Gone Country

It was with “mixed” feelings I read the news that my radio alma mater,  “Mix 96. 5” WMT-FM has switched formats to country.

Now, radio format changes are nothing new, and not limited to the corporations that now control much of what you hear.  Even in the days when most stations were locally owned, demographic and market changes often dictated a switch.In fact, one of the biggest format-change firestorms I can remember also involved WMT-FM.Way back in 1982, my friend and mentor Rick Sellers (who now owns KMRY) changed WMT-FM’s format from Beautiful Music to Soft Adult Contemporary to attract the Baby Boom audience.

Rick soon discovered that Hell hath no fury like an Andre Kostellanetz fan scorned. Letters and phone calls poured into WMT, and dozens of angry letters to the editor were printed. WMT engineers even went so far as to purchase and install external antennas for the most vocal complainers so they could more easily listen to the area’s remaining Beautiful Music station, KFMW in Waterloo.

A few months later, when KFMW became Rock 108, the shit hit the fan all over again, but that’s another story.

The original “96FM” was largely automated. They literally just switched out a set of Beautiful Music tapes for AC tapes.  But WMT was founded on personality, and Rick intended that his FM station have the same kind of air personalities that made WMT-AM a community institution.

Yes, at one time my hair was brown
Yes, at one time my hair was brown

Unfortunately, local legends like Jerry Carr, Steve Carpenter, Gary Edwards  and Rick himself already had jobs, so Rick had to work with the material at hand.

And his first acquisition was a punk kid working across the street at KQCR (now Z102.9).

I arrived at WMT-FM in April of 1983. A few months later, Tim Boyle was summoned from crosstown KCRG-AM (now KGYM, see what I mean about format changes not being anything new?). By the late 80s, Wayne Johnson, Brian Schellberg and Lonnie Levine solidified a memorable lineup.

Later, 96 1/2 would be the home of great personalities like Tom Cook, Carla Davis, Eric Walker and current residents Randy Lee and Kathryn Foxx, both of whom were originally hired by me.  (Clear Channel-You’re welcome). But that’s another post.

Actually, Cedar Rapids was a pretty-happening radio market at the time.  Up and down the dial, cool people were doing fun things on the air. Mark & Glen (Those Guys in the Morning) at KRNA, which was also the rock and roll home of current KCCK jazzer Bob Stewart. Gary & Todd at Q103, whose radio descendants are Z’s Schulte & Swann. And the Bears (both of them) at KHAK.

Even more than a quarter-century later, the things I did as a 96 1/2 FM DJ form the core of my radio bio.

WMT-FM “jocks” circa 1986. Clockwise from front: Wayne Johnson, Tim Boyle, Dann Collum, Dennis Green, Brian Schellberg. Thanks to Brian for the photo!

Broadcasting live from a hot-air balloon (“People of Cedar Rapids… My Name is Frosty Mitchell, and I’m Not Wearing Pants!”), doing my show live via satellite from underwater at Disney’s Epcot Center, tossing typewriters out of a cherry picker in Greene Square Park.

One April Fool’s day, we pretended WMT-FM was a 60’s era “Boss” Top 40 station, complete with period music, jingles, commercials and news from the spring of 1963 (“Scientists predict flying cars by 1987!”)

Buck Wheeler’s Traffic Chopper, Uncle Wayne’s Noontime Oldies Challenge, Lonnie’s Night Veggies, the Rock & Roll Weekend Oldies Show; the list goes on and on.

But the primary product of 96 1/2 was music. Eschewing consultants, our format was a potpourri of 60s and 70s oldies, pop currents and the occasional independent release that struck our fancy.The record industry actually took some notice for what was happening in little Cedar Rapids, honoring us for the small part we played in launching the careers of artists like Luther Vandross, Tracy Chapman, Bonnie Raitt and others. I proudly display those Gold and Platinum records in my KCCK office to this day.

Unfortunately, not much of the above would be possible in today’s environment. The local music director is no more.  Songs are all programmed from the corporate office, and thirty minute commercial-free music sweeps don’t leave much room for fun antics.

But for me, the greatest disappointment in the new radio model is the disappearance of the music personality.  Once, a DJ who could deliver interesting content in the 20 seconds between the end of the song and the beginning of the commercial was a valued commodity.

Today, not so much. The trend is more Ryan Seacrest, less Carla Davis.

Clear Channel is upfront about replacing local announcers with out-of-town voice tracking, saying the product is better. Imagine how different our local stations would sound, however, if their corporate owners used their resources to train local announcers and help them get better, rather than replace them, also providing pipeline of future talent. Professional sports understands the benefits of a farm system, but broadcasting doesn’t seem to get it.

