COVER- HD radio: High definition or hype?

INTRO- Radio daze: Stations battle for the bandwidth

With all the hullabaloo about the expansion of local television options this past year, it's been easy to forget that local radio is also crackling with life.

From new liberal talk radio station WVAX to WNRN's invasion of airspace across the state to the crystal-clear sound of HD radio, there's no shortage of new ways to feast your ears.

So get out the Q-tips and pump up the volume!

Radiohead Mike Friend.


Friend's march: Richmond's burning... for WNRN music

Hometown radio station WNRN has been a big hit in Charlottesville since it first aired in 1996. Now the station has a chance to be a hit with listeners across the state. On the air in Staunton and Waynesboro since 2000, WNRN recently won clearance from the FCC to activate translators in Lexington, Lovingston, Harrisonburg, and Richmond

"We've doubled our potential listener base," says station founder and general manager Mike Friend.

WNRN, he says, was able to pounce on a rare FCC filing window in 2003 and secure approval for the additions, which will significantly increase the station's broadcast range. Approval will also expand the geographic reach potentially jeopardized by the station's ongoing territorial bickering with DC-area religious station WGTS, which broadcasts on the same frequency band and causes intermittent interference.

That dispute remains to be resolved by the FCC, just as it did when it was highlighted in the Hook's April 21, 2005 cover story.

"Preliminary FCC findings were in favor of WGTS," Friend sighs, "so we're gearing up for a longer appeals process against both WGTS and the FCC."

But though the appeals process may take a while, Friend says there's reason for hope.

"Apparently the FCC is the least successful of any federal agency in court," he says.

In the meantime, WNRN staffers are enjoying the momentary reprieve from the station's legal woes as well as the benefits of a larger market.

"I'm absolutely thrilled," says Patrick Allen, host of WNRN's Sunday night "Subculture Shock" program. "Of course, the idea is being able to reach more people, but it's great for venues in Charlottesville to get advertising over in Richmond."

"Advertising" may not be the best word. Since WNRN is a public radio station and operates without traditional commercial ads, it remains to be seen how much the increased coverage area will mean during the next fundraising drive.

"It's going to do more for us a few years down the road than it does for us this time," says Friend. The station has an annual operating budget of about $300,000, and installation of the four new translators cost between $8,000 and $10,000 apiece, Friend says.

Dennis Mockler, who took over as manager of the Charlottesville Radio Group– a new incarnation of Eure Communications– after Brad Eure's departure at the end of 2004, doesn't equate sponsorships with advertising.

"We have to serve both the listeners and the advertisers," he says of his company's commercial radio holdings. "WNRN can run whatever they want and not worry about whether anyone wants to support it financially. It's not the market that directly determines whether they succeed."

To hear Friend tell it, that's the whole point: free from corporate ties, WNRN DJs are typically unfettered by restrictions like those placed on DJs at media giant Clear Channel, who are required to play from a predetermined setlist.

"There are two rock stations in Richmond that play some of what we play, but they're very, very limited playlists," he says. "It's a very, very low number of songs that they play on a very, very heavy rotation, approaching 25 to 80 spins per week."

Travis Dyer– DJ Illustrious on WNRN's popular nightly hip-hop program, "The Boombox"– enjoys his position for precisely that reason. "We can play anything off an album we want," he says. "My department is urban music, and we can play a lot of music that's not being played in Richmond. The edge that we have is that we don't have a board or a chart we have to follow."

That could be a major selling point for a genre otherwise known for wearing out its pop hits rather quickly with overexposure in mainstream media outlets.

But whether Richmond is even interested remains to be seen. Amy Goodall, general manager of WDCE at the University of Richmond, isn't sure– between the college station and the two NPR affiliates already broadcasting in that area, she says, even WNRN has an uphill battle against like-minded free-spirited DJs.

"I feel like WDCE and WRIR are kind of it for independent radio," she says. "There's a bit of a rivalry between us and WRIR because we're fighting for independent-minded people."

So are there even any remnants of that demographic left for WNRN? Maybe it doesn't matter. "Having another independent radio station would be a good thing for the community," says Goodall.

WNRN founder Mike Friend is leading his station's charge to Richmond.


COVER- HD radio: High definition or hype?

You don't have to subscribe to XM to get digital radio. Public radio station WVTF has added high-definition public radio to its bragging rights, and general manager Glenn Gleixner calls the technology "cutting edge."

It's available now– if you have the just-reduced $299 Boston Acoustic receiver. Gleixner isn't worried about the price. "Early technology is always a little more expensive, more cumbersome," he says. Look at computers and VCRs.

As for the benefits, Gleixner points to multicasting– broadcasting two stations on one signal– in WVTF's case, 89.3 and RadioIQ 88.5.

"We're the only one doing multicasting in the state," he says.

In mountainous areas, reception can be a problem. "In HD radio, you don't get that static-y sound," pledges Gleixner.

Charlottesville accountant Robert Tobey, who's been test-listening to HD radio for WVTF, agrees.

