Wednesday, July 15, 2009

WBCN rolling over ain't no big surprise

Yesterday's big story had sent shock waves throughout the radio and record community. WBCN, Boston's rock torchbearer for more than four decades, is going away. With most of the local newsprint, TV and even some of the rival stations making this is a big deal, let's stop and take a deep breath. Putting it all into its proper perspective, and legendary call letters notwithstanding, WBCN's best days as a rock station were long, long gone even despite the best intentions of its current staffers. The station which was once a ratings force back in the 80's and later cashing in in a major way with Howard Stern's impressive run from the mid-90's to mid-2000's, has now become CBS' lowest-rated station in the Boston market.

While the corporate suits will allow many number of ex-WBCN listeners to mourn the station's glory days over the course of next four weeks, something that's rarely done in the industry noted for its abrupt format flips and sudden programming changes, the sad explanation for WBCN's demise is pretty simple - modern and alternative rock music genre has been steadily narrowing for more than a decade. Musical tastes have changed drastically and, younger rock listeners have so many other choices via new digital technologies(Iphones, Ipods, MP3's,etc) and on-line delivery platforms that modern rock stations are not able to attract that elusive segment of the audience.

Even when WBCN dominated the local ratings and revenues with Stern, for all intents and purposes its music format was done. Here's an article by the Boston Herald's former radio critic Dean Johnson from early 2001 calling for the end of WBCN as a music station. Johnson who always had a great pulse on Boston radio beat already knew that WBCN's days as a music station had come and gone :

from the Boston Herald
February 1, 2001

Time is right to pull the plug on rock at The Rock
Boston Radio/by Dean Johnson

Writing today's column isn't easy for me. I was born and raised in Boston, and no radio station has had a greater influence on my life - and my passion for rock 'n' roll - than WBCN-FM (104).

So I'm not making this statement lightly: It's time for WBCN to pull the plug on its long history as Boston's legendary rock station and feature full-time talk.

WBCN has been local radio's neither-fish-nor-fowl station for too long. It's a talk station. It's the New England Patriots' flagship station. And it plays rock music.

And now it's time to finally yank those CD players out of the studio.

It's not as if WBCN hasn't been headed in the direction of an all-talk format for some time. Howard Stern's syndicated morning show is all talk, of course, and runs each day until he wants to go home, which messes with the timing of the midday music shift.

A few hours later, Nik Carter's afternoon drive-time block at the "Rock of Boston" is typically more talk than music. Carter has acknowledged music often just gets in the way of his show's flow.

On Saturday at 10 a.m., New York shock jocks Opie and Anthony will be in town for a live show from the WBCN studios. The appearance by the former WAAF duo is likely a stunt designed to launch a new weekly "Worst of Opie and Anthony" compilation show already airing on the pair's current station, WNEW-FM in New York City. And it's a way to formally mark their Bay State return.

Opie and Anthony have made big names for themselves since being booted from WAAF-FM after announcing during an April Fools' Day prank that Mayor Thomas M. Menino had died. They're radio's hottest property this side of Stern. They're even going to be part of the new XFL's pregame show on NBC.

And Opie and Anthony's soon-to-be-syndicated radio show is being produced by Infinity Broadcasting, which owns WBCN.

WBCN should move Carter to evenings and replace him with Opie and Anthony. Or the station could start out airing the duo on tape, as it first did with Stern. It doesn't matter. Just bring them in. Let Carter do all the talking he wants, put talk in middays and be done with it.

There already is a model for just such a transformation. New York's WNEW was an FM rocker every bit as legendary as WBCN, although it didn't update its sound as effectively as WBCN has. WBCN has become a rock-talk station with football on weekends and music in the odd shifts.

Last year, WBCN made more money than any other music station in the city. But consider the recent ratings: Rocko and Birdsey at WAAF have beaten Carter in important ratings demographics for a full year.

And yes, WBCN won the 18-34 ratings this fall with a 13.9 share of the listening audience. But one year earlier, it won with a 16.4 share. That's a Big Dip.

Take Stern's dominant morning ratings out of that mix and WBCN's hold on the market appears to be shaky.

Although it was once the reason for WBCN's existence, music now appears to be an afterthought. Pulling the switch should be the next step in the station's evolution.

Rather than serving multiple masters, let Carter do what he does best: blab. Bring back Opie and Anthony. (Someone get Menino a glass of cold water, quick!) Leave Howard alone. And if program director Oedipus still wants to play his favorite records, he can do it on the weekends when ratings don't matter.

WBCN will make so much money, it will have to give it away on the streets - and Oedipus, you don't have to give me a penny as your consultant.

There are only a handful of modern rock stations doing well around the country in the ratings and revenue and the struggling ones like WBCN are disappearing fast. Locally, while WAAF and WFNX are looking to lure some of WBCN's audience, there are also faced with the same issues of the shrinking young rock audience. The problem is not going away.

One station that has done a good job of steering away from all the issues of today's rock music is WBOS-FM. In the early 2008, WBOS blew up its long-running AAA format and fired the entire on-air staff as it flipped to a retro/gold pop-rock oldies from the 80's and 90's. WBOS' format has so far been a success on the ratings front. The station is now chasing the somewhat older, more mature and settled-down set of 30-40 year olds who like most in that age group probably grew up listening to WBCN, WFNX or WAAF in their younger days.

Back to WBCN, while the name may not be completely dead. CBS Radio still owns the brand with its streaming site( and the call letters which obviously the company will place on one of its other stations around the country. There will also be a digital HD2 subchannel called "WBCN" under 98.5FM frequency which is becoming an all-sports "98.5 The Sports Hub" on August 13. There's always that remote chance the WBCN call letters will return to Boston radio dial.


Anonymous said...

The Dean Johnson article was somewhat propethic, because by August 2001 O&A were on 3-7pm, though Nik Carter was moved to middays not nights.

WBCN has been dying,if not dead,for a decade. Playing the same Sublime,Green Day,RHCP,[earl Jam, ad's ANYTHING but Alternative or new. A corporate jukebox that thinks occasionally playing "The Magnificent Seven" makes them edgy. And the decline began when that phony Oedipus was there. That fraud acts like he left the station in great shape...their ratings were sinking in '04 when he left, and the scapegoating of Roth is weak. Yeah, Roth sucked, but WBCN's problems began long before him, and Stern/Patriots were able to disguise it.

Anonymous said...

I remember talking to a programming exec in New York in April 03 or 04 who was certain that WBCN was going to switch to "Hot Talk."

This article gives insight into just how long drastic changes were being considered for the station.