Michael Macrone

Compromising Creativity:
The Marketing of WBRU-FM
(Issues, February 1983)

By Kirsten Engel

ONCE AGAIN WBRU-FM CAN BOAST IT IS “MORE THAN just a college radio station.” As of early January, 1983, WBRU’s ratings shot up to a 2.7, bringing to a close one of the most traumatic chapters in the station’s history. To all appearances this return to popularity may signal the end of the financial difficulties that have plagued the station for the past two years. Yet the cost of WBRU’s present success has been high, and for many the sacrifices were not worth the price. To compete in an increasingly tight FM market dominated by record company interests, the station was forced to trade creativity for image, widespread student involvement for professional expertise and experimentation for audience acclaim.

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Since June of 1980, the date of WBRU’s move to a multi-million dollar facility at 88 Benevolent St., the station has been threatened with insolvency brought on by lower ratings. Ratings released in January of 1981 unexpectedly fell from a 3, where they had been holding steady for several years, to a 1.5. (Radio ratings are compiled by the American Research Bureau in a manner similar to the Nielsen ratings for television.) When WBRU lost its status as one of the top Providence rock stations, it lost most of its national advertising as well. To retrieve its place in the market and maintain financial independence from the University, WBRU chose to compromise its maverick reputation and follow the dictates of the radio industry.

To any other commercial station the sacrifices would seem minimal. But to WBRU, which prided itself upon being a completely student-operated experimental station since its inception in 1966 by a group of Brown students, the changes were severe. In an effort to achieve a more consistent air sound, WBRU relinquished their policy of exclusive student management and, starting with the hiring of Jeremy Schlossberg, ’79, now hire former students as Program Consultants. No change has been as radical, however, as the hiring of Lee Abrams, one of the country’s most successful rock radio consultants. Abrams was hired in the Spring of 1982 after minor program alterations failed to achieve positive results. Because of Abrams, the station has reduced its playlist from 30,000 albums to 1,000 songs. D.J.s now select songs by their appeal to their 25-34 yr. old target audience and play them according to a preset pattern.

WBRU claims that in order to survive it had to restrict its playlist and D.J. freedom. This is probably true. Yet WBRU isn’t just another commercial station and survival isn’t the only thing it has at stake. According to its constitution, WBRU is an educational experience in media communication for Brown students “for the purposes of improving or developing their capabilities in areas related to the operations, maintenance, organization and functions of broadcasting, entertainment and communications media.” The history of the changes at WBRU were partly mandated by larger changes within the radio industry. Yet without a corresponding trend towards pre-professionalism among the staff, it is obvious the changes would never have been made.

The commercialization of FM radio reveals the pressure upon WBRU to restrict its playlist. But it also explains something more important: the decline in the social importance of music in the lives of students. During the late sixties when WBRU-FM first began broadcasting, popular music was political commentary, a response to the current political situation. “People studied music, it was a much more serious part of their life,” said Bill Blumenthal ’77, a former WBRU-FM Programmer and Business Manager, now an attorney in Washington, D.C. “Interest in the radio station was not something to put in a resume or business school application, it was interest in music as music.”

THE STATION WAS ABLE TO PRODUCE A CONSISTENT sound without an imposed format—a limited playlist of songs. “The station had a readily identifiable air sound,” continued Blumenthal, “in large part because access to the air was controlled. You had to put in two years of solid work before you got on the air.” Michael Macrone ’82, a former D.J. and Music Director, explains that consistency can be the result of programming experience. “They (the early WBRU programmers) learned to eradicate taste in a community where everyone was learning from each other,” he said. “Once they reached a certain level of confidence and sophistication there was general agreement on how to go about programming. It was conforming to a spirit, not specifics.”

Until the expansion of the record companies in the early seventies, the programming on all FM stations was free form. During the late sixties the FM audience had grown enormously with the identification of the counterculture movement with rock music. Music symbolized the anti-war beliefs and sentiments of social revolution expressed by the sixties generation. It did not take long for record companies to discover the as yet unexploited market in the baby-boom “hippies” flocking to hear the Rolling Stones and the Who.

