No funky stunts or freaky gimmicks? The lack of hype is the gimmick for a new Reno adult contemporary station
A friend gets into my car.
“Is that The Cure?”
“Yeah, on the radio. That new station.”
“Oh yeah, the ‘80s and ‘90s and whatever. I like it. I must be getting old. There’s a station for me.”
Stone Temple Pilots. REM. Third Eye Blind.
Between songs, a chick with an English accent tells us that The New Station at 97.3, a radio station that hit Reno airwaves in March playing ‘80s, ‘90s and “whatever,” is different than the usual corporate radio.
“We talk about the music if we talk at all,” she says. “Our DJs are local, so pardon our rough edges.”
What rough edges? As far as I can tell, if you tossed all your favorite alt-rock—Alanis, Green Day, Counting Crows and the the Goo Goo Dolls—into an MP3-player and hit auto DJ, it’d sound pretty much like this. Add commercials.
And we like it. The station’s playing in my doctor’s office because “it’s not too hard.” It’s playing when I take my puppy to the vet. It’s playing in RN&R Editor D. Brian Burghart’s office.
One day, I think to myself: “OK computer, make my day and play The Knack.”
And, oh magic, the station reads my mind within the hour.
“Oh my little pretty one, my pretty one. When you gonna give me some?
“My, my, my Sharona.”
What are the odds?
You might get the idea that the new station at 97.3—which took over the frequency of hip-hop KWNZ—is some indie rogue radio spinning CDs from a storefront. It’s not. The New Station is one of Americom Las Vegas Limited Partnership’s Reno stations, which include KRNO, Alice and KBZZ. The outfit makes its home on the 14th floor of an office building just east of downtown Reno, near the Reno Police Department.
When I walk in, 97.3’s Flock of Seagulls is piping into the lobby. The waiting area features black leather couches, a glass case full of CDs and plenty of bumper stickers. A postal worker walks in to collect a prize he won on Alice.
A receptionist answers the phone: “Reno Radio Representatives.” That’s the name of the company that sells radio spots and organizes promotions both for Americom’s stations and those run by NextMedia—The X, KSRN, KRZQ and KJZS—which has its offices right next door.
If the two radio entities were jointly owned, they’d control more of the area’s radio market than is allowed by the Federal Communications Commission. But each company has separate ownership. They merely share the 14th floor—and an ad sales department. No FCC rules broken here.
In a smallish conference room, I meet with the Americom stations’ general manager, Dan Cook, and 97.3’s morning DJ, Buzz Heschmann.
Cook tells me how popular the new station’s been, even with those in the radio biz.
“Some people think we’re whacked,” Cook says. “But they love it.”
When a new station starts up, it’s customary for DJs to “do a lot of stunting,” a term that calls to mind cheesy gimmicks like War of the World radio-station takeovers.
Some folks think that the new station is, in fact, stunting with its “whatever” attitude. Cook laughs at this.
“They’re waiting for us to do a real format,” he says.
But this lack of a format, he contends, is the station’s format. This is it.
Though an updated ratings book won’t be out for another couple of months, anecdotal evidence attests to the station’s popularity.
“The response has been more phenomenal than for any new Reno radio station in 20 years,” says Heschmann.
You may remember Heschmann from his last DJ job at KRZQ, eight years ago. He came out of hiding to do the new station because he could finally, he says, “just play the music.”
Other Reno morning DJs get to work at 4 a.m. to gather material for shows and contests. Heschmann rolls in just before 6 a.m. and plays “whatever he wants.” Sure, there’s a bit of news and some announcements. Since this is “your station,” Heschmann offers to announce everything from local fundraisers to protests to community cleanups.
The new station’s adding new songs to its library daily, picking music from listeners’ suggestions to a recorded hotline. Some of these tunes are a little hard to find, says Dan Cook, the station’s general manager.
“You can’t just walk into a record store and get a radio-edit version of the Violent Femmes’ ‘Add It Up,'” Cook says. Radio edits are especially important these days, he says, now that the FCC is cracking down on naughty words.
“Janet Jackson’s boob means we have to edit the Violent Femmes,” Heschmann says.
Cook and Heschmann like to think their radio station is rule-free, other than the FCC regulations.
“That’s the whole beauty of our experiment, of what we’re attempting to do,” Cook says, “without radio falling into the same crutch that radio’s been in presentation-wise and music-wise.”
Into what crutch does radio typically fall?
Cook references a basic “jock” formula—highly researched play lists that aren’t responsive to individual listeners.
“We’re not defined,” Cook says. “We don’t even have a name.”
Their play lists aren’t highly researched? Then how do they know about my need for The Knack?
Of course, Americom researches music for Sunny 106.9 and for Alice. But music testing tells you only so much, Heschmann says. Cook says that many of the songs playing on the new station would not test well.
“The only reason we’d use music testing is to identify the songs that aren’t popular,” Heschmann says, after giving it some thought.
Cook, who grew up in Reno and has worked in radio since he was slipping Zappa on the air back in the ‘70s, refers to the new station’s music as “gutsy” and “full of danger.”
“We’re flying by the seat of our pants,” he says.
The radio’s playing Men at Work’s “Down Under.” I’m humming along. OK, I’m singing out loud, driving down McCarran Boulevard.
“I said, ‘Do you speak-a my language?’ He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.”
The song ends. The Brit lady says, “We play whatever we want.”
And that happens to be Bobby McFerrin’s bright “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Now there’s some gutsy, dangerous music.
The new station’s pitch—"playing whatever we want"—might sound familiar to some. It’s one of the first premises of a newish radio trend called “anti-radio,” a term used by Sean Ross, music and programming vice president at Edison Research.
The “whatever” concept popularized a wave of adult contemporary/classic rock stations in Canada—the Jack/Bob stations—a year and a half ago. Since then, the anti-radio format has met with varying degrees of success in the United States.
The rules of anti-radio begin with a purported earnestness to be listener and DJ-driven, a vast selection of music and a much-touted difference from other stations. To be successful, anti-radio can use a few quirky songs, but it should remain
hit-driven, Ross writes in his radio industry advice column. If you can explain the station’s anti-format to listeners without using clichés, all the better. Stations from Winnipeg to New Jersey have used the line, “… ‘80s, ‘90s and whatever.”
Heschmann and Cook know about the Jack and Bob stations. The new station at 97.3 isn’t the same.
“They’d play Bryan Adams,” Cook says.
Heschmann and Cook know a bit about northern Nevada’s tastes in radio. The idea for this station, they say, didn’t come from Canada or anywhere else.
“All the ideas for this station originate in Reno,” Heschmann says. “Everything we’re doing, we’re doing here.”
Not that it even matters.
It’s all about the music, and the new station is playing Nirvana.