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Alt Clear Channel

Much as I loooove to hate them, I have to admit that I could be detecting a tiny glimmer of mercy in the steely eyes of Clear Channel Radio. Could they finally be thinking of, gulp, music fans? Are they wising up in the face of stupendous competition from satellite radio and the Internet and devising an alt-slash-southern-slash-outlaw country format that might, just might, be worth listening to? I know, it's crazy, right?

Commercial radio, which so many real music lovers rightly tossed into the same relevancy trashcan as MTV years ago, has a long way to go in my estimation before I can ever again give myself over to the god-awful playlists and Republican-enabled corporate gigantism it represents nowadays. And Clear Channel, of course, is the worst of the offenders. Valued at $20 billion by the private equity firm now trying to buy it, Clear Channel has done more to wring the creativity out of commercial radio than anyone else, mainly by buying up hundreds of stations and imposing identical, by-the-numbers musical crapfests 24/7.

But now, in a small, small way, Clear Channel seems to be getting some kind of message that the actual music counts just a bit, it least when it comes to roots rock. Down in Dallas, it has introduced a new format it calls Lone Star 92.5, and I've taken a listen on its Web simulcast, which can be found here. Now, I'm not going to lie and say it's a complete commercial format breakthrough - it still has a lot of George Thorogood chestnuts and the Eagles mixed in to make the dope-smokin' Classic Rock fans comfy.

But there's also quite a bit of semi-obscure outlaw country, albeit from the usual suspects like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. For instance, with Willie, instead of just the "Georgia On My Mind" and "On the Road Again" that you'd hear on many a format, Lone Star also will play "Bloody Mary Morning" and "Ten With a Two." Willie seems to be pretty heavily involved with the station, cutting several promos that are prominently played. Of course, because it is commercial radio, and perhaps because 92.5 (KZPS-FM) was a long-time dinosaur classic rock station, you have to wade though a lot of what I'd call "classic southern rock" - Lynyrd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, Creedence. But at least they seem to play a fair amount of deeper tracks from these guys. For instance, from Skynyrd I heard "Whiskey Rock-a-Roller," not one of the top five tracks that gets played to death. The John Mellencamp they play will more likely be "Lonely Ol' Night" instead of "Small Town." It's subtle, but the emphasis here is just off the mainest of the mainstream. It's a slight nod to taste.

But what makes this format actually promising is that it plays quite a few bands that I would certainly classify as nothing but alt-country. The Old 97s are on a heavy rotation, along with groups such as the Drams, Whiskeytown, the Jayhawks, Drive-By Truckers, Uncle Tupelo, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Billy Joe Shaver. I've got to say that's pretty impressive for Clear Channel.

Clear Channel is also trying something else a bit different with this station. It's going with an advertising format in which only one sponsor per product is taken on - for instance, only one beer sponsor, one car sponsor, etc. - and will not have traditional, annoying and way too numerous "spots." The DJs will work the ads in throughout the hour by reading them live - like old times. It's the stated goal of Clear Channel Radio CEO John Hogan that he's out to rid his stations of "spots" - and that's half of my problem with commercial radio out the door right there.

redbeard.jpgThe driving creative force behind this roots rock experiment is a guy named Redbeard. A longtime Dallas disc jockey also known as Duane Doherty, he was well-known for his idealistic love of early 70s free-form FM radio and for many a year dealt reluctantly with the awful commodification of the music airwaves, finally giving up on it when the Dallas classic rock station he was working at dropped the format in 1998. Redbeard then migrated to XM Satellite Radio, where he was one of the founding programmers of XM's Deep Tracks channel - a true rock lover's feast of tasty obscurities. Now he's been lured back to terrestrial radio, something he thought he would never do again, mainly because he was impressed by Clear Channel's willingness to take a chance on a one-of-a-kind format that he says could become a model for a change at the evil empire.

Redbeard tells the Texas Observer:

"Everything before this was the same ol' radio. Nothing about it was significant. The last thing that was bold and revolutionary was when we started XM. That was bold. But when . . . J.D. Freeman [Dallas market manager for Clear Channel] contacted me, they wanted to do a unique Texas format that's never been done before anywhere in the country. And not only was the musical format unique, but so was the presentation and the way that this commercial radio station wanted to monetize itself. It had never, ever been done by a commercial station in history, and when they laid that out, I said, 'Guys, this is not only unique to terrestrial broadcasting, you're not only gonna make news in the world of broadcasting, you'll make news in The Wall Street Journal. This is bold and innovative. Where do I sign?'"

He also told the Observer that Clear Channel is going to give the format a chance:

"John Hogan loves the music and the sponsorship model, and he's given us a hall pass. He realizes it will take time, as far as ratings and revenue, and he's so committed he has not given us a deadline."

Lone Star does sound a bit like XM does now, or like FM radio sounded in 1971, before the greedheads got it. It's also significant to note the Lone Star format was first introduced on an HD Digital Radio side-channel in Dallas. Hogan has said he's going to use the new HD channels to develop niche formats such as alt-country, specifically as an answer to the challenge posed by satellite radio. This seems to be the only example of a Clear Channel HD-format being flipped onto a full-time FM signal. The company has devised 80 HD formats already, with 50 more planned, for everything from a workout music channel to a gay pride station. Clear Channel calls it, rather frighteningly, the Format Lab.

It would be the ultimate irony that a corporate behemoth like Clear Channel was forced to reintroduce exactly the kind of radio sound it destroyed because a people's revolt against its values forced it to reconsider. It also shows what a smart, ethical corporation could and should do: Instead of trying to destroy competition that listeners desperately want (for instance, by trying to drive Internet webcasters out of business), they actually compete by trying to be better and giving consumers what they're clamoring for.

You know, old-fashioned American entreprenuerial integrity. It still works if you give it chance. We'll see if Clear Channel really does give this a chance as it struggles to find ways to rehabilitate its image and win back people like me who are disgusted by what corporate gigantism has done to radio.

*

Contact Don Jacobson at don@beachwoodreporter.com.



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Posted on May 1, 2007


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