With the mass production of the album, record companies were able to reach and expand this audience. Macrone claims it was the introduction of the album as a product that initiated this expansion. “Once you have a product, it can be marketed using standardized business methods,” said Macrone. “Companies began to hire business experts, instead of music experts, to create a market for their product.”

YET ULTIMATELY IT WAS THE CHANGES IN POPULAR music that transformed the audience of FM radio. In their efforts to appeal to a younger, more easily identified audience, popular music was moving farther and farther from the hard beat of rock ’n’ roll. The singer/songwriters of the early seventies were followed by more sugary imitations that clearly had little connection to the sound of rock music. Stations began playing less of black artists who, according to Macrone, had kept FM true to the roots of rock music in Southern Rhythm & Blues.

The advent of disco accentuated the growing rift between white and black music. At first disco was integrated—music by black artists played to a mixed audience. Both whites and blacks boogied to Saturday Night Fever when the Bee Gees became number one. Yet beginning with that album’s overkill on AM radio, disco came to symbolize to upper-class college students and high-schoolers everything that had gone wrong with popular music. “Disco sucks” became the catchphrase of alienated white kids who began turning to FM radio for more traditional rock ’n’ roll. To radio companies these younger kids represented an unsophisticated and extremely malleable consumer group.

Unlike their older brothers and sisters who had turned to FM with refined musical tastes, these listeners turned to FM because it was “cool.” “Before, these teenagers would have been AM listeners,” claims Macrone, “but now they were FM listeners with unsophisticated AM taste.” To take advantage of record company kickbacks, but also because they had little choice—a station that didn’t play Black Sabbath simply wasn’t listened to—FM programmers began orienting their music to the white teenage audience.

With an industry catering to a younger, more easily mobilized audience, FM music grew increasingly bland, directed toward satisfying an alleged “lowest common denominator.” The production of albums became as important as, and sometimes more important than, their content. The more record companies spent on the technology of the sophisticated studio sound, the more they had to make on the sale and the fewer the risks they were willing to take. By 1978 the companies were caught in a vicious circle. Fewer and fewer bands were being recorded, and more and more, they all began to sound the same. “Groups began imitating other groups with a ‘hit’ sound and you began to get successive generations of the same thing,” said Hunt Blair ’83, WBRU’s Program Director. With the decline in sales, groups were no longer competing against each other, but vying to get their name on a record label. “Once on a label, the impetus for a band to upgrade its music disappeared,” added Macrone, “as long as their product fulfilled the requisite image, they knew the company would market whatever they played.”

The result was a widespread disillusionment among the original artists and fans of rock music. A portion of the aging FM audience, who had outgrown the rebellion that once sustained them, turned to “fusion” or “rock jazz” while still others turned to the new adult contemporary stations broadcasting the likes of James Taylor and Carly Simon. With the introduction of punk rock in the U.S. the FM audience was further fragmented.

By the late seventies music was no longer an expression of the social concerns, frustrations, or questions of the student generation. “Music as life was supplanted by music as background. Kids were more concerned with fitting into society than in questioning it,” said Macrone. “WBRU became less a way of life and more of a business. It became a place for people who had insights on ’BRU as a pre-corporate training ground—‘be a $45,000 a year D.J. instead of going to law school.’ And, left to their own devices, these people sounded bad.”

