March 31-April 6, 2005
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
An inside look at the sudden death and unprecedented resurrection of Y100.
February 24, 9:30 a.m.: Preston Elliot and Steve Morrison, Y100's popular morning team, sit in the station's Conshohocken broadcast studio, its window overlooking the Schuylkill. The space is roomy as broadcast studios go, and this morning it's packed. Employees, ranging from sales and promotions to production to other on-air talent, surround them. They're beginning the last half-hour of their final Y100 show. Y100 spent some seven years building its morning-drive team, but the station's corporate owner, Radio One, declined to pick up the jocks' expiring contract. After serving a six-month noncompete period dictated by their old contract, the pair will jump to rival WMMR. Though the departure is sad, it is not acrimonious. In fact, as they bid adieu, program director Jim McGuinn and the rest of the assembled crew joke and reminisce on the air.
But there's something maudlin about the Michael Jackson jokes today, something ominous in the way McGuinn mentions his resume, something all too revealing in the way Preston lets slip his uncertainty about "the future of the station, I mean, show" when directing listeners to the Preston and Steve Web site.
"It's a very surreal day," says Preston. "We were expecting tomorrow to be the day, but some things have occurred, and we're going to go ahead and wrap it up today."
10:01 a.m.: The opening strains of Pearl Jam's "Alive" ring out. Eddie Vedder warbles, "Son, she said, have I got a little story for you." This is not a good sign.
11:30 a.m.: In the station's conference room, around 50 employees from Y100 and 103.9 The Beat crowd around a too-small table. Others stand against the wall. Zemira Jones, a tall, soft-spoken man, has called an all-staff meeting. Jones, vice president of operations for Radio One, informs the staff that today the station's format will flip. Jones explains that while Y100 was a great brand and a great radio station, the 100.3 signal will become home to The Beat, an urban station featuring the likes of Usher, Mario and 50 Cent. Preston and Steve will be replaced by a morning team called Monie and Pooch. Gospel station Praise 103.9 will then debut on The Beat's former home. Radio One human resources director Steven Golsch, a casually dressed guy with wavy blond hair, explains that employees will be met with individually to discuss severance packages. Some will be asked to stick around.
Noon: Bret Hamilton, Y100's midday host, signs off early, announcing that this will be his last show. Y100 is set to run on autopilot until midnight.
For the station's departing staff programming, promotions and full- and part-time on-air talent the rest of the day is something of a blur. According to Josh T. Landow, promotion coordinator, on-air personality and the erstwhile station's Webmaster, "Minutes and hours went by as I saw all my co-workers being ushered into their meetings with Jones and Golsch."
"Why can't I just get mine over with?" he wondered.
Landow's office, which he shared with promotions manager Liz Romaine, was once a center of activity at the station. It had been reduced to a scene of people boxing up plaques, gold records, autographs and promotional items framed posters promoting the station's Feztivals and Feastivals, red felt fezes adorned with the station logo that had accrued over the years.
Landow recalls seeing Romaine emerge from her meeting, severance papers in hand.
Like Romaine, Landow started as an intern in the promotions department and rose through the Y100 ranks; it was more than strange after eight years with the station to be a dead man walking.
But he wasn't.
"My years were to be rewarded with the "opportunity' to stay on with Radio One," explains the wiry, bespectacled 26-year-old. "I'm not sure what I would have been doing. I didn't let them get that far before graciously declining their offer."
He was asked to remain for at least two weeks to tie up loose ends and ensure that contest winners received prizes. For the listeners' sake, he accepted. Still, the prospect of lingering among the ghosts of his co-workers was daunting. "How could I walk into that barren office for two more weeks and sit at my desk without my good friend Liz sitting across from me to joke the day away with, without being able to cross the hall to the studio to say hi to Bret Hamilton, without being able to pop in and ask Jim McGuinn a question?"
Landow left the office that evening at 6 o'clock rare for a guy who typically worked until 8 or 9 p.m. On his way out, he "wasn't even allowed that one last grace" of a few quiet moments in the broadcast studio where he'd spent his weekends DJing. As something of a one-fingered salute, McGuinn had loaded the playlist on his way out with the sort of music that would have tickled those who criticized the station over the last 10 years for being too corporate: deep album cuts and classic alternative tracks. Songs he and his staff would have loved to play more often.
