Great radio lives in rustic Vermont

March 27, 2007

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Great radio lives in rustic Vermont

I've got the headphones on at the office, and I'm listening to a radio station I absolutely love. At 102.7 on the FM dial, it offers everything I like in a music mix: fresh tunes, cool DJs, long music mixes and relatively few commercial interruptions.

But the station I'm listening to isn't broadcast in New York. I'm tuned in to WEQX-FM, an alternative rock station out of Manchester, Vt., streaming on the Internet.

It's funny, because 102.7, the old WNEW, was my favorite radio station in New York. That was before the suits at CBS, then Infinity Broadcasting Corp., killed it.

I rarely listen to New York radio now. Too bland, too repetitive, too many commercials.

So when I heard that Joel Hollander, chief executive of CBS Radio, which owns six New York signals, is itching to get out of his contract — or is being pushed, according to the blogs — I wasn't surprised. And I don't think he'll be missed.

Supposedly, the industry veteran doesn't see eye to eye with his boss, Leslie Moonves, a guy who doesn't understand radio. One has to wonder how well Mr. Hollander, one of the architects of WFAN's early success, understands the medium these days. Though he inherited several problem stations when he took the helm two years ago, the CBS Radio chief's trail of botched programming decisions in New York alone should be enough to earn him a walk down the plank.

He pulled the plug on beloved oldies station WCBS-FM, incensing high-profile fans like Sen. Charles Schumer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He tried to fit has-been rocker David Lee Roth into Howard Stern's oversized shoes. He's behind the rotating failed formats on WNEW-FM. These über-errors would seem to add up to job suicide to me.

But the problems at CBS run far deeper than Mr. Hollander's mistakes. In catering to quarterly earnings reports and advertisers chasing younger demos, the company — and most of its industry peers — seems to have left one constituency out of its sights: the audience.

Longtime radio consultant Robert Unmacht puts it this way: "At CBS, the product is in the way of making money. There's no passion and no respect for listeners."

Indeed, crafting a great music radio station is an art — one that has been mostly lost on terrestrial radio in the past decade. Unfortunately, by dumbing down the content, conglomerates are finding no pots of gold. CBS's revenues were down 7% in 2006. The company blames the softness on comparisons with 2005, Howard Stern's last year with CBS. But there's more at play.

CBS owns three of the worst-performing FM frequencies in the New York market, even if they have shown some growth lately. Powerful stations it owns in other top markets, like Chicago and San Francisco, are floundering. That's tens of millions in lost revenue right there.

With the iPod generation and Internet and satellite competitors breathing down their necks, radio operators fear programming unique music stations that appeal to more selective audiences. So, they foist mediocre programming on the public. Stations that engender loyalty over time? They're for small markets that the conglomerates have passed over. So, I'll stay tuned to, the indie from Vermont that respects its listeners

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