Despite the declining significance of music in society in general, there was an increase in the number of Providence rock stations. It was a bad time for WBRU’s air sound to slip; with a mere flick of the dial their listeners could find the beat somewhere else. Unfortunately, too many of them did. In the hopes of retrieving their ratings which had unexpectedly dropped a point and a half that fall, the Executive Board that took office in January of 1981 made certain concessions to the music industry. Pinpointing inconsistency as the root of their ratings drop, the station’s management began limiting the playlist. “One never knew what to expect when they turned on the station,” said Jonathan Groff, WBRU’s General Manager. To help them out. WBRU hired Jeremey Schlossberg ’79 as Program Consultant. Schlossberg was a former Music Director of the station who had worked at WCHN in Rochester, New York, following his graduation from Brown. The Program Consultant is in charge of dealing with record company representatives and working with the Program Director to determine the station’s playlist. The decision to hire Schlossberg was made by Jeff Lesser, then General Manager, and George Bradt, Programming Director. Bradt now holds the position given to Schlossberg. WBRU defended the hiring then, and continues to defend it now, upon practical terms. In order to improve their ratings they needed professional advice, and besides, the station had simply grown too big to be handled by students alone. “It’s important that one person be there all day for the industry to relate to,” said Blair.

The hiring of Schlossberg, however, was contrary to the philosophy behind the station’s status as a student-run operation competing in the commercial world of real radio. The position of Sales Manager, responsible for finding local advertisers and arranging promotions, had always been a non-student, but no one other than a student had ever contributed to management decisions. The hiring, negotiated during summer vacation, was made without consulting the station’s membership. Though the members saw the advantages of a full-time Executive Board member, many were shocked upon returning in the fall.

They were taken aback again a few months later when Schlossberg and Blair issued the first prescriptive guidelines for disc jockeys. The programming guide, known as “The Book,” was a detailed system to give the selected works of forty-five major artists consistent airplay. On a given shift a D.J. was required to play a certain number of songs from different song categories depending upon the song’s popularity and type of music. Once he fulfilled his quota of songs, a D.J. could play anything he wanted to. “The Book” failed to do the trick, however, for by January of 1982 the ratings had dropped even lower, this time to a 0.9.

It was at this time that station members deemed the situation critical. National advertisers were buying their air time on the station’s competitors, most notably WHJY, a former beautiful music station that had switched to Album Oriented Rock (AOR) that fall. The newly elected Executive Board tried to determine what to do. Suddenly the choices were limited. WBRU could give up its commercial status and become a traditional college radio station funded through the University. Or, it could maintain its commercial status and try to survive on local advertising alone. Or, it could adopt a more marketable sound and try to regain national advertising along with its position among Providence’s top rock stations.

No one liked the idea of forging a tie with the University. If one was made, it was believed that the University would try to control the broadcast material and would probably urge the station to adopt block programming, a schedule of hourly slots of different music, news and talk shows. In addition, WBRU members have always been proud of their independence from the school. A favorite description of the station is that “WBRU is more than just a college radio station.”

According to Blumenthal, this same suggestion was proposed in 1975 when WBRU began facing stiff competition from consulted AOR stations in Providence. Though the situation was not as critical, both the switch to a limited playlist and possible funding through the University were considered at the time. Both proposals were rejected, however, in favor of an “emphasis file,” a box of popular albums set in front of the microphone to encourage D.J.s to air them. Blumenthal claims the “college radio station” proposal was rejected because “the University never considered us an educational institution like classes. The education obtained at WBRU may be more valuable in certain respects, but it’s not traditional learning. It is unlikely that the University would ever undertake to fund WBRU in any adequate way.”

Groff says the same sentiments in the spring of 1981 kept the station from approaching the Administration with a funding proposal. “The possibility of becoming University funded was never seriously considered,” he said. “It is doubtful the University would pour the $200,000 or more annually to keep the station running. Besides,” he added, “an important part of WBRU’s identity is that it is not University controlled.” Even if WBRU were to receive money from the school, it would be forced to give up its 20,000 watt 95.5 FM license in the heart of the FM band. The Federal Communications Commission only allows college stations on the fringes of the dial. WBRU was able to acquire this prominent position because it received no funding from the University.

The second proposal, becoming a small local commercial station, was considered impractical. The station’s budget, despite cutbacks, had grown far too large to be supported by local sponsorship alone. The suggestion that WBRU affiliate itself with National Public Radio (NPR) was likewise vetoed. NPR requires at least $100,000 a year in membership dues, and the Board was skeptical about whether that sum was obtainable from WBRU’s listening audience and local advertisers.

