Part 2 

Radio-Free Richmond

"I work in the OR, where they pipe the radio in over the speakers. I swear you can set your watch by the songs that come on."
— Polly Pergason, M.D., Virginia Eye Institute

There was a time when "La Vida Loca" was not played six times an hour.

Steve Forrest remembers those days well. Since his days as a teen-age DJ for local progressive rock station WGDE-AM in the '70s, Forrest has spent most of his career in Richmond. In those days, DJs like Forrest had the luxury of playing The Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Who, alongside records by the Seldom Scene, Chick Corea and Stanley Clark. "It was all mixed up. We played whatever we wanted. We were a critically acclaimed station with no ratings."

But over the years, says Forrest, who is now a production director with AMFM Radio which owns B103.7 FM, radio stations have become less about the music and more about the business. "There are more formats, and all of them are very focused. They play six or seven hundred songs at most. DJs are instructed not to vary from the format or they lose their jobs."

He says there has been a "buying frenzy" in the last several years. "What's happened in Richmond is two companies basically own all the stations. If you own stations A, B, C, and D, you don't want to do something on D that will hurt station B. It's taken a lot of the competition out of the market."

In 1991, recognizing the lack of variety in local programming, Forrest joined the consortium that brought WVGO to market. WVGO's format emulated some of the nation's great rock stations, such as Denver's KBCO, with its broad playlist and different styles of music — everything from Nirvana to the Clash to Bonnie Raitt. The vision was short-lived. After WBZU 104.7, The Buzz, debuted in 1995 with its narrowly programmed alternative format, WVGO's format drifted. WVGO was eventually eaten by The Buzz, which took over the stronger 106.5 frequency. That format, too, was short-lived and it changed to an oldies format — COOL 106.5 — in September 1998. There are now three FM oldies stations in Richmond and no alternative stations.

It's outcomes like these that leave listeners like Jagoda feeling neglected. "I tried all the others but lost interest quickly," she says. "I just wouldn't want a steady diet of any of these formats. Now, more and more I'm making sure I've got tapes with me so I'll have something to listen to in the car other than radio."

That brewing contempt for commercial radio is not confined to listeners. University of Richmond WDCE DJ "Fontaine," who last week celebrated the 16th anniversary of her Friday night 9 p.m-to-midnight show, says she wouldn't consider working for a commercial radio station these days. "Commercial stations tell you what to play," she says. "For me, the joy of [DJing] is creating interesting sets of music and promoting the local music scene."

Fontaine isn't paid for her weekly on-air stint and carries car loads of old vinyl albums and CDs from her own collection back and forth from the station each week to supplement her shows, which often are themed around holidays and current events. She draws from all musical genres — jazz to punk to reggae to folk, country and so on.

Fontaine says she was troubled when The Buzz went off the air last year: ("At least it was something," she says), and she finds herself, like so many others, flicking endlessly through the presets nowadays, looking for something listenable.

In such situations, public radio WCVE at 88.9 FM becomes a catchall for listener frustration. "If someone wants a type of programming, they don't hesitate to call and tell us about it," says WCVE's Clark. "I doubt very much that the commercial stations in town get those types of phone calls."

In fact, they do, says AMFM's Forrest. "All stations, by law, have to maintain public files. Every piece of correspondence we get goes in them." The implication is that apathy may be a listener's greatest enemy — there are never enough complaints in any station's file to make a real difference.

"What's really going to make [management] lean in terms of programming is research," Forrest says. "There's a tremendous amount of research that goes into programming; there are companies that specialize in format searches. They come in and figure out where the hole is, then establish programming to fill it."

According to Steve McCall, general manager of several AMFM stations including B103.7, Cool 106.5, 96.5 the Planet, the "holes" are nothing more than the gripes of a few disgruntled souls.

Instead, he sees it another way: "Look, I like to listen to jazz, but jazz isn't background music, is it?" he asks rhetorically. "It's engaging, you have to interact. You have to think. People don't want to have to do the work. They want background music. They don't want to have to think."

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