Radio free San Diego: FM 94.9 takes on corporate radio

    Turn your radio dial to 94.9 FM one of these days, and you’ll get a feeling this station has a bit of a bone to pick. “”Anti-corporate and musically diverse,”” the sound bites proclaim between songs, where other stations would normally put a cheesy motto with their call sign. Look at the logo on their T-shirts and Web site, and you start to think they have an agenda: It is an upraised fist colored in red and black grabbing a radio tower, recalling the upraised fist associated with the revolutionary groups. Talk to their DJs, and it’s clear they’re on a crusade.

    Ed Wu
    Guardian

    “”There is immense dissatisfaction with FM radio in San Diego. The listeners place most of the blame on Clear Channel,”” said Garett Michaels, program director and morning DJ at FM 94.9, an alternative rock station that hit San Diego airwaves in November. “”They’ve homogenized FM radio here, and there are a lot of listeners who are fed up and want something different.”” In the market that Wired Magazine calls “”the most dominated”” by nationwide radio behemoth Clear Channel Communications, the DJs at 94.9 are making a stand for playlist control that is locally tailored and diverse.

    With 14 San Diego radio stations under its belt, including popular alternative rock stations 105.3 and 91X, Clear Channel has six more stations under its thumb than any other market in the nation by virtue of the fact that those extra stations (normally not allowed under FCC regulations) broadcast from Mexico. As a result, many listeners and publications have said that FM radio in San Diego, and especially alternative music, have become subservient to the nationwide marketing schemes of Clear Channel, which aims to maximize profitability by niche programming and directed advertising. In other markets, Clear Channel has even gone so far as to have DJs broadcast to multiple stations in different cities, simultaneously.

    While 91X’s program director maintains that the station’s “”integrity”” is intact, any extended amount of listening to the station makes one realize that many of the songs played are hardly three years old, except during the lunchtime ’80s hour.

    Ed Wu
    Guardian

    “”[The music industry] has a tendency to hop onto the next big thing. They’ll say, ‘That sound is very popular — let’s run out and sign a bunch of bands that sound like that band.’ And that kills any growth sometimes, and buries some really great music. The emphasis isn’t on cutting-edge music, it’s on this homogenized sound,”” Michaels said, pointing out that what defined stations like KROQ in Los Angeles, Live 105 in the Bay Area and 91X in San Diego was their musical diversity.

    “”The thing that we try to do at FM 94.9 is present a very diverse playlist — we want people to turn us on and say, ‘Wow, they just played Rage Against the Machine’ … and then, ‘Wow, I can’t believe they just played The Pixies,'”” he said.

    The new station is approaching other traditional radio station matters in an atypical fashion by refusing to hand out concert tickets to numbered callers. Instead, it sends its van out on the town, performing what the station calls “”random acts of kindness.””

    “”These are the locations we’re going to be at. Meet us there and we’ll hook you up,”” Michaels said, describing their promotion give-away process. “”We don’t want to make people feel like we’re conning them by saying, ‘hey man, listen and we’ll give you stuff.’ If you want stuff, come in and we’ll hook you up. But listen to the station because you love music.””

    FM 94.9 is also striving to make local music a large part of its agenda. Mike Halloran, the afternoon DJ, pointed out that stressing local music tastes is part of fighting influence from nationwide marketers, and in particular, a tendency to export musical taste from Los Angeles.

    “”San Diego does not want to be LA. This market does not want to have anything to do with Los Angeles; it can’t stand the whole LA vibe about stuff. It’s a lot more homegrown and homespun than that,”” Halloran said between taking calls from listeners.

    Halloran is the granddaddy of San Diego alternative rock, having spent 17 years in the market getting bounced from station to station because Jacor (Clear Channel’s predecessor, which Clear Channel eventually bought) either forced him out or fired him because of his insistence on playing “”local bands who were nobodies at the time, like … Blink, Rocket from the Crypt.””

    In addition, the station debuted a new show a couple weeks ago titled “”the Local 94.9,”” running from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday, a slot during prime time that Michaels said few other stations are willing to sacrifice.

    “”We’re going to give people a reason to listen to late-night radio again, but not for listening to teenagers calling in wondering what kind of sex they should be having. There are people who want to hear good music,”” Michaels said, answering any questions about whether the station would pursue non-music programming during those prime time hours.

    For that matter, the same philosophy applies to their morning show — or more appropriately, the lack thereof. “”If you want cheap gags … listen to Howard Stern. I’m Garett Michaels, and I am your morning show. I’m not a funny guy, but I love music,”” said Michaels, making the point that he plays music like any other DJ during the day. “”People want a bit of traffic and weather, and we do that, but, like we say, ‘It’s about the music.'””

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