Now, local talk radio is still alive, although it tends to be a little “angry white guy stirring the pot” for my taste. And, I would be remiss to not mention the quality and entertaining work being done locally by the great folks at KMRY, Z102.9 and KCJJ.

Another friend and mentor who taught me a lot, Mary Quass, along with Jeff Winfield and much of their 90’s-era KHAK team are also keeping the spirit alive in a variety of midwest markets in their NRG Media group.

Meanwhile, at the public radio end of the dial, both statewide Iowa Public Radio and local stations like KCCK are prospering, despite threats against NPR and CPB funding.

And the good people still at our local Clear Channel and Cumulus operations try hard to make good radio within the restrictions and budgets laid down by their higher ups. But by and large, decisions affecting the media licensed to serve our community are made by people who will never live here.

Fortunately, local radio is by no means dead in the Cultural Corridor.  KMRY, Z102.9 and KCJJ are energetic operations serving audience and community well.

Times change, and as I said previously, format changes are the rule, not the exception.

I hope that the model of a creative person sitting in a room, interspersing a little wit in between cool songs, will continue to be something people want to have in their town.

As for Mix 96.5, the 2011 version bore little resemblance to the one I worked at.

But I’ll miss it just the same.

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6 Replies to “Gone Country”

  1. Thank you for your very detailed and reflective writing. I agree, that times have changed — and wonder why the decision was to move to country music when there are many other opportunities to hear that in our broadcast area. Too Bad. So I will now reprogram my car radio — and will try to replace 96.5 with something else. The search might be fun.Plus, I’m really sad that Carla was “released” as many of us do love a station with personality and with personalities that seem like friends.

  2. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Dennis. It’s a shame what’s happened to local radio over the last couple decades. But, that’s business. If we believed we could do better, nothing prevents us from pooling our resources and giving it a shot.
    Now, as one who enjoys the one remaining “angry white guy” left here in C.R. talk radio, I must ask, what the hell does “white” have to do with it? Does “conservative” equate to “angry white” in your world?

  3. Dennis,
    Excellent! It’s always a treat to read the works of a talented writer with a unique perspective.
    Thank you for the history of local radio that I largely missed. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for my “first love” and hope to see the radio industry, as a whole, return to its community roots someday. As long as we have stations like KCCK, KMRY, KCJJ and Z102.9, hope springs eternal.
    Peace to you, and Happy New Year!

  4. Well said Dennis…I remember a time when the on-air staff outnumbered the sales staff at stations and all I can say is, Those were the days…

  5. Thanks Dennis nicely written, those are wonderful memories, however, you forgot to mention one small local community radio station that made big waves through the 80’s and early 90’s KOJC-FM 89.7, where I was on staff from 1979 to 1990. KOJC went on the air in the Fall of 1978 as a 10 watt community radio station with an all volunteer staff. It led to my first job in commercial radio back in 1989 when Rick Sellers hired me at WMT-AM and you eventually hired me at WMT-FM.
    I agree with you that corporate radio has taken over much of the airwaves not only in this market but all over the country, with way too much automation and zero to very little audience interaction. Although I’m grateful that we have stations like KCCK, KZIA, KCJJ and KMRY, in my opinion true community radio is still missing in this market.
    Community radio started with the very first station in the U.S.A., KPFA, which went on the air in 1949. Community radio is when local people produce and broadcast their own programs and participate in operating the radio stations in a community space where people meet and collaborate. It is extraordinarily fun and often life-changing. It typically leads to individual creativity and self-empowerment. Participants find it extraordinarily satisfying, not just to make radio in this unique fashion, but to also help transform community life by remaining responsive to community needs and consistently seeking input from listeners.
    Community volunteers are trained and given a central role in radio production and operations and hosting programs. Space for youth is made available to develop their own community voice, I was only 15 years old when I started volunteering at KOJC and the training I received and the experience I had still resonates in my life today.
    The New Bohemia Group recently announced plans to start up a new local community radio station KNBO-FM 88.7 New Bo Neighborhood Radio. http://thegazette.com/2011/12/24/cedar-rapids-based-radio-station-to-launch-in-2012/
    We’re in the beginning/planning stages of the station and we obviously will include the community; the man/woman off the street who just has an interest in community radio, but, we’ll also need input from experienced pros like you and others who would be willing to volunteer their time and lend their talents to train the next Wayne Johnson, Tim Boyle, Dann Collum, Dennis Green, Brian Schellberg, Schulte & Swann, Rick Sellers, Carla Davis, Tim Boyle, Captain Steve & Tommy Lang…anyway, you get my point.
    I say all that to say, we need you the community to make KNBO a success. The station will only exist if you choose to get involved. If you’re interested let me know.
    Thank you Dennis for the influence you had in my life to grow in love with local radio and thank you to all the local on-air talent that continue to make radio fun!

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