August 30, 2011
Few programmers are more closely identified to a radio station than Norm Winer and WXRT/Chicago. Although he spent time at major stations such as WBCN/Boston and KSAN/San Francisco, it's what he has accomplished at 'XRT -- turning what was originally an overnights-only broadcast on essentially a toothpick stick into one of the most renowned and unique music stations in America -- that stands out the most. Now that WXRT has been somewhat "adopted" to serve as a standard-bearer of the Triple A format, Winer details how he and WXRT got "here" - and where he expects to go.
Did you have any idea what WXRT would become when you came here from San Francisco?
Thirty-two years ago this week, I came to WXRT from KSAN in San Francisco, the West coast home of progressive/underground radio, founded by the legendary Tom Donohue, who had passed away two years prior to my arrival. I knew going into the job interview that WXRT was one of the best - and one of the last - "progressive FM" stations in America, but I was so excited about the opportunity that I honestly forgot to ask a very fundamental question about the signal. I didn't realize the transmitter was a little stick on a one-story building on the northwest side. It was a horrendous signal that we had to overcome for my first two years there.
By 1979, the outposts of progressive radio had diminished. When I started at WBCN at the turn of that decade, practically every major city in America - L.A., Detroit, Cleveland, etc. - had progressive radio, but by the mid-'70s, most of them had been eliminated. So I was in San Francisco, doing mornings and working on a number of video and TV projects --- this was before MTV - and I came to Chicago perhaps overly optimistic or extremely naïve. I felt that, given the history of WXRT, we were potentially the last stronghold of progressive radio ... right here in the nation's heartland ... and I felt it was up to us to fight to save free-form radio.
It wouldn't have been possible to even consider that scenario if it hadn't been for the belief of owner Dan Lee and the original founders of 'XRT -- Seth Mason, John Platt and Don Bridges, who convinced Dan to take the risk in 1972, initially experimenting in overnights. John had been PD for seven years when I succeeded him. I realized I had some tough shoes to fill, so I took it from there.
Was WXRT already recognized as a force in Chicago radio?
Not really. What also happened in the summer of 1979 was the "Disco Demolition" at Comiskey Park. We were going up against Steve Dahl and the Loop, which had the image and a huge footprint in terms of being a major source of competition. The station, at that time, was even daring musically; they played a bunch of significant artists before 'XRT. On top of that was another Rock/AOR station, WMET ... we were battling them with a little signal and a sense of ideals, which left us a distant third.
So what did you do to turn 'XRT into a legitimate player in Chicago?
We dramatically changed what 'XRT was about. With the exception of Terri Hemmert and Bobby Skafish, the air staff was totally transformed. We brought in people to represent a tone and attitude that was more irreverent. It's not that we imposed a sense of humor on our DJs, but we wanted them to come off as normal, down-to-earth people, not elitist snobs.
The fact is, in the early days the station was too sanctimonious. Even our original slogan, "Chicago's Fine Rock Station," was a variation of what WFMT, the Classical station, used. We modified that to "Chicago's Finest Rock," and introduced the diamond logo. The air talent we hired was comprised of former MDs and PDs, who had the experience and instincts to program their own shows, because at the time we still believed in the principles of free-form radio.
By 1981, our music had evolved from singer/songwriters and art rock, to more British punk and new wave music. We were playing bands that weren't all survivors of Woodstock. Instead of the Moody Blues and Dave Mason, we were playing The Clash and The Jam.
It was a rather abrupt change and our ratings plummeted in '81, so in the spring we took a new approach. Rather than continuing to pursue 18-34s, which most Rock stations went after, we decided to target 25-34s, which was considered extremely daring and adventurous at the time. As our musical approach reflected the maturation of our audience, the results were immediate and dramatic. We found success by attracting a new audience on top of those we already had. Granted, some of our success had to do with deteriorating competition. The Loop couldn't maintain their success as they got more conservative musically and their DJs increasingly took themselves too seriously.
