WNRZ-FM was snatched away from the Ann Arbor community last April 22nd when the station owner, Thomas Boodell, fired the entire staff, cancelled all community programming, and began simulcasting the “modern country sounds” of WNRS on both AM and FM. Boodell’s action stopped community radio in Ann Arbor dead in its tracks.
But the keenly felt absence of WNRZ has mobilized the community into action. In six weeks almost 10,000 former station listeners have signed a petition saying that “we listened to WNRZ and WE NEED IT BACK.” Over 80 local merchants (those whose financial support through advertising makes the operation of a commercial station like WNRZ possible) have signed a petition saying they would support the return of community radio on WNRZ if it’s “properly operated and programmed.” Also, an investigation is underway to determine what action the community can take with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to oppose and possibly reverse Boodell’s recent actions.
The exact future of WNRZ remains uncertain at this point. The station is now up for sale, and depending on who buys it, the quest for the return of community radio in this town would go in one of several possible directions. It’s likely to be a long process; the station will probably continue to simulcast country-western music until a new owner takes over.
The SUN has learned that there are several different sets of potential new owners now bargaining with Boodell in the hope of copping the station. Boodell has said in the past that he wants to sell WNRZ to someone who would keep the unformatted, community radio approach. Several such people are now negotiating with Boodell and may end up in control of WNRZ. The 10,000 signatures, visible proof to a potential owner that there is an audience for this kind of radio, helps make this a good possibility.
But Boodell may go back on his word, as he’s done in the past, and simply sell the station to the highest bidder, which may turn out to be a giant radio conglomerate that buys up stations in order to turn them into transmitters of mindless muzak and Mantavani hits. In this case the petitions become the backbone of the possible courses of action to be taken.
If WNRZ falls to an unsympathetic owner, a license challenge can be filed with the FCC based on the petition drive. The FCC reviews any change in station ownership, and provides a means by which community groups can oppose a station transfer if it silences a particular kind of radio programming which isn’t available elsewhere in the same community. This procedure is complex and time consuming. but it can play a major role in convincing a station to respond to the community’s needs.
Recently the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ordered the F.C.C, to hold a hearing to determine whether people in Toledo, Ohio were being denied community radio after rock and roll station WGLN-FM was replaced with “middle of the road” pop music. In making its decision the court pointed out that supporters of GLN had gathered 11,000 signatures on a petition, which evidenced enough public “grumbling” to hold the hearing.
The petitions are of further value in this case as other local stations are approached with a proposal to put community radio back on the air, either part or full time, during the challenge to WNRZ’s license transfer. The business petitions will be critical here, too, because the owner of other stations will look first at the ability of community radio to bring in MONEY through the sale of advertising.
ECONOMICS IS THE BASIS
In explaining why he cancelled the FM programming in April, Boodell said that the station had lost money continually for over five years, and that he didn’t see any possibility of it becoming self-supporting. The failure of the station in this respect has convinced many people that community programming of a “free-form” nature is necessarily a loser of both listeners and money.
But a group of people who were involved with WNRZ over the past year are setting out to prove otherwise . . . Working with former station members and people from the Tribal Council Communications Committee (which initiated the petition drive), Rainbow Multi-Media, the non-profit corporation which produced the Blues and Jazz Festival, has prepared a 30 page report showing how community radio “can be both a financial success and an educational and cultural service.” The report is now in the hands of several potential new owners of WNRZ.
The main premise of the Multi-Media report is that the Ann Arbor community is large enough in support a radio station in terms of listeners and advertising, but only if it is properly managed internally and programmed with music, news, features and special events which will excite and attract a large portion of the community
For all its positive aspects, WNRZ failed to consistently achieve either of these criteria. Owner Boodell never really knew what he was doing with the station and rarely paid enough attention to it. His habit was to hire station managers, mostly from out of town, who knew little about Ann Arbor or how to make the station work. Some of the managers paid more attention to ripping off the station than to anything else, by arranging to receive free gifts and services in exchange for putting ads on the air.
WNRZ had four station managers in five years, yet not once did it achieve its potential. Dj’s were hired and fired repeatedly after being brought in from around the country, usually with no knowledge of their audience here. First the station was free-form, next the DJ’s were regulated by a playlist, then it was free-form again. Whenever the station started making progress, the programming would be abruptly changed as the series of station managers tried in vain to deal with a culture they hardly understood.
The last, most positive format change came last summer when the station re-hired Larry Monroe and Mike O’Brien and went on from there to include live broadcasts, the Community Marathon, and the Sunday shows done by the People’s Communications Committee and John Sinclair. Ace DJ Bob Rudnick was hired and then a series of other people responsive to the community began doing shows most especially Ann Christ, Lisa Gottlieb, Neil Lasher, Chris McCabe and Bill Maynard.