According to Landow, when he stopped by the studio, consultant Alan Sneed a large, Penn Jillette-looking man who'd been brought in to guide the transition to the gospel station, sat at the console. He'd apparently been called to the station to check into some on-air irregularities. "He was "massaging the playlist so that Y100 would go out clean,'" Landow recalls him saying. Out went The Strokes' "Last Night," The Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K.," Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up." In went Candlebox and Three Doors Down.
"If by "clean' he meant dull and soulless, then Sneed was right," snaps Landow. "He had accomplished his goal."
11:55 p.m.: Landow sat at home. He was torn. Should he give the station he'd sunk his heart and soul into one last listen? He succumbed, but it was too late. Pearl Jam's "Alive" the song that had some eight years ago signalled the Radio One-driven demise of WDRE, the pioneering modern rock station where McGuinn had made his bones in Philadelphia had already faded out.
"I was treated," says Landow, "to dead air."
Y100 was dead.
It got caught in the middle of an elaborate corporate chess match between Clear Channel, which owns urban station Power 99 and urban adult contemporary station WDAS 105.3, and Radio One, whose stated corporate mission is to dominate the urban radio marketplace. At stake are coveted black listeners, whose buying power, according to a recent study by the University of Georgia, is increasing more rapidly than the general population.
But Y100 wasn't dead. Not quite.
On the morning in question, as the machinations for a format flip played out, a plan of another sort was set in motion. While employees of the station were being fired, an e-mail was sent from its servers to some 40,000 people in the Y100 database. "Thank you all so much for listening to Y100! Please visit us at www.y100rocks.com," it implored. Significantly, this was not a plug for the station's official site, www.y100.com.
Around noon, with the station still on the air and consisting of little more than a petition to save the station, www.y100rocks.com www.YRockOnXPN.org launched. (The site's address, according to www.register.com, was purchased nine days before the station shut down.)
All afternoon, with the station running on automatic, a pre-recorded sweeper a promotional sound bite that buffers commercial breaks directed listeners to this unofficial Web site. (The sweeper reportedly prompted Golsch to alert Sneed and "clean" the playlist.)
As news of the format flip spread, angry e-mails flooded the inboxes of any and all Radio One employees.
During the following week, some 50,000 people signed the petition. To compare: When Washington, D.C.'s venerable alternative rock station WHFS was flipped in January to a Hispanic station, just 10,000 people signed a petition. WHFS is now back on the air part-time in Baltimore.
By that Thursday evening, www.y100rocks.com www.YRockOnXPN.org included a link to a pre-programmed Webcast listeners can access through the site or through iTunes. By that Saturday night, former employees had started doing live shows from an undisclosed location. Y100 is one of the first, if not the only, stations to wage a counter-insurgence in this way. Their prospects are uncertain, but their goal in this all-volunteer effort is to prove the viability of their station and their format.
Critics can say what they will about Y100; its former employees are putting up a fight. And say what you will about white college kids; they get fired up about their Weezer.
Illustration By: Hyacinth Hughes
A Saturday night in early March. Landow, Romaine and a couple friends of the station are bustling about a well-lit second floor home office. In front of two large, glowing computer monitors, they're checking microphone connections, pulling songs into an iTunes playlist, adjusting faders on a small sound board set up on a collapsible TV tray.
Welcome to the top-secret "underground bunker" of www.y100rocks.com www.YRockOnXPN.org. Days earlier, Paul Hawley, Steve Bays and Luke Paquin of Sub Pop band/Y100 staple Hot Hot Heat sat here for the hour before soundcheck for that evening's concert at the TLA and did a guest DJ set, the first "y100rocks.com www.YRockOnXPN.org radio takeover." They slouched on the plush yellow couch and made droll observations about the tracks they picked.
"Just turn the lights off and we'll all take off our clothes," says Bays of Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean."
"Her name is Rachel and she lives in Seattle and it's so over," says Hawley of Paquin's inspiration for the band's own hit "Goodnight Goodnight."