Only one alternative remained: become a competitive commercial station with the help of a professional radio consultant such as Lee Abrams. While the choice now seems inevitable, it is unlikely that the other alternatives were seriously considered allowing for the attitude of much of the Executive Board at the time. The hiring of Schlossberg and the limiting of the playlist had prepared the station membership for the switch to a formatted AOR station. Such a switch offered unlimited pre-professional experience in radio as well as the realistic possibility of financial success. Both were attractive.

The decision to hire a consultant took five months, however, stalled by Hunt Blair, who believed that WBRU needed only increased promotion of their new sound to attract needed listeners. Yet when the next period’s ratings failed to show a substantial increase, the board voted to hire Abrams for a two-year $30,000 contract and funnel $80,000 a year into media promotion. The financial arrangement was made possible by a loan from Rhode Island Hospital Trust Bank underwritten by the University.

Formatting is a philosophy about what should be played on a station - what albums, what songs, when they should be played, and how often. Radio consultants, music industry sociologists, are hired to investigate the tastes of a station’s target audience and devise a format that will appeal to it. When FM stations began turning to formats in the late seventies, they not only relinquished a belief in the individual, but they began to manufacture images. By promoting certain images prescribed by a consultant, radio can be a powerful force of group mobilization. Radio, like any other mass medium, is capable of perpetuating cultural stereotypes.

LEE ABRAMS IS ONE OF FOUR PARTNERS in the radio consulting firm, Burkhart, Abrams, Michaels and Douglas based in Atlanta, Georgia, that dictates the format of over 200 stations across the country. As the firm’s rock radio adviser, Abrams alone consults over one-third of their clients. His “Superstars I” format was a great success in the early seventies during the peak of AOR. It consisted of the biggest rock ’n roll hits of groups such as the Doors, the Who and Foreigner. “Superstars II” or the “Timeless Rock” format designed by Abrams, is named for its presentation of mainline rock artists from the fifties to the eighties, D. J. s simply pick songs from limited categories and play them in a preset pattern, or rotation. Abrams explains that the Timeless Rock format has ten song categories, each of which are subdivided seven ways for tempo and timbre. Among the categories are FM hits, classic rock, modern music and new music. One other Abrams station, KFOG in San Francisco, is also experimenting with the timeless format.

WBRU plays, according to David Filipov, the station’s Music Director, three times as many songs as are played on its prime competitor, WHJY, many of them new material that that station would never consider playing. Yet, except for its particular target audience, WBRU is no longer unique. In playing to, according to Abrams, “the wealthy white male audience of former hippies who now hold secure jobs at insurance companies and spend their money on foreign cars, home video computers and expensive stereo equipment” WBRU has accepted its role as image maker as well as image reflector.

In order to promote this image with a clear conscience, station members at WBRU have had to accept the music industry’s definition of what constitutes legitimate broadcasting material. In doing so, WBRU has effectively restricted the student’s independent and creative use of radio. Management claims that whatever is not marketable to the current radio audience is not authentic broadcast material. This means everything about the station’s programming before it was formatted is now considered illegitimate.

“Before we were inauthentic,” said Groff. “We made money whether we were good or not through concerts and promotions. The entire record industry was up. We didn’t have the competition of WHJY; anyone who wanted to hear rock music listened to us.” Executive Board members claim that WBRU has a duty to play what the public wants to hear, and base their arguments on WBRU’s status as a 20,000 watt broadcaster. “We have a commitment to be a reasonably successful station because we’re 95.5 FM, in the middle of the dial,” explained Filipov. “We bean all over Rhode Island. If we’re not listened to, we’re a waste.”

Yet while WBRU isn’t just another college radio station, it isn’t just another commercial station, either. WBRU has certain financial ties and educational responsibilities to Brown students that must be considered. It is largely because WBRU is staffed by volunteer students, and pays only $1 a year for the use of the University’s Benevolent Street studios, that it has been able to compete against other FM stations with much larger operating budgets. In the place of financial compensation the students must receive a worthwhile educational experience in broadcasting and communications.

