COVER- Savage's beast: How 'The Corner' took a bite of local radio
Although it launched less than a year ago and hired its DJs only 10 months ago, a new Charlottesville radio station has already become nothing short of an airwaves-eating behemoth. Spinning current college rock hits and favorites of the recent past, stitched together by the mantra "different is good," the station– calling itself The Corner– has blasted from startup to #4 in the coveted 25-54 demographic.
WCNR 106.1-FM has grabbed the attention of the national radio industry, too, with a "Station of the Year" nomination from trade publication Radio and Records. And naturally, with such a rapid rise, questions abound about this new beast on the block.
Why has it become a hit across generations? Does it operate on a formula, or does listener feedback really drive the playlists? Didn't Charlottesville already have a station like this one? Just how local is this "Live and Local" station? Is The Corner solely a Saga Communications project, or is there another big local player involved? As with the Mary Shelley tale, the story of this new Frankenstein's monster of local radio begins with its master, a quirky young programming director.
At first glance, Brad Savage may not fit the image of monster builder. The 30-year-old Minneapolis native sports a blonde bowl-cut, a toothy grin, and a wardrobe that includes at least one bowling shirt with his first name on it. During just a few minutes of his 10am-3pm weekday shift as disc-jockey, his boundless enthusiasm for music is readily apparent.
He doesn't just know that Canadian indie duo Tegan and Sara are twin sisters; he knows they put their first three albums out on Neil Young's Vapor Records label. He doesn't just know the name of the lead singer for '90s alternative rockers Sponge (Vinnie Dombroski); he knows his hair color (green).
"My style is dorky, and that's the point," says Savage. "It shows respect for the artistry behind the music. That's the mission, really."
That respect for artistry is just what Detroit-based media conglomerate Saga Communications wanted from Savage when the company hired him to be the new programming director of its brand new Charlottesville station. Previously, the Minneapolis native had been a DJ at WQKL in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a station operating under a format radio industry insiders call AAA. It's not an auto club or a baseball league– it stands for adult album alternative.
"The idea," Savage explains, "is that among people who grew up in the '80s and '90s, there's a general consensus about artists like U2, R.E.M., Dave Matthews Band, and Nirvana; then you try to expand on that."
In the case of The Corner, Savage says Saga's market research showed an unfulfilled niche that skewed younger than the classic rock of sister station 97.5, WWWV-FM, but older than the Top 40 of Clear Channel's Hot 101.9-FM.
"The largest amount of feedback was for '80s and '90s alternative from bands ranging from Echo and the Bunnymen, to New Order, to Presidents of the United States of America," says Savage. "If you were in your 20s in 1985 or 1995 and remember these songs, you're in your 30s and 40s now, and those people told us this was what they weren't hearing on the radio."
But Savage, an admitted "indie rock geek," had a feeling his audience could not survive solely on a steady diet of 10-to-20-year-old gems.
"Technology like iTunes and MySpace has changed the music industry," he says. "Twenty years ago, there were probably 5o or 60 bands you could be safe playing on the radio. Now the Internet has made it possible for there to be 400 to 500 of those bands that people have heard, and that number is growing."
And as the number grows, Savage has had a habit of finding the next big thing that's both hip to the kids and accessible to their parents. Enjoy the classic soul of Al Green and Aretha Franklin? Savage was an early member of the fan club of Amy Winehouse, the 23-year-old Brit whose neo-soul album, Back to Black, has sold over a million copies since its March release. Are the angular riffs and soaring vocals of the Police more your taste? At least a month ago, Savage put Fiction Plane– the band fronted by Sting's son, Joe Sumner– into high rotation. At press time, Fiction Plane's album Left Side of the Brain has popped up on three different Billboard regional "Top Heatseekers" charts.
"We hope we're doing a good job of introducing people to new artists, so we hope people start identifying these artists as 'Corner' artists," says Savage. "Hopefully, people trust us as a filter for everything that's out there."
The forward-looking playlists have not gone unnoticed in high places.
"They're much earlier to play a new record from bands like [New York chanteuse] Regina Spektor or [Washington state indie rockers] Death Cab for Cutie than even a station in New York or San Francisco," says Bruce Flohr of Charlottesville-based Red Light Management/ATO Records. "They're quickly identifying who their listeners would like, and people seem to be responding to it."
