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"The River" goes against tide

May 19, 2005

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TV, RADIO, & ONLINE

'The River' goes against tide

Scott Lucas has beaten the odds. As the new weekday morning drive (6-10 a.m.) DJ at ''The River," WXRV-FM (92.5), he's landed a prestigious shift after years of part-time and fill-in work. Plus, after six years at WBOS-FM (92.9), which recently eliminated DJs from its morning show, he has found a steady gig in a field that is in decline.

''We're banking on the fact that people want a mix of news and music and some light talk," says Lucas, who took over ''The River Morning Show" on May 2. Indeed, this type of show -- which inserts local news, weather, and traffic as well as chat in with the music -- is becoming a rarity. Not only has WBOS (which is also pitched at older adult-rock fans) cut the DJs from its mornings over the last few months, but the new ''Mike" WMKK-FM (93.7) has eliminated live on-air hosts entirely. And for years, rock station WBCN-FM (104.1) has held onto a majority of younger listeners by turning its morning entirely over to Howard Stern's syndicated talk.

So the hiring of Lucas can be seen as a vote of confidence for a traditional mixed morning show. ''I feel good that we're dispensing information that our sister formats aren't," says Lucas. But after 17 years in the field, he knows that his career of choice -- as a live DJ on a music station -- may be endangered. ''It's a concerning trend," he says.

Why music DJs are disappearing isn't a mystery. ''It's the almighty dollar," notes Lucas, pointing to the increasing tendency of stations to use automated or centralized ''voice tracking" instead of live, local DJs. Nor is the new no-DJ ''Jack" format, as aired on WMKK, entirely to blame.

''The big cuts came four or five years ago," says Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming for New Jersey's Edison Media Research. He blames ''the consolidation that was taking place [then] and the cost-cutting that the groups were doing to look better to Wall Street." Pre-recorded or automated announcements cost less than a DJ's salary. The simultaneous trend toward syndicated shows such as Stern's offers the big bang of a national name while eliminating slots that used to be held by local DJs.

''Air talent has taken a real beating," says Nashville-based media consultant Robert Unmacht. ''The ability to run a voice track done by one person on many stations has cut back the need for talent."

What listeners are losing is the local touch that has traditionally made radio essential listening. ''You can't be local-specific [on news]," says Lucas. ''And you can't give weather." Although some stations do use localized weather services, the immediate, interactive sound of a nearby DJ is something that can't be faked.

In time, say media consultants, the pendulum may swing back. ''No one has been able to tell me of one all-music, no-air-talent station that is leading in the ratings that was able to stay talent-less for long," says Unmacht. ''They change their minds . . . after the novelty wears off."

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