There is no question that the nature of this education has changed significantly with the adoption of a format. The unlimited freedom once open to students to combine and present music in an artistically creative manner has been replaced by more opportunities to learn about the financial aspects of radio programming. There are now eight business and seven sales interns in contrast to the two or three interns previously in these areas. With more professional standards of D.J. presentation, however, fewer students are now heard over the air.

There are those Executive Board members who claim students have lost nothing with the emphasis upon pre-professionalism. They do so to the extreme of rejecting whatever experience they had at the station before it was formatted because it was not geared to the largest possible audience. Filipov now questions whether the time he once spent on his shows was anything more than self-gratification. “I used to go to the station an hour before my show to pick my music,” he recalls. I was doing these amazing segues (the interface of two cuts) and I don’t know if anyone appreciated them. The education in this experience is to actually reach people,” Filipov continued. “What are you getting out of doing what you want when no one’s listening?” “Before people were on the air for ego-gratification,” said Groff. “They weren’t creative, they were egotistical.” But Macrone disagrees. “It became the party line after the first new format of the summer of ’81 to blanket the past fourteen years at WBRU as egomaniacal. In a few individual cases this was very true; in other cases the problem was simply ineptitude. Essentially, the old WBRU was about the exploration of a medium, and a higher mode of expression.”

IF POPULARITY AMONG THE STATION’S audience is to be the object of the station, what is it, exactly, that this audience is listening for? And what kind of experience for students is involved in fulfilling these audience expectations? The average rock radio listener, says Filipov, listens to the radio about four times a day for maybe a quarter of an hour each time. Most listeners turn on their radios for background music while driving a car or talking on the phone. Rock station listeners, he claims, do not listen for more than headline news either, a fact that has caused the station to change the scheduling and organization of its newscasts.

In the past news played a central role in the daily broadcast schedule. During the early seventies the station broadcast a full hour of news and public affairs announcements every weekday from 6 to 7 p.m. In 1981, the year before the station hired Abrams, WBRU programmed roughly 6 hours of news weekly. On a typical weekday, WBRU broadcast eleven five minute newscasts during prime time from 6 a.m. to midnight. Now there is a total of 12 minutes of news broadcast daily. The two minute newscasts, or “haiku news” as one station member dubbed them, are, according to Maggie Dugan, News Director, “more of a challenge” to newscasters because they must condense the news into such a short period of time, and more importantly, because “they serve the purposes of a rock station.”

That was also the basis of the decision to strike the News Project, an in-depth newsmagazine covering local, national and international news, from its prime time slot. The News Project had been aired from 11:30 p.m. until midnight, and covered cultural affairs, human interest stories, sports and feature news Monday through Thursday. Now it is a one hour weekly program aired on Sunday morning.

Duggan, Groff and Blair claim that cutbacks in news programming are reflective of the general apathy at Brown towards extracurricular activities and the world beyond the campus in general. But Mick Diener, ’84, the originator of the News Project, believes that the station’s commitment to a format where news must play a secondary role has turned away potentially interested students. “When I came to ’BRU in the fall of ’80 the station boasted the largest news staff in Southern New England,” recalls Diener. “The news department offered more opportunities to more students than, perhaps, any other department at ’BRU. Now, under Abrams, news has been all but banished from prime time. Interest in politics and journalism on campus is increasing—new groups and publications keep cropping up—but the chances for involvement at ’BRU news are decreasing.

“The elimination of newstime is really just a symptom of a larger problem,” continued Diener. “With the elimination of D.J. song selection we’ve got a station that delegates all of its creative programming to the off-hours—after midnight and on Sundays—while reserving all of prime time for the mechanical reproduction of songs off a recycling playlist. For fifteen years WBRU was expanding the limits of commercial radio. Now the station is just conforming to it. People in management call this authentic. I call it bad.” Diener and Macrone represent two formerly dedicated station members who feel the educational and artistic experience at the station have been sacrificed in WBRU’s switch to a format. Macrone left his position as Music Director at the earliest manifestation of a stricter format. Diener is still peripherally involved with the News Project, but not nearly to the extent that he was.