But no matter which songs make it on the air, Savage concedes his biggest and most important challenge continues to be how to brand as local a station owned by a multi-million dollar corporation like Saga. Early on, he got some help from Saga's local operations manager, Rick Daniels, who suggested naming the station for the commercial strip near the University of Virginia.
One of Savage's initiatives has been to take time out of each day to make the listeners the DJ.
"We figured if you personally had a hand in picking the songs, then you would think of it as your station," he says. "There's a general distrust of radio these days, so that was a concept Saga heads had in mind from the beginning."
Savage and company developed two daily listener-driven blocks. At 3pm, Savage spins one listener's personal five "My Corner" playlist, complete with a phoned-in introduction from the listener. Three hours later at 6pm, the DJ opens the phone lines for the "Last Letter Game"– listeners request a song whose title begins with the last letter of the tile of the song playing at the time. According to Savage, the game has become a huge hit.
"On any given three-minute song, we get anywhere from five to 15 calls," he says.
Further, The Corner has become a champion of myriad local artists whether broadcasting live half-hour acoustic "Corner Lounge" sessions in the studio, or sponsoring a weekly "Live and Local" concert at Wild Wing Café, or putting local artists such as King Wilkie, Sons of Bill, and Acoustic Groove Trio into low rotation.
Savage says he borrowed the idea of promoting local music from fellow Saga AAA station WRSI-FM "The River" in Northampton, Massachusetts (from whom The Corner also cribbed the idea of the "My Corner Playlist" and its "different is good" motto). He says he and his staff are doing everything they can to bring Charlottesville music to the masses.
"There's more good talent here than there should be for a town this small," says Savage. "It's great to play local music, because it stands shoulder to shoulder with everything else we play."
But despite all the airtime for requests and homegrown talent, there are some locals– including those who work for another alternative station– who see all the local branding as the work of carpetbaggers. Or worse.
New rock now?
In 1996, when Mike Friend snared local rights to the 91.9-FM frequency and founded WNRN, he did so with similar ideas of playing alternative music and using knowledgeable volunteer DJs to expose listeners to new artists– all with a decidedly local feel. However, unlike "The Corner," "NRN" started then and remains now a non-profit entity. And instead of overt commercials, it generates revenue by offering advertisers the chance to "underwrite" blocks of music and by semi-annual pledge drives.
In the last 11 years Friend has managed to create a sizable footprint not just in Charlottesville, but also in Lynchburg, Lexington, Richmond, and the Shenandoah Valley. According to Friend, since 2004 when Saga purchased the Charlottesville Radio Group (which includes 97.5, 3WV, Z-95, and WINA-AM), Friend says WNRN has been nothing but a "pain in the a**" to the Midwestern conglomerate.
"We're an annoyance to them because we have a consistently huge audience, and we sell ads for cheap," he says. "Now they get the idea to copy us."
But wait, there's more: "You almost have to give them a sick kind of credit," Friend continues, "like a teacher who's thinking about an awful student who at least has the drive to cheat. It's pathetic."
Indeed, Friend even suggests that the primary reason Saga chose the AAA format is to drive WNRN off the air.
"Commercial radio is about returns to the stockholders, and financially this makes no sense," he says. "The easiest thing to sell in this market is country music, and they could make more money by going after the Clear Channel station [99.7 FM WCYK], which is the #1 station anyway. There's even a movement of talk radio to FM, and they could even make money just moving WINA to FM, because that wouldn't cost them anything. It's not as if the audience for this kind of radio has gotten any bigger."
To combat the new kids on the block, Friend has excised the word "corner" from his and his DJs' vocabulary– a dictum reinforced by several reminder signs scattered around the studio.
"We don't say the word for any reason," says Friend. "It used to be that we said it eight times an hour because a lot of our underwriters were Corner businesses. But we're not going to be in the business of advertising for a multimillion dollar corporation."
"I don't know this man, I have nothing against him, and this is not a mission to damage his station," says Steve Goldstein, the multimillion dollar corporation's top programmer. "It's smarter and more lucrative to go after something that's unfulfilled," he adds, "and if you saw the market research that we saw, you would have made the same choice."
Perhaps there's room for both: Friend expresses confidence about his station's financial future.