Once WXRT became relevant, what enabled you to stay that way as the music trends changed over the years?
We always wanted to give people a sense of historical continuity regarding the music and the culture. We were never willing to sacrifice any sizeable segment of our audience - even when we had to sacrifice chunks of our library to emerging formats over the years. There was no Classic Rock in the early '80s, but when that popped up in '85-'86, we lost a wall of our library. The same thing happened when John Gehron signed on Smooth Jazz WNUA; they also took a chunk of our library. When the Alternative format started in Chicago in the '90s, Q101 first came after us by playing the more established, least risky artists on our playlist, but they eventually morphed into a more distinct format that played more pure Alternative product, with a capitol "A."
The key to staying relevant was that while we occasionally lost chunks of our library, we never totally abandoned our past. WXRT simply incorporated new music into what we were known for. We continued to play the blues and reggae. We didn't totally dump the Stones just because we were playing Talking Heads or U2. At the same time, we were showcasing artists who weren't heard anywhere else, as when we put on an REM budget show for $3 or the $3 Tom Petty/Elvis Costello double-bill at the Riviera Theatre in 1977.
We were the first to play those bands in Chicago. It's all about discovering music, which remains our mission to this day. We are constantly seeking relevant artists who are consistent with our audience's tastes, and presenting them in a unique context - that's part of our artist-centric approach. It's not a priority to play one-hit artists; we are looking for those likely to be around for most of a generation. Our audience still buys full albums, whether they're downloaded or bought at a brick-and mortar store.
So what went though your mind when the Triple A format popped up - and WXRT was considered to be one of the leading lights of the format?
In hindsight, I find it ironic. While WXRT shares more in terms of theory, ethics and passion for music with the people who are part of the AAA movement, I don't consider us to be a pure Triple-A station. The industry does; that's the panel they usually put us on and those are the radio conferences we attend. But I still don't know exactly what Triple A is. I DO know what WXRT is -- and that's a part of Chicago. We play music that's relevant to this market.
It is sad in certain respects that now that Q101 has gone off the air, no other radio station in Chicago other than 'XRT is playing current rock music. However, that certainly reinforces our position of the past several years of being the official station of Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork festivals every summer; it also vastly simplified the politics locally for us to proclaim ourselves the Red Hot Chili Peppers station one week, The Smashing Pumpkins station the next, and the Coldplay station a few weeks down the line.
Of course, there are stations that play some of the same artists as WXRT. The Drive does exceeding well, and The Loop has improved their consistency lately, but we don't truly compete with either of them because they don't play any new music. They're appealing to a totally different psychographic of music consumer. That's why when we play Mumford & Sons and Arcade Fire, those bands are the reason our audience is listening. And while we play current artists, we don't reject our heritage. We find creative ways to program them side-by-side.
Is WXRT's cume bump solely due to the change from the diary to PPM, or did you make changes to the programming that optimized PPM measurement?
That reminds me of something Bono said a few years ago ... that rock has become a niche format. I would have to say that WXRT is an even more specialized niche. We have a very loyal audience that happens to comprise a million-plus cume, according to PPM, which is twice the audience we had during the diary era.
But even with those numbers, we can't compete with the mass appeal of a B96 or The Mix. We can compete with The Loop, especially because qualitatively we're going after a totally different audience. Most of the people who listen to us also listen to NewsRadio and NPR, as opposed to The Loop or any other Chicago music outlet.
But even with our cume increase, I don't think that current PPM data necessarily reflects the strength of WXRT's core audience. Whether or not hardcore 'XRT listeners have chosen to participate in the survey, the appeal of our qualitative is undeniable. Our clients know we're offering them a consistent and impressive number of well-educated and affluent partisans who they value as consumers. According to PPM, the market has never been more competitive. There are usually about 10 stations within a point of each other, ranked from about #5 to #15 in our target demo (A25-54) in any given week.
So it all comes down to placement....
