually decided to bill itself as “Radio Annapolis.”It promotes local music clubs and restaurants as well as community events. Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, a Democrat, drops in once a month to chat with Mr. Cortright on the air. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, also visits regularly.Most of the advertisers are local businesses, although the station has some big accounts, too.”We’ve got McDonald’s, we’ve got Geico, we’ve got Outback Steakhouse. These are advertisers who understand reaching a geographic area has value,” General Manager Roy Deutschman said.WRNR even looks like an old-school progressive-rock station.The station is above the A.L. Goodies general store in downtown Annapolis. To reach its studio and offices, visitors have to walk past the Maryland crab-shaped souvenirs and chocolate-covered oatmeal cookies that have made Goodies a popular tourist trap.Inside WRNR, the staff is small, the carpet and furniture are worn.Scott James, one of the station’s advertising salesmen, spins tunes on the weekend.Mr. Deutschman changes the light bulbs when they burn out in the hallway outside his office.”I’m the general manager,” he said. “Who else is going to do it?”

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