"We haven't seen any drop off," he says. "Last fund drive, we had some of our contributors fill out a form where we asked what other stations they listen to, and there were many for NPR and TJU and 3WV, but out of 189, only two said 'The Corner.'"
Goldstein says that's evidence that The Corner isn't a WNRN knock-off.
"The proof is in the fact that he's done okay," Goldstein says of Friend. "The reason why we wouldn't go after Clear Channel's country station is the same reason why we wouldn't go after WNRN, and we're both doing well."
Still, Friend wonders if the success of The Corner, hasn't gotten by with a little help from its friends, specifically the companies owned by music magnate Coran Capshaw.
"I don't understand what Red Light/ATO thinks they can get with them, but their stuff is all over that station," says Friend. "They advertise and donate money to us, too, but with [The Corner] it smacks of payola or plugola. Nothing on paper, just someone doing someone a favor."
Turning on the (Red) Light
All things new and musical in this town face the same question: Where is Coran Capshaw's hand in this? It's a reasonable query considering that the Dave Matthews Band manager owns at least four music venues– from the Charlottesville Pavilion to his recently folded Starr Hill Music Hall– and has helped to persuade everyone from Eric Clapton to Lyle Lovett to play our little 'ville.
But in fact, on occasion musicians decide to come to town without any persuasion from Capshaw. For example, the Rolling Stones visit to Scott Stadium in 2005 was the work of Tres Thomas, a local man who just happened to be the director for the Stones' Bigger Bang tour. And until it recently formed an alliance with Capshaw's concert promotion arm, Starr Hill Presents, the same could have been said of Satellite Ballroom, a club near UVA that brought such college rock faves as the Silver Jews and Of Montreal to town.
In the case of The Corner, however, it's the station's playlists that have raised suspicions of a Capshaw connection. For instance, when The Corner launched on September 15, 2006, the first song played was DMB's "Everybody Wake Up," and each night at 9pm, The Corner features a two-song block dubbed "Daily DMB."
But Savage explains he's simply trying to show some hometown love to its favorite sons.
"It felt like a lot of stations were playing the hits, nobody was playing the deep cuts, the live stuff, the Boyd [Tinsley] solo stuff," says Savage, "so we felt like someone should be doing that in their own hometown."
Beyond the Dave-play, The Corner was one of only 24 stations permitted to broadcast last June from backstage at Bonnaroo, the Tennessee music festival that Capshaw co-owns.
The company responsible for setting up the live broadcasts from Bonnaroo was Music Allies, and their marketing director Zac Altheimer insists they chose The Corner on its own merits.
"We try to limit it to people who will really buy into this; we don't just give it to anyone," he says. "We had other small markets like Columbia, Missouri, Madison, Wisconsin, and Chattanooga, and we like to put them alongside the big stations."
Asked about the Bonnaroo connection, Red Light/ATO's Flohr won't say his company had a direct hand in it, but he admits, "Red Light has a role in a lot of things that are a gift to Charlottesville."
But most conspicuous of all to Capshaw-Corner conspiracy theorists is the music itself: some of The Corner's most often-played artists are managed by Red Light. For the week of July 22-28 alone, the latest singles from three Red Light artists– Australian jam band John Butler Trio, Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, and funk rockers Robert Randolph and the Family Band– all received 10 or more plays.
"Coran Capshaw does not own the station, though I can see where people get the idea," Savage concedes. "So much of our audience wants to hear the sort of jam band sound, and they happen to have some of the best ones. There's just a lot of listener interest in their artists."
Flohr adamantly denies any secret connections.
"We send records to them just like we send them to WNRN and 3WV and to stations all over the country," says Flohr. "I can list you many a record we sent The Corner that they haven't played. Every record we sent them that got played deserved to get played, and it did well for them because it was a good record. We can get a record on any station in the country if we work hard enough, but if it doesn't sound good, nobody's going to keep it on the radio."
Even WNRN's Friend says he doesn't believe Capshaw has a monetary stake in The Corner, if only because it violates FCC regulations.
"Saga is a fly-by-night company, but they're not blatantly dishonest," says Friend. "Trying to hide an owner is one of the biggest FCC no-nos there is, and if they got caught, the FCC would consider that 'lack of candor,' and the license for the whole chain would be in question. They could get fined big money. You think it's worth hiding Coran Capshaw for that?"