They played with the bunker's resident cat; touted their upcoming album Elevator, due on "April motherfucking fifth"; and sang the praises of this renegade Web radio station to more than 300 listeners. (At present, the station is paying Internet radio hosting company www.Live365.com for a 400-stream maximum. About 90 percent of listeners are from the Philadelphia area, while 10 percent are listening from as far away as California and Iraq.)
Former jocks and other station personnel have been taking turns doing live shows since the Saturday after Y100 went off the air. The former Y100 employees have time on their hands and the resourcefulness to not go quietly into the night.
This Saturday broadcast is a "Party Show." Joining Romaine and Landow tonight will be part-time jock Alan Dean and Christine Pawlak, aka Electra, Y100's assistant music director and 7 p.m.-to-midnight host. Screwdrivers are poured. Cans of Lite are popped. As the clock strikes 8 o'clock, Landow flips the station from autopilot to live.
A hush fills the room. Quiet and reserved off the air, Landow dons headphones, leans into the mic, and summons his inner Shadoe Stevens: "y100rocks.com www.YRockOnXPN.org. You have no alternative."
Introductions are made. A ticket giveaway for the upcoming Mars Volta concert is announced. A listener who e-mails the word "encyclopedia," spelled correctly, will be chosen at the end of the evening.
Romaine, on-air talent as of the last few weeks, and Landow make light of their recent joblessness.
"I cleaned my car, cleaned my kitchen," offers Romaine.
"I had lunch with my dad," counters Landow. "Then I helped him put his picture on metrodate.com."
In their heads, they're back in their office, bantering, only now for about 100 listeners who've decided to stay in on Saturday to listen to what's left of their station. The break ends and Landow launches into Audioslave's brand-new "Be Yourself."
During the evening, those gathered in this "fortress of solitude" reminisce about their favorite Feztivals (Y100's series of mega concerts) and Sonic Sessions (its series of live-in-studio band sessions). They peek in on the chat room and message boards that have sprung up for listeners to make requests and discuss the live show. They have fun.
It's www.y100rocks.com's third weekend on the Internet. The station is fighting for its life.
The overwhelming show of fan support for www.y100rocks.com www.YRockOnXPN.org is bittersweet for Jim McGuinn.
The 61,409 people who've signed the petition as of Tuesday have been an inspiration. Seeing his staff, many of whom grew up in radio under his watch, take the ball and run has been revelatory.
But for a guy twice canned by Radio One he was the program director for WDRE 103.9 until Radio One purchased it and flipped it to urban in 1997 McGuinn, 39, can be forgiven a certain weariness.
The tall, lanky man with the short, tousled rock 'n' roll haircut recalls his start in radio some 23 years ago. In 1982, as a sophomore in high school in Downers Grove, Ill., he heard the school station, WDGC, play The Jam's "Town Called Malice." He wondered aloud to Nell Lundy, the senior-class new-wave girl, "Why isn't this on The Loop?" Chicago's rock station.
"Because commercial radio sucks," said Lundy.
"I said, "I want to change that,'" recalls McGuinn, sitting in the dining room of his Italian Market-area home.
Six months later, he was WDGC's music director. The first record he added in his new role was the debut EP by an obscure little band from Athens, Ga., R.E.M.'s Chronic Town.
"I thought they had promise," laughs McGuinn, "if only they'd rock a little more."
While R.E.M. never did rock out, McGuinn's been adding their records to stations for more than two decades. And he's still trying to change corporate radio, though for the first time in a while, he's doing it from the outside. At stake here are more than jobs (though his and others' livelihoods do hang in the balance). There are listeners, oh-so-coveted loyal listeners, who have been cast aside.
"How can there be this hole in the market where 60,000 people are signing a petition, which means there's probably a half a million people who are pissed off?" wonders McGuinn, very much aloud over too much coffee. "It's not just [about] me. Yeah, I'd love to program an alternative station. But I live here. If it was you if you programmed the alternative station, I'd be happy. At least I'd have something to listen to in my car. It's not about me having an alternative station. It's about Philadelphia being the biggest city in America without an alternative rock station."