"It's pretty cool," he says. "The reception is a heck of a lot better. It's crisper."

Before HD, he couldn't get the RadioIQ signal well. Now, he listens to both RadioIQ– BBC news and NPR talk– along with WVTF. "You double your coverage," he says.

Tobey may be one of the few people in Charlottesville listening to HD radio– and as much as he likes it, he's not likely to run out and buy one, unless it's an option on a car. "How many people buy radios?" he asks.

WNRN general manager Mike Friend scoffs at the notion that HD radio– a technology developed by iBiquity Digital– is the next big thing.

"The broadcast industry would like to make you think it is," he says. "Fifteen or 20 years ago, AM stereo– you'd have thought that would be the next big thing."

Nor is he swayed by claims that HD offers CD-quality sound. "HD doesn't sound as good as FM," Friend says. "It sounds like low-bit data-reduced audio, which is what it is."

As for HD's improved coverage area, again Friend disagrees. "It's nowhere near as capable as an analog signal," he says

Friend does give HD radio one kudo: "HD operating on AM does sound substantially better," he concedes.

Charlottesville's other NPR station, WMRA in Harrisonburg, expects to go to HD radio eventually, mainly because it's being pushed by a consortium of commercial radio owners, according to Tom DuVal, WMRA general manager. "All radio is going to go there," he predicts.

He's concerned about cost, both the currently pricey $300 receivers (more for cars) and the nearly $500K it'll cost for a new transmitters– a heavy hit for publicly supported radio– even with a $214,000 grant the station already has.

Those who enjoy listening to their low-tech clock radios don't have to worry about having to buy an expensive new one– yet. Stations will be broadcasting in analog for a long time to come, says DuVal.

As for replacing those clock radios, "The day will come when you can pick up an HD radio for under 50 bucks," says DuVal.

Boston Acoustic's HD radio just dropped its price from just under $500 to $299.


NPR wars: WVTF back on top

A year ago, WMRA in Harrisonburg was practically giddy with Arbitron ratings that showed it grabbing– for the first time ever– the largest share of the NPR-listening Charlottesville market away from longtime public radio rival WVTF in Roanoke.

But current ratings show WVTF firmly back on top, and WMRA general manager Tom DuVal concedes the heady ratings of a year ago were pretty much a fluke: "VTF is ahead of us," he acknowledges.

The average spring/fall 2005 Arbitron ratings put WVTF– including its RadioIQ stations– at a 10.2 share. WMRA logged a 4.2 average quarter-hour share among listeners 12 and older. "That's a little bit bigger spread than we've had," says DuVal.

Even when WMRA snagged a 7.7 share last year, WVTF had a higher cume– the total number of people listening in the Charlottesville area – than WMRA: 25,300 to WMRA's 22,000.

The current numbers come from a two-book average. "If I averaged four books, we'll be closer," says DuVal.

Glenn Gleixner, general manager at WVTF, is careful not to gloat; he compliments the other public radio station, which airs much of the same NPR programming, for its excellent job in serving its market.

DuVal hopes to boost WMRA's share with a new program called Insight, a call-in show for a "civil discussion" of community and statewide issues that airs Fridays at 3pm. (More local talk seems to be the trend– WINA is doing the same with its launch of Coy Barefoot's Right Now– and no screaming allowed.)

"I know that's not going to turn the tables for us," says DuVal, "but..."

Glenn Gleixner, WVTF general manager, is king of the NPR hill in the Charlottesville market.


Franken shrine: Lefty radio erupts in Charlottesville

If more than 70 percent of Charlottesville residents voted for Democrat John Kerry in the last presidential election, why are local talk-radio waves dominated by the likes of right-wing pundits Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity?

That's a conundrum Dennis Mockler of the Charlottesville Radio Group hopes to address with the upcoming launch of new station WVAX AM 1450 Progressive Talk Radio.

"There was an obvious gap in radio in the Charlottesville market for the liberal point of view," says Mockler. "WVAX fills that gap."

WVAX will broadcast nationally syndicated programming from hosts such as Saturday Night Live alum and author Al Franken (his show, The O'Franken Factor, mocks his FoxNews nemesis Bill O'Reilly), Virginia native Ed Schultz (formerly syndicated on WINA), and Stephanie Miller (a favorite on college campuses).

CNN Radio Network will feed daily national and international news, and Charlottesville Radio Group's four full-time news staffers– the WINA newsroom– will provide local news coverage at the bottom of every hour.

Lefties are smiling at the news.

"So often talk radio is one big right-wing clubhouse, so it's nice that the station is adding a counterbalance," says Lee Fielding, Charlottesville's very own "lovable liberal," who hosted a show on WINA from 1995-1997 in the time slot immediately following Rush Limbaugh.

But even Fielding expresses concern that if the station is too one-sided, it may end up "preaching to the choir."

"If you have a big mix of voices on the station," he says, "conservatives might tune in to a liberal person one day."

Not long ago, the notion of successful liberal radio talk shows seemed far-fetched. In 1987, after Congress repealed the FCC's Fairness Doctrine (that required equal air time for opposing viewpoints), brash conservatives like Limbaugh took over the airwaves, raging about the "liberal media bias."