Fight to the finish?
So how goes the fight between WNRN and The Corner? Since WNRN chooses not to participate in the Arbitron ratings system, there's no numerical way to know for sure. What is known that The Corner is Charlottesville's sixth-ranked FM station, a pretty high ranking less for a station less than a year out of the starting gate.
While Savage concedes there is overlap between his station and WNRN, he says it's the distinction between the two that's caused his station to thrive.
"What WNRN does from 10am to noon is similar to what we do," he says, "but to the average listener, their block programming is confusing. In the morning it's acoustic, and then after noon it's hard rock, and then it's hip-hop at night. With us, being more consistent has brought back listeners who were listening to NRN, but weren't hardcore 'musicheads.'"
For his part, 29-year-old local blogger and media pundit Waldo Jaquith says that's precisely why he's started tuning into The Corner more often.
"I want to support local Charlottesville things, and I've pledged to WNRN before. But I really think WNRN is for people cooler than I am," says Jaquith. "I love discovering new music, but I don't necessarily want to broaden my horizons while I'm going to the grocery store. I know a whole lot of people who grew up in the '80s and '90s who are listening to The Corner because they actually play music we know.
"The turning point for me came a few months ago when they played They Might Be Giants," says Jaquith of the Brooklyn-based duo whose accordion, nutty sound effects, and clever wordplay have brought it to town four times since 1992. "It used to be you could only find that on [UVA station] WTJU, and after the initial excitement I thought, 'Shoot, I guess I'm a demographic now like everyone else.'"
Still, Jaquith calls tuning into The Corner "a guilty pleasure."
"For all I know, they're broadcasting from somewhere in Texas," he says. "I can't stand to hear them call themselves The Corner when there already is one, and hear them say 'Ree-o Road' and 'Stawn-ton.' But I don't want to have to wait for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam to become oldies before I can hear them on the radio."
At age 36,WTJU DJ and Charlottesville music scene veteran Tyler Magill is well within The Corner's age demographic, and he says the difference between WNRN and The Corner isn't that clear to him.
"They seem to be pretty equal in terms of quality, but if I had to pick sides, I'd go local," he says. "NRN has shown that it's possible to do what they do and make money, and, unsurprisingly, a larger company has now come in to try to do the same thing. I hope they can both survive, but I don't think that's possible. It's a shame, but there's no law against that."
However much he likes the music, Jaquith says that in spite of The Corner's idea that "different is good" and the station's stated desire to reflect the community's taste, all of the supposedly eclectic music seems to be meant to appeal to his particular demographic and not the community at large.
"It sounds like they're trying to stick to a very narrow window," says Jaquith. "I'm a hip-hop fan, and I don't know that I've heard any hip-hop on there, even pop hip-hop like Jurassic 5. But then I haven't heard any Gershwin on there either, and I'm a fan of his, too."
While Savage says he's heard positive feedback from listeners of all backgrounds, he doesn't subscribe to the idea that his musical selection excludes anyone.
"I think the intention is to reach as many people as possible, and touching on great soul stuff, which we play every four to six hours or so, makes you think about how great Sly and the Family Stone or James Brown are," he says. "I don't see that as a color line. I think that appeal is pretty universal."
How The Corner will affect WNRN's advertising revenue ultimately remains to be seen, but one advertiser, the boss of the Charlottesville Sports and Social Club, decided that after lower-than-anticipated returns from his NRN underwriting, his money was better spent with the new guys.
"It was kind of a no-brainer," says Social Club founder/owner Chad Day. "We're trying to go after people just out of college and grad students, and listening to the music they [The Corner] play, it seemed like they were going after the same demographic," he says.
"After we started advertising," he continues, "I heard them talking up our leagues on the air, and when you combine that with the promos, we've had a lot of people come to us saying they heard about us on The Corner."
So can the two stations survive? Jaquith says that this seems an awful lot like recent history repeating itself.
"With the new TV stations, the Hook and C-Ville, apparently we have limitless capacity for new media outlets," he says.
But Friend warns NRN fans who also listen to The Corner not to stray for too long.
"Now, when people stop at the stoplight, they have two choices," says Friend. "Realizing entertainment is a selfish choice, people should be careful what they wish for. They may have no choices later."