According to the most recent Arbitron ratings, Y100 (WPLY-FM) was pulling a 2.6 share of the market for the three-month period ending in January 2005. This number placed it squarely in the middle of the pack of Philadelphia's crowded radio landscape. (The 2.6 represents a percentage of radio listening, a complex statistic garnered from listener diaries that factors the number of listeners and the time spent listening.) As a point of comparison, Greater Media's rock station WMMR-FM 93.3, one of Y100's main competitors, pulled a 2.8 share; Clear Channel's powerhouse Power 99 WUSL-FM registered 4.6.
A 2.6 ranks the station 16th of the 30 stations that met Arbitron's minimum reporting standards.
Another comparison: In the same time frame, Radio One's other two Philadelphia properties, WPHI-FM 103.3 The Beat and the recently acquired WRNB-FM 107.9 rated 2.2 and 1.3, respectively.
So why would a company ditch its highest-rated station?
Ratings are only part of the story. A station's billings the amount of money it brings in from advertising is related to, but not directly tied to, its ratings. According to industry insiders, Radio One's three Philly stations The Beat, WRNB and the new Praise 103.9 combined could struggle in the short term to match the total billings of Y100.
But the plan is for the long term, to build these stations up and corner the urban radio market.
And for that, you can thank Bill Clinton and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which drastically changed the national radio landscape.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Prior to 1996, there were strict limits on the number of radio stations a company could own nationwide (40) and in a marketplace (two AM and two FM). The act loosened the restrictions, allowing one company to own from five to eight commercial stations in a market, depending on the market's size. While Telecomm '96 made it easier for large radio companies to sell national advertising (in the network television model), it also set the stage for the emergence of monolithic corporations like Clear Channel, Radio One and Infinity to engage in what's become known in the industry as clustering.
Clustering means using a block of stations to corner a specific demographic in a market, making it the go-to company for ad sales within that group. In Philadelphia, Y100 seems to have fallen victim to what could be called urban radio warfare.
Clear Channel owns six stations in the Philadelphia market. WDAS and Power 99 are the second- (tied at 6.7) and fourth-rated (4.6) stations, respectively, according to the latest Arbitron numbers. (Adult contemporary station B101, WBEB-FM 101.1, the area's only independently owned station, led with 8.1; news station WKYW-AM 1060 also pulled a 6.7 share.) The Beat's 2.2 share and WRNB's 1.3 pale in comparison.
Numbers for Radio One's Praise 103.9 are not yet available, but for the purpose of speculation, consider Clear Channel's gospel station, WDAS 1480 AM, had a 0.9 share in the latest Arbitron book. Clear Channel's urban block appears unbeatable. Game over, right?
Actually, it could be quite a fight. WRNB was purchased by Radio One last year. It was formerly Bridgeton, N.J.'s WSNJ-FM 107.7, a small, community station that featured talk, farm reports and auction shows. The station was moved to Pennsauken just over the Betsy Ross Bridge, its signal upped, and its frequency changed to 107.9. At the end of last year, Radio One bought a controlling stake in Media Reach Inc., the company of Tom Joyner, a syndicated morning host who, with 8 million weekly listeners, is the black Howard Stern in terms of reach. (But Stern, who reaches about 10 million listeners weekly, is about to shake up the national radio landscape with his impending move to Sirius satellite radio.) Oh, and Joyner used to be the WDAS morning guy. So game on.
While the gambit is shrewd and completely legal, what of fans of the modern rock (aka alternative) format who are no longer being served by the airwaves? Wouldn't it behoove an owner of one of the 14 lower-rated stations to strike quickly? According to The Media Audit's numbers for August-October 2004, Y100's audience was attractive to advertisers, made up disproportionately of 18- to 34-year-olds who demonstrate both earning power, and spending power. The station's audience was also extremely loyal, evidenced in the way its "most often" ratings trounced those of stations whose "cumulative" or casual listenership bettered its cumulative ratings. This loyalty, it stands to reason, would only be intensified for the station's savior.
One Philly station mentioned often when radio people talk about where modern rock might resurface was the flagging and recently defunct adult contemporary station The Mix, WMWX-FM 95.7, which last week became WBEN, a station presently broadcasting without jockeys and featuring a suddenly de rigueur shuffle format. One line of thinking suggests that 95.7's owner, Greater Media, wouldn't have flipped the station to modern rock; to do so would create competition with another of its stations, WMMR, and new hires Preston and Steve.
