There are certain types of music fans you don't want to tussle with. Death-metal heads. Gangsta-rap aficionados. Irish-drinking-song bellowers. Smooth jazz listeners.
OK, last week I wouldn't have included that final group. That was before WSSM (106.5 FM) switched formats, knocking smooth jazz off the dial and sending its fans to the phones. And for some reason they called me.
"Can you tell me why 106.5 switched from playing smooth jazz to the crap they're playing now?"
"I went from listening to smooth jazz to listening to the Police?"
"Did you know about this before it was going to happen? Why?"
I figured if I was getting this many queries, the phone had to be ringing off the hook at WSSM (now 106.5 The Arch). So I called program director Marty Linck to give him a chance to make peace with these fans of mellow music who'd risen up in anger. While I suspect some listeners thought there was a prejudice against the music, Linck says the parent company, Bonneville International Corporation, hung with the smoothness longer than it should have.
"They stuck with the format for four years, and it never turned a profit," Linck explains. "Most companies that I've worked for would have abandoned it after a year. It was a business decision, something had to happen, and we had to do something to generate some ratings."
Smooth jazz is, after all, a narrow niche. A very narrow niche. And while people who love Dave Koz, Paul Taylor, Kenny G and other smoothies love them, in business, love isn't all you need.
"The people who liked it really, really liked it," says Linck. "It was a very small audience who listened for a long time, but it just wasn't enough for advertisers to say, 'Wow, we've got to put our advertisements on this.'"
Radio is changing, Linck says, and the Arch, with its wide variety (I've heard "Beast of Burden," R.E.M. 's "Everybody Hurts" and the Cars' "Drive" over the past few days), is part of the future. "Once iPods started becoming popular, people started realizing that they could control what they listened to and not be stuck in just one little format. You know, stations in St. Louis are stuck on one little tightly programmed 200-song format. We figured if you listen to the radio in the workplace, and there are 50 people there who have to listen to the same station, why not give them something you can listen to all day?"
As I've opined before, a lot of radio stations are sick these days. iTunes on one hand and satellite radio on the other are squeezing local radio out. Satellite and Internet radio can offer extreme niches like smooth jazz (and the smooth fans should note that WSSM is still streaming the old format at wssm.com). But Linck says not to count out radio yet.
"I don't think [satellite radio] is big enough yet. It's a very small percentage of people who own satellite radio and are willing to pay for radio. It's just like when cable and satellite came out for television, everyone said, 'That's the death of local TV,' but FOX 2 and KSDK and KPLR still seem to be fine."
It's radio's overly researched, overly formatted style that has to go, in Linck's opinion. And radio did it to itself.
"In the early '80s, people realized, 'Wow, I can do research and ask people what songs they liked,' and people who did that saw their ratings go up because they were always playing hits," says the radio man. "And so all the other stations said, 'Wow, we should do that too.' Over a ten- or fifteen-year period of time, everybody started doing research, and everybody had these tightly formatted 300-song playlists, and then it started to backfire."
On the other hand, the open-ended format gives DJs the power to play songs that suck. Along with all the good songs I heard on the Arch, I also sat through "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" and other songs that set my teeth to grind mode. Linck accepts this as a hazard of the format: "Maybe 50 percent of the people in the office hated the last song we played, but they're probably going to love the one we play next."
As for the bereft smooth jazzers, if you're willing to pony up, there's always satellite radio. And you might like Red 104.1 FM (whose Web site will welcome you with open arms) or Magic 105 (104.9 FM). All I can say is that you were lucky to have ever had a radio station that played exactly what you liked. Most of us don't ever get that.
It's spring, man. Gaia, the goddess of the Earth, has, like, been reborn, and everything is growing and alive and stuff. It's the only planet we've got, man, so, like, say hello. Spring, man. Spring.
Sorry about that; it's 4/20 and Earth Day is this week. But spring is here, and with it comes a week of concerts that swells the music section like Grandma's goiter. Here's a show I couldn't fit anywhere else that you ought to check out:
Aqueduct put on the best set I saw this year at South by Southwest (it had to be good; I waited through Harvey Danger to see it). Band leader David Terry looks like Kevin Smith and plays the sweetest keyboards this side of Elton John. At SXSW he and his band (his albums are solo affairs, but he tours with a three-piece) opened with the Geto Boys' "Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta." Even better were originals such as "Hardcore Days and Softcore Nights" and "Growing Up with GNR," poppy geek-rock gems that sounded like tough They Might Be Giants. They're at Cicero's Thursday opening for Kansas City's Golden Republic. Go.