Most of the station’s membership, however, have weathered the changes. Kit Boss, ’84, who joined the station as an AM newscaster in his freshman year, is now an FM D.J. and the station’s Promotions Director. He says that the advantages of becoming a better known D.J. and receiving guidelines on how to construct a successful musical set in terms of the audience outweigh the disadvantages of restricting the music he is able to play. The tremendous increase in the disc jockey’s access to the audience and in listener response has certainly made the job of a D.J. more enjoyable, and more educational in a different kind of way, he argues. Boss can ask for a request over the air and a second later the switchboard will light up with calls. His persistent promotion of a band appearance can result in a sell-out concert. Station members attribute this new power to WBRU’s newly found cool, sophisticated image which the D.J.s must work hard to project. “There’s less ability for the D.J. to express creativity through songs,” said Boss, “but we have to think of radio less and less in terms of that one thing—we have to consider the whole image right now.”

ABRAMS’ CONTRACT WILL EXPIRE IN June of 1984, and unless it is renewed, the students now interning at the station will be responsible for either updating the Timeless Rock format or devising a totally new programming strategy. Without any built-in incentive for these students to learn and explore music once they gain air clearance, it is questionable whether they will have either the musical background to identify future core rock artists, or the confidence to try something new. The Timeless Rock format is based on the belief that the history of rock music can be broken down into six or so generations of rock combinations, the music of each successive block incorporating and expanding upon the sounds of the last. Within each block are core artists and fringe artists; the core artists produce the cleanest, best, timeless rock sounds. Though Abrams’ firm has discovered that musical tastes are set between the ages of 16 and 20 when music has the most social importance, it is possible to find modern counterparts to music types that may have been popular ten years ago.

Groff and Blair insist that WBRU has and will continue to be a pacesetter in the world of FM rock music. They believe the station’s increasing popularity in addition to its influence, through Abrams, upon 70 other rock stations around the country, place it in a unique position to chart the direction of the mainstream. “We’re able to play bands in opposition to the mainstream such as the Payola$, the Psychedelic Furs and the English Beat,” said Blair. Furthermore, WBRU introduces most new music to Providence a full month ahead of its competitors. Recent examples are “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell and “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson. Like several others working at the station, Blair has resolved his personal qualms about the adoption of a format by reconciling himself to the idea that it is better to work inside “the system” seen in charting the direction of Abrams’ other stations, rather than leave “the system” altogether.

For now WBRU interns can benefit from the expertise of upperclassmen, such as Blair, who have lived through the station’s changes and are able to give the incoming students a broad perspective on the music industry. For the first time in WBRU history an intern seminar is being offered. Taught by Blair, the seminar topics cover everything from the building blocks of music to “Cinematic radio.”

While there are now educational workshops at the station, the nature of WBRU’s educational experience has completely changed. Now it is learning to promote an image which will insure financial success. Rather than educate the public and refine its musical taste, WBRU is conforming to a mainstream image. In fact, “image” is heard around the station a lot lately. It seems to represent everything the station gained when it traded creative programming for Lee Abrams. Yet the educational benefits for this trade-off are hard to find. The argument that never before had D.J.s received professional experience is misleading. WBRU has, according to Blair, always been an experience in “real radio,” and the careers of many former D.J.s now working in radio attest to the fact. Perhaps the commercialization of FM radio and WBRU-FM are simply the proof that music has become a business, as well as an art, maybe even a business in place of an art. It is tragic that WBRU has been caught in such a trap. And it is debatable whether the practical experience and pre-professionalism is worth such compromises. If our D.J.s know less and less about music, there seems little hope of ever bringing the music industry back to appreciating sound as an art, not just as a commodity.

The one-year term held by the Executive Board members mentioned in this article will expire February 1.

Kirsten Engel is a senior.

– 30 –

First published in Issues magazine (February, 1983)

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