Placement is everything. Arbitron just announced a number of steps they're going to take to ensure they sample a broader cross-section of the area's population. They vow to look into different neighborhoods, be more address-based and do some face-to-face recruiting, As it is, we're doing moderately well with the current participants, but we should do a lot better.
When you were VP/Adult Rock, was one of your missions duplicating WXRT's Adult Rock success in Chicago to other stations across the country?
That's a $400 million question. There's a cliche about this form of radio and it's my one-liner, wise-guy comment. Whenever someone asks me how we program 'XRT, I say, "Painstakingly." We really do spend a lot of time handcrafting it. A high percentage of our songs are chosen in real time by our personalities, the vast majority of whom are former PDs and who fully understand our programming philosophies and rules as well as the music scheduling system. We use MusicMaster to eliminate or at least minimize "detectable repetition." We use a lot of coding to help them avoid unwelcome juxtapositions of songs and music styles/eras. We have a lot more elements to juggle so we can't really screw up.
To make this work elsewhere, you need the right staff, the right listenership and the right frame of mind. You need people who are adventurous, daring and intelligent -- yet who also know how to support the advertisers that are attracted to the station, and you need to attract discriminating listeners who have disposable income and have a real love for music.
All that's not an easy thing to do. When I helped launch Dave FM in Atlanta, we had a ton of money to spend on marketing right off the bat -- more money than I ever had to spend cumulatively at 'XRT or any other station. But the timing wasn't right and the product wasn't ready, so people got the wrong impression of a station that was still a work in progress.
A lot of people have the feeling that in order to have a successful station like WXRT, you need to give yourself several years of evolution on the air before you catch on. You need to make a significant commitment to the market externally. If you do all those things, it can pay off. Look at the success KBCO is having in Denver; it's a monumental station that illustrates what can be done if you do it right.
But it's hard for people to have any patience today, especially with PPM. Since its inception, people were jumping to the wrong conclusions and held misunderstandings such as you can't play new music and DJ's can't talk between the records, both of which are not totally true. Yet a lot of people overreacted, which created an unhealthy, overly conservative mentality at radio. What's needed right now are more courageous thinkers. I know they're out there ... programmers who know when to take their noses out of their research and instill some excitement into radio.
The reason I got into radio was that it was exciting and daring. I wanted to be an outlaw, a renegade on the air. Change peoples' lives. But now broadcasters and programmers are so timid that they just want to maintain their standard of living. Great media shouldn't lower their goals; when that happens, you'll be rejected for something more compelling. Our ideal is that every time we turn on the mic or play a song, it should make a difference. Our goal is to be conspicuous, not be taken for granted.
Looking ahead, what goals and challenges do you set for yourself and 'XRT to continue to be "conspicuous?"
I'm most excited about what we are able to accomplish though great collaborations. All the talented people here make us a totally unique environment. Add our perennial award-winning MD/OM John Farneda and our hard-working marketing department ... then you include our CBS IMG digital efforts with platforms that offer so much room for growth.
One of the great ways for us to gain a new audience - as well as retain the audience we have -- is through streaming and our HD channels. Plus, our website offers our DJs a chance to relate to their listeners in a more extensive way than they do on-air, by offering various assets including personal opinions in a longer form, be it music-based or otherwise, and then let the listeners have at them. It's a whole another way to interact with our audience.
CBS is so forward-thinking in terms of digital technology that it keeps me excited; it's like there's a new platform, a new canvas, every day for all of us. Honestly, I'm really stimulated and inspired by the people here and by the company I work for.
The nature of 'XRT is that people love us for the music first and for the passion and the honesty of our personalities second. Our listeners have a BS detector; they know when they're being condescended to. Which is why we emphasize being genuine and straightforward with our audience; we treat them with respect and if anything, we assume our listeners are smarter than we are.
Not to be a suck-up, I swear, but last but not least, I'm proud to have a boss at CBS like Dan Mason, who loves to say, "I've never worked a day in my life in sales."
Now that's a programmer!