But the station continued to be plagued by disorganization and incompetent management. The sales department was completely inconsistent; businesses weren’t contacted and bills were never sent out. The situation got so bad that in the last month of the station’s existence there was no full-time salesperson for the FM, and the DJ’s had to hit the streets themselves to help pay their irregular salaries.
Continually deteriorating equipment plagued the station’s operations. Machines would break down on the air and remain unrepaired for months. Facilities for making tapes and ads were miserably inadequate and unworkable.
Physically, WNRZ was a disorganized mess. The control room was a shambles, the record library was inadequate, public service announcements were lost, never produced or read, and even reaching the station on the phone was often impossible as the caller was subjected to interminable holds.
But it wasn’t only severe mismanagement that led to the stations demise. Far too much of WNRZ’s programming (defined here as the mix of music and information) appealed to an overly select, small audience.
It’s generally the view of people who work on this newspaper and which the People’s Communications Committee that the station’s failure was partly due to an overemphasis on certain kinds of music at the wrong times of day. The station’s music mix was not what it should have been to gain the popularity necessary to BE a community station. By popularity we don’t mean the CKLW variety that comes from playing only the hits over and over again.
This was borne out by two rating surveys that compared WNRZ’s listenership with those of other stations. These surveys, one by Eastern Michigan University and another by PULSF, a professional rating service, certainly aren’t always accurate. But in this case they both show the same thing, which is what we think was wrong with WNRZ’s programming.
At certain times of the day, for example during Bob Rudnick’s program, NRZ was, attracting more listeners than WABX. But at other times, say when Mike O’Brien, Larry Monroe or Peter Steinmetz took the controls, the surveys show that most of the audience changed to another station.
We believe that especially the evening prime time radio hours of 6 pm to 2 am were dominated by music of one, mostly low-energy level; too much folk music, long spoken word cuts, classical music, boring English pop and other music that does more to put people to sleep than move them into motion.
The problem is a basic difference in the various disc jockies approach to the radio. One group saw themselves as “artists” on the radio whose major purpose was “just being free” to play anything they wanted to. To these people the best thing about NRZ was its free-form nature, which, they used to put together programs that may have been “artistic” but turned off a large part of the potential listening audience. These disc jockies will openly admit that the needs of their audience is not the primary reason they’re on the radio.
The other group at the station, including those who worked wit the PCC are more interested in community radio than in being individually “free.” The freedom to program at will is important because it allows a jock to put together shows that will attract the largest possible audience with stimulating music and information relevant to their lives. The responsibility involved is not to oneself and to “art,” but to using one’s artistic skills to serve the listening community at the other end of the transmitter.
The SUN has never spoken up about these problems in the past in the mistaken hope that positive publicity alone would help the station progress to where it needed to be. Now we want to open up dialogue so that these past mistakes can be analyzed, understood, and avoided in the future.
The effort to put community radio back on the airwaves is continuing, as we’ve tried to outline above. Stay tuned to the SUN for the latest word as things develop. In the meantime the petition drive is continuing so we can gain the largest possible number of signatures. Petitions can be picked up at the SUN offices, various stores around town, or at the Rainbow House at 1520 Hill St. People are urged to write letters protesting the change in format to WNRZ and to local newspapers. We believe that community radio will return to Ann Arbor as long as the effort to get it back remains visible and active.
Jim Dulzo and David Fenton
People’s Communication Committee
FLASH – NEW WNRZ OWNER REVEALED
Present owner Tom Boodell announced last week that WNRZ will soon be sold to the owner of a New York radio station.
Jim Trayern, manager and part owner of WCMF-FM in Rochester, N.Y., says he plans to restore NRZ’s freeform, community-oriented programming. Trayern was quoted in the Ann Arbor News saying that WCMF operates “along the same philosophies of content and programming as WNRZ.”
This news reached the SUN as we were going to press. Look for a full report on the new owner and his intentions which at this point we know little about, in our next issue.
In making the announcement, Boodell said that there had been a great deal of community reaction, “mostly negative” to his decision to put nothing but country music on NRZ. Boodell said “the sale of the station to WCMF is in the best interests of the community since it will allow us to return to our progressive format.”
Required FCC approval of the sale could take up to six months, but Boodell indicated he may attempt to reinstate community radio in the meantime “to the extent that it is economically possible.”
In other news the station sale may be further delayed on account of a lawsuit filed against Boodell by the owner of top-40 WAAM in Ann Arbor, who has the unlikely name of John Sinclair. Sinclair claims Boodell originally agreed to sell the station to him and is seeking a court order requiring Boodell to stick to the agreement. The suit also asks that sale to anyone else be prohibited while the case is pending.