But clustering isn't a strategy exclusive to urban radio. In various markets across the country, companies have built "rock walls." For example, Entercom, a Bala Cynwyd-based company (it has no stations in the Philadelphia market), boasts three distinct rock stations in its seven-station Seattle portfolio: The End KNDD (modern rock), The Mountain KMTT (adult rock) and KISW (active rock). In St. Louis, Emmis Communications owns KIHT (classic hits), KPNT (alternative) and KSHE (classic rock).
With WMWX seemingly out of the mix, there's another intriguing possibility. Earlier this month, Nassau Broadcasting, a company that owns successful contemporary hits station WPST-FM and less-distinguished classic rocker The Hawk, WTHK-FM, applied for the recently abandoned WPLY call letters and is "parking" them at a station in Mount Pocono. In February, Nassau flipped WPST from 97.5, a signal that penetrates into the Philadelphia market, with WTHK's 94.5, a signal with weaker Philadelphia penetration. While this could be taken as a signal the company is gearing up to flip The Hawk, calls to Nassau were not returned at press time.
According to Mike Bacon, senior director/modern rock at Cherry Hill-based radio industry magazine Friday Morning Quarterback, "I think what should happen is someone should strike while the iron is hot. There's an awareness."
While he doesn't fault Radio One for building its urban wall, he notes that "Y100 did bill well." He figures that the area's competing rock stations, WYSP-FM 94.1 and WMMR, "could jump on those songs and make them the outlet." Or maybe companies are weighing their options, evaluating "what they have going and whether they want to replace it with a modern rocker."
In explaining the company's decision, Radio One's chief operating officer, Mary Catherine Sneed, told the media that "the modern-rock format is not in a growth-rate mode now." According to Bacon, the rumors have been exaggerated: "The fall book is usually a bit of a downer for some stations." Furthermore, new and forthcoming albums by format staples Nine Inch Nails, System of a Down, Weezer, Queens of the Stone Age, Beck, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead and others promise to jump-start flagging ratings.
The indecision, the corporate wait-and-see, most rankles a radio lifer like McGuinn. "How come the top 10 groups control half the radio stations and half the listening and half the audience? Tell me that that's fair and balanced! Tell me that that's a legitimate use of our airwaves and that the great diversity of America is being represented by these few groups. That's the shit that drives me nuts."
So for now, the former employees and listeners of Y100 wait. But they're not the only ones who could be affected by the format's disappearance from local airwaves.
"I think it's a little bit of a drag," says Jim Sutcliffe, director of marketing for Electric Factory Concerts, which books shows at the TLA, Electric Factory and the Tweeter Center, among other large, local venues. Although Electric Factory Concerts is an arm of Clear Channel, the company advertised heavily with Y100 and is now a sponsor on www.y100rocks.com www.YRockOnXPN.org. "People can be jaded about commercial alternative radio stations, but they did a really good job about it. They brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm, even if they couldn't play all the music they love. They really cared about what they did, about making it the best possible version of a commercial alternative station."
Does Sutcliffe worry that the absence of a commercial modern rock station might lead to touring bands skipping the city?
"Time will tell," he says. "People who like alternative music are curious by nature. They're people who seek out music and information. But Y100 did help make bands big in Philly. There's this myth that when you're famous, you're famous everywhere. Really, bands are more famous in certain pockets. Weezer and Beck, for example: Philly became their best market."
Sutcliffe says he's not actively hoping any particular station will flip its format, but as a concert promoter, he prefers stations "playing relevant music that people are passionate about."
As for long-term effects on the city's concertgoers, Sutcliffe says, modern rock station or no, things probably won't change drastically. "The good news is that Philadelphia is such a good concert city. That tends to build up on itself," he says. "People go to concerts, therefore people go to concerts. You can talk to me six months from now and I bet it'll be business as usual."
Besides, Sutcliffe predicts a larger shift in media beyond the local market. He says the climate "is changing away from radio pretty quickly. It feels to me that the version of the world where people get their information on what's cool from Rolling Stone and radio is antiquated. It doesn't really work that way. Radio is not the center of that any more."
