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Radio free Gainesville
Independent stations cut through the pre-formatted, corporate playlists
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CDs line shelves in the WBCX studio in the basement of the Jacobs Building on the Brenau University campus. - photo by Robin Michener Nathan

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Radio veteran Tim Johnston discusses his take on the decline of corporate-run radio and the rise of local programming.

Rock ‘n’ roll is dead.

And so is the Grand Ole Opry, intelligent hip-hop and underground punk if you gauge each genre’s vitality by its airplay on metro-Atlanta radio stations.

Despite the proposed merger of XM and Sirius satellite radio — as well as the advent of iPods and online music streaming — repetitive commercial-infused radio formats are still drawing most of the listeners nationwide, according to local radio business veteran Tim Johnston.

And advances in music technology aren’t changing the cutthroat radio game that industry leaders Clear Channel Communications, Cox Radio and Cumulus Media, among others, have imposed upon public airwaves since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed communications companies to purchase more media outlets in a market.

“When they deregulated, it opened up the door for big companies to go out and buy up all these radio stations. There were probably a half dozen companies that bought up a good portion of the market,” said Johnston, who has played nearly every role in the radio industry, from disc jockey to station manager, in the past 40 years.  

Even before then, Johnston recalled the days when large communications companies began buying up small stations and re-establishing them in large-audience areas.

For example, Johnston said, in the early 1980s Cox Radio purchased Gainesville’s classic rock station, Fox 97.1 (WFOX-FM) and relocated it to Atlanta. The radio station was renamed 97.1 The River, and a new classic rock format was instated.

Johnston said although many Atlanta radio stations, using mass-produced playlists, have got it all wrong, some independently-owned stations in North Georgia are getting it right.

Local flavor

He said Cornelia’s 99.3 WCON-FM, Brenau University’s 89.1 WBCX-FM and Dahlonega’s Gold 104.3 are some of them.

Gold 104.3 station manager and morning show personality Bo Wilson said the family-run country station with a staff of four features “the stars of today and the legends of yesterday.”

In addition to the two live four-hour radio shows featured on Gold 104.3, Wilson said the station relates Sunday worship services, high school sports information and local news to its roughly 250,000 listeners in North Georgia.

Wilson said the key to Gold 104.3 is its well-defined country music niche and local programming.

“We’re not just some other country station. We play Waylon, Hank and Willie — the good stuff,” Wilson said. “With four other country radio stations around us, we have to find something that’s going to make us stick out because we are so small. People like to hear people they know, especially in small towns. It gives local flavor.”

At Brenau’s WBCX, members of the community sign up for their own slots on the station and follow general daily programming themes. Disc jockeys range from students to professionals with careers not in broadcasting.

WBCX station manager Scott Fugate said he spent five years talking to Gainesville residents about what they wanted to hear on the radio that radio stations weren’t playing.

“They didn’t want more hip-hop, country or rock,” he said. “They wanted old music, jazz and more classical.”

Fugate said he incorporated listeners’ suggestions into the station’s new multiple-genre format when he pulled the station’s satellite plug a year ago. Prior to the format change, WBCX played satellite-programmed smooth jazz.

Now, Fugate oversees the training of roughly 30 disc jockeys each year who produce live programming with music ranging from jazz artists Pat Metheny and Louis Armstrong to funk, electronica, gospel, soul and early rock ‘n’ roll.

This focus on local programming is in stark contrast to large radio stations operating out of markets like Atlanta. Johnston said the handful of media corporations operating a vast number of radio stations nationwide rely on regimented formats calling for limited playlists and limited local flavor.

“In this day and age, repetition is the key, and making money is the motto. There are thousands of songs, and most stations in Atlanta have a playlist of only about 200 or 300 songs. That’s why they don’t play some of the old artists out there — like Dolly,  Willie Nelson and George Jones, who have released new albums in the past few months,” Johnston said.

He added that he believes too many corporate-owned radio stations depend too heavily on satellite programming based out of Dallas or Denver, which detracts from a radio station’s role in the community it serves.

Even the Federal Communications Commission has taken note of the increasing disconnect between radio broadcasters and the communities they serve.

The FCC is currently fielding comments in an effort to devise new rules that would mandate how broadcasters relate to the local community and could require radio stations to produce more local programming to better serve the needs of listeners.

“It went from each station having its own identity and catering to the local community to where you can go from one city to another city, and find almost identical formats. That’s why it sounds kind of bland,” Johnston said. “I think a lot of the heart’s gone out of it, quite frankly.”

He pointed to the recent firing of a 22-year Atlanta country radio personality as an indication that some radio station companies have their eye on the bottom line rather than their ear tuned to listener’s needs.

Station shuffling

In the early ’80s, Gainesville country station WYAY 106.7-FM was also bought and moved to Atlanta. The station was then named Eagle 106.7, and enjoyed moderate success due in part to radio personality Rhubarb Jones, Johnston said.

But Jones, who hosted a morning radio show for 22 years on Eagle 106.7, was fired on Feb. 29 along with nearly a dozen other on-air employees at the station following new ownership by Citadel Broadcasting. The station now plays an oldies music format.

“People are used to waking up with him for 22  years now, and for it to end because of a corporate decision that they weren’t making enough money is pretty sad,” Johnston said.

Wilson said it hasn’t been easy for owner Grady Turner, who lives next door in Dawson County, to keep Gold 104.3 an independently-run station.

“I think just about every week somebody wants to try to buy 104.3,” he said. “But I think we’re going to be here for a long time.”

Fugate sees his little station as a chance to introduce listeners to something different — something unique to North Georgia.

“We’re trying to play what people want to hear, but we’re also trying to expand people’s horizons,” Fugate said. “And I think that’s what is keeping us alive in the iPod age.”

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