More recently, however, Limbaugh's ratings have dipped, according to a recent issue of Inside Radio magazine. Some say that's because Republicans currently rule both the White House and the Congress.

"Rush Limbaugh needs a bad guy," says blogger Waldo Jaquith. During the Bill Clinton years, Limbaugh's wrath and open attacks on the administration attracted millions of conservative listeners disgusted with the political state of affairs. That changed with the 2000 election.

Limbaugh has no target now, Jaquith explains, because "George Bush is the current bad guy by default."

The person who's stepped into Limbaugh's role? Jaquith believes it's Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show.

Though Stewart has thus far stuck to television, Jaquith says he'd love to see him do a radio show.

"He's funny and insightful," he says. "Conservatives can watch the show and learn something."

For now, Mockler says, the goal is to get WVAX up and running– something he believes could happen within the next few weeks, as soon as the FCC approves the station's license and some interference issues are resolved. (The station attempted to launch in January, but signals from wireless phones got in the way.)

"Our initial objective is to get the radio station on the air and to have the slots filled," says Mockler. "We intend to build this and see how it grows. It's difficult to grow something if the support is not there."

One way to build support, says Fielding, who just finished a stint hosting a show on a northern New Jersey station, is to save some time slots for local shows.

"I think the best type of situation would be to add one local voice to the mix," says Fielding. "People in Charlottesville or Albemarle County could call the show and feel like they were talking to local people."

Unlike other Charlottesville Radio Group-owned stations such as 3WV 97.5 and Lite Rock 95.1, Progressive Talk Radio will brave the airwaves without much active promotion.

And while various local liberal organizations may buy ads, Mockler doesn't expect WVAX to break the talk radio mold by sponsoring a slew of politically driven activities in the community. He does make one exception.

"You can bet if Al Franken came to the area," he says, "we'd be involved."

Turn on, tune in


WWWV-FM 97.5 ("3WV")–The go-to for classic rock. With everything from the Stones to Van Halen to U2, 3WV offers up local news flashes and a trademark "Whatever weekend"– DJs' choice.

WCYK-FM 99.7 ("New Country")– For the hottest country music, all y'all can tune in for Reba, Tim, Kenny, and Gretchen. With contests and events galore, New Country grabs listeners by their ears. 'Ya hear?

WINA-AM 1070– A steady diet of sports and local news, WINA gets the word out about most local events. Token liberal Ed Schultz joins the likes of Bill O'Reilly on the talk schedule.

WQMZ-FM 95.1 ("Z-95")– Light rock for the whole family with Elton John, Celine Dion, and Faith Hill. For a soundtrack to your Saturday and Sunday nights, John Tesh offers listeners' music, marriage counseling, and "intelligence for your life."

WUVA-FM 92.7 ("Kiss")– You'll want to plant a big one on Kiss when you hear the newest hip-hop and R&B. The love keeps coming: Kiss is "Charlottesville's Ten in a Row Station."

WHTE-FM 101.9 ("Hot 101.9")– The "today's hit music" component of Clear Channel's local radio family. Boasts hosts such as Carson Daly and Rick Dees.

WFFX-FM 102.3, 94.1 ("Superhits")– What "today's hit music" would sound like 40 years ago. Hits from the '60s and '70s.

MIX 107.5 ("everything")– Self-proclaimed "best mix of everything," but don't hold your breath for any ukulele solos. To be fair, it does spin some country, oldies, and greatest hits.

WKAV-AM 1400 ("The Ticket")– Sports of every flavor: Olympic, local, and otherwise

WCHV-AM 1260– News, talk, and information

WVAX AM 1450– Charlottesville radio's response to Sean Hannity. The new WVAX offers progressive talk with such names as Al Franken and Ed Schultz. [See story this issue]


WNRN-FM 91.9– Fan-supported and commercial-free, 'NRN caters to music-savvy Charlottesvillians of the indie rock stripe. Regular air play showcases Acoustic Sunrise in the AM, modern rock all day, and the phat beats of the Boom Box at night.

WTJU-FM 91.1– There's only one word to describe UVA's "educational" station: eclectic. It's DJ's choice around the clock. The result? Reggae Friday afternoons, random smatterings of jazz and perhaps the only offering of "sludge metal pop" in the area.

WMRA-FM 103.5– NPR from Harrisonburg. No sludge metal here, but with everything from classical music to Car Talk, what's not to love?

WVTF-FM 89.3– NPR from Roanoke.

Radio IQ 89.7 & 91.5– BBC news and NPR talk


Charlottesville lost its last homegrown commercial radio empire in the fall of '04 when Eure Communications sold its three radio stations– 3WV, Z-95, and WINA– to Michigan-based Saga Communications.

National behemoth Clear Channel Communications owns the other six stations, and WUVA Kiss is independently owned. Listeners, of course, just want their tunes.

Glenn Gleixner, WVTF general manager, is king of the NPR hill in the Charlottesville market.