One 65-year-old man living in Florida agrees. Dan Lerner, the man who sold Y100 for $80 million to Radio One in 2000, is not optimistic about terrestrial, or broadcast, radio. "Radio has just become a commodity today and there's very little creativity left in it," he says over the phone from his winter home in Palm Beach. "I think there's a lot less fun as well."
The Annenberg School graduate flipped the format of his flagging adult contemporary station, Kiss 100, to modern rock in 1993.
"I started in the broadcast business in 1961. And that's, what, 39 years? I saw a lot of changes. Some for the good. But at the end, not for the good," he says. "If I were a young man looking at the entertainment business, I would not look at owning radio stations."
The savvy businessman who made about 100 times his initial investment when he sold Y100, knows he got out of the game at just the right time. "I believe the future is in other media: satellite, Internet, iPod and even television on cellular. The media choices are just exploding at this point. And nobody fully understands where it's going. Terrestrial radio was bulletproof for about 80 years because there was no competition in office listening and, in particular, car listening. That was radio's last and best defense. And that's gone now that satellite radio is going strong," he figures.
Lerner, the second-to-last of Philadelphia's independent station owners (B101, owned by Jerry Lee's Bala Cynwyd company WEAZ-FM Radio, is the sole survivor), has remained friends with his former staff over the years. He's the kind of guy who flew employees to Cancun when they hit sales goals. The kind of guy who handed out bonuses based on service time when he cashed his 80 million chips in.
As a result, he learned about the format flip from the former management (he won't divulge from whom he heard) "shortly before it actually took place."
There are two big ironies in play for the Webcasters who refuse to say die.
The first is that only now that they've been canned by their corporate masters are they free as music professionals to fully exercise their musical judgment. No corporate pressure to play singles. An early Webcast by McGuinn featured songs by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, The Cure, The Clash and Bob Marley, songs that would likely have not passed Radio One muster.
And then there's the freedom from FCC profanity regulations. During the Party Show, jocks proudly kept a "fuck" tally (four, though they boasted of a count in the 30s on an earlier show). They joked about cunnilingus and fisting.
The second irony is that www.y100rocks.com www.YRockOnXPN.org may have stumbled upon the future of radio a few years too early. While we don't yet have wireless Internet in our cars, Y100's core audience young white kids are the most plugged-in generation on the planet, a group that will surely be on the cutting edge of terrestrial Internet if and when it happens. And when it does, it could be to terrestrial radio what cable was to television's broadcast networks. Niche programming will be the norm. We'll walk around with our receiver-equipped iPods listening to any Web broadcast and any genre we please.
Which would be cool for listeners but, for now, somewhat less cool for the deposed staff of Y100 for whom these are precarious times.
"If a Y100-like station comes back on the air," says McGuinn of modern rock's uncertain future, "it'll be much better than Y100 ever was because of this experience."
Back in the underground bunker, the crew is getting tired. When the show began at 8 p.m., those in attendance anticipated broadcasting into the wee hours of the morning.
But as midnight approaches, they're wearing down. Landow plays The Eels' "Novocaine for the Soul" and decides it's time to give away those Mars Volta tickets. A correct speller of "encyclopedia" is chosen at random from 20-some responses. Landow bangs on the bellhop bell, a souvenir from the broadcast studio, as he announces the winner during the next break.
As they prepare to switch the station back to auto mode, Landow, Romaine, Dean and Electra recount favorite Feztival/Feastival memories and start gushing about their love for their former station.
"Whenever I would go to Best Buy, I'd change all the radio stations [in the electronics department] to Y100," says Electra.
"Whenever I'd test drive a car, I'd set the presets to Y100," offers Romaine.
They're not just former employees; they're fans. They're all going on job interviews, making the motions of moving on. But they're all attached to the area and hoping someone will save their station.
"We all have our phases," says Landow, who began interning at Y100 as an 18-year-old art student and, at this point, has been on the air three days in a row. He and the rest of the crew don't know how long this can go on before severances run out, before real life kicks in. "For myself, I get so into what we're doing at y100rocks.com www.YRockOnXPN.org, I forget I don't have a job. It's exciting to do something grassroots. But yesterday when I was filing for unemployment, that wasn't a good feeling."