No Alternative

Brian C. Poole
Jun 7, 2019 · 6 min read

Boston recently lost its only over-the-air alternative radio station.

In a move that surprised listeners, WBOS (then billed as “Alt 92.9”) abruptly abandoned the alternative format to become “Rock 92.9.” The station now bills itself as “the next generation of classic rock.” While a surprise when it happened, fans should probably have expected some kind of change.

The first sign of trouble came two years ago, when the station ditched music in the morning in favor of a five hour comedy/talk program, the dreadful “Dave and Chuck the Freak Show.” When an alleged music station abandons playing songs for a significant chunk of its broadcast day, that’s not a sign of commitment. Shortly after that, WBOS seemed to move away from what most would consider a contemporary alternative playlist. Instead, the channel pushed songs that felt more at home on an active rock station, while putting emphasis on cuts from the not-fondly-remembered music era of the early ‘00s.

In July of 2018, WBOS was once again living up to its “Alt 92.9” billing and was doing a fairly good job of playing new and recent alternative singles (except for the five-hour morning dead zone). Things went on in that fashion for the next nine months, until the sudden change in direction.

When asked to explain the format switch, the station noted that, despite detractors, Dave and Chuck the Freak on weekday mornings draws decent ratings. So the program directors decided to switch to classic rock because they felt it was a better fit with the morning show. Which is true. And in this context, not really a compliment. Further, the station insisted that its listeners had been telling them they wanted a classic rock format.

That’s a bit hard to credit. First of all, pioneering classic rock outlet WZLX is just up the dial from WBOS and is consistently one of the top-rated stations in the Boston market. Further, classic rock is a significant component of the mix of three other prominent local stations: heritage rock channel WAAF, adult alternative outlet WXRV and ’80s hits-focused WROR. The notion that there’s some kind of unserved classic rock audience in the Boston market doesn’t quite hold up.

Disappointingly, Rock 92.9 claiming to be “the next generation of classic rock” is more marketing hype than reality. The station starts with the same limited pool of songs that form the nucleus of other classic rock stations and merely puts slightly more emphasis on cuts from the ’80s and ’90s. The “next generation” claim falls short, as the “new” format does nothing to address the numerous issues that many fans have with typical classic rock outlets. The new station isn’t acknowledging the decades of rock hits by acts who weren’t white and male, nor is it embracing other hits that cred-obsessed consultants have deemed “not cool enough for classic rock,” despite being loved by many fans. It also has done nothing to address the format’s stiflingly narrow stylistic focus or tendency toward highly repetitive playlists. All Rock 92.9 does is put a marginally different emphasis on which songs it’s overplaying.

That’s what passes for “innovation” in modern radio programming. Instead of doing something really original, either with classic rock or any other kind of rock format, “Rock 92.9” is basically another lazy, “me too” station chasing, to diminishing effect, the same audience that’s already well-carved up among other channels.

What WBOS has done is make the notion of broadcast radio’s “inability to compete with new media” a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why tune into a channel that’s giving you nothing new or different when satellite, streaming or your own playlist are more appealing?

The irony is that the same technology that opens up those other options also opens up opportunities for over-the-air stations to expand their reach, streaming via their web sites or a variety of mobile apps that put a potentially large audience in front of them. But stations don’t seem to get that they need to do more than just exist. Music fans won’t show up just because you’re there. A station must work at creating an inviting product, whether that’s to grab listeners who might discover it the traditional way, or others who might give them a shot through new technology. There’s a healthy audience out there, especially as in-car technology improves to allow those spending a lot of time in their vehicles the ability to access programming in a variety of ways.

Billie Eilish, former Alt 92.9 artist.

When compared to how other media are responding to the rapid evolution of entertainment technology, the approach of broadcast radio can’t help but feel reactive, if not downright regressive. Relying on the same bag of stale tricks isn’t going to turn back the clock. Stations no longer operate in a world where they don’t have to put in much effort to get a couple decent years of ratings with one format before jumping to something else when returns diminish. That doesn’t fly in the modern media landscape.

Look at the closest analogue to broadcast radio in the media world: broadcast television. At the network level, the industry has seen the growing convergence of production and distribution. The traditional “network” and “live” airing of content are now but one channel that television organizations reach audiences (one of steadily decreasing importance). Rather than treating broadcasting and content production as entirely separate businesses, more and more those activities are converging. The idea of a multi-platform approach resulting in content that generates income over a longer period thanks to access via a bundle of viewer options is becoming the norm.

Broadcast radio hasn’t seen that kind of innovation. For one, the traditional model for music channels isn’t based on exclusivity and has required most content to be produced by outside sources. That may be a difficult hurdle to overcome, but it’s not entirely out of reach. Many stations have amassed impressive libraries of unique in-studio recordings from visiting artists, for example.

Further, the evolution of consumer tech conglomerates like Apple and Amazon has reached a point where those companies have operations focused on both music sales and streaming/internet radio. Given that both have gotten into television production, it’s not difficult to see them producing their own music assets in a significant fashion. Amazon especially has embraced a strategy of remaking traditional distribution models in other parts of its business to be complementary with their online distribution strength (see: the rollout of brick-and-mortar bookstores or the acquisition of WholeFoods). It doesn’t take much imagination to envision those tech giants looking to acquire their own networks of broadcast radio stations integrated into their new media operations, or pushing the evolution of broadcast radio in other ways.

Time will tell if WBOS will succeed with its latest change in direction, or whether they’ll be looking for yet another new format in a year or two. Meanwhile, it’s bizarre that Boston, once ground zero for alternative radio, has not a single over-the-air, commercial alternative station.

Hopefully one of the various media groups that own the FM signals in the market will see the opportunity here. Boston needs a strong over-the-air alternative option. A channel committed to the format and focused on the present and future, not one fixated on the past. A station that integrates its broadcast and web operations. That commits to diversity in its artists and styles. That embraces the local community while opening up to other audiences however they find the station.

Broadcast radio needs to adapt if it doesn’t want to find itself extinct. Because other options are out there and are doing more to give music fans a meaningful experience. True innovation and an embrace of new media is crucial.

Repackaging something that’s already fallen behind the curve won’t cut it anymore.

Brian C. Poole

Written by

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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