The change was abrupt. One day, 92.3 FM was home to the "jammin' oldies," like silky-voiced R&B singers Marvin Gaye and Al Green. The next day, it was a haven for rap-metal screamers such as Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst and Korn's Jonathan Davis. Changing formats in the constantly fluctuating world of commercial radio is commonplace. Making the transition successfully is another issue altogether -- especially when you have a worthy adversary.
Christened Xtreme Radio, WXTM-FM/92.3 has provided Cleveland with a needed dose of new music since adopting an alternative rock and new metal format in May. But to succeed, it'll have to outdo WMMS-FM/100.7, a hard rock station that's built a faithful fan base by playing both classic and contemporary metal. Recent playlists suggest there's now little difference between the stations -- both feature new metal acts such as Staind, Tool, Linkin Park, and Disturbed in heavy rotation. And both are now playing alternative groups such as Weezer and 311. Xtreme Radio maintains WMMS has made adjustments to stay competitive and in doing so, has inadvertently helped out Xtreme's classic rock sister station, WNCX-FM/98.5.
"They will admit they changed their playlist slightly. That's bullshit. They changed it drastically," says WNCX Assistant Program Director Dave Jockers, who's temporarily assisting 92.3 (both are owned by Infinity Broadcasting). "They dropped almost everything they had that was from the '70s and replaced it with late-'80s and '90s stuff. That's basically saying to anyone over the age of 35, 'We don't want you.' It said to everyone over 35, 'Go to WNCX.' That's why we're enjoying it here. It's gonna be a battle. We're teaming WNCX and 92.3 together to smother WMMS."
WMMS Program Director Tony Tilford says that WMMS, which has a demographic of 18- to 44-year-olds, dropped "20 to 25 songs" it was playing, but has made only minor adjustments in the wake of Xtreme Radio. To him, the station's not in danger of losing its older listeners.
"They're just saying that because [WNCX] is their sister station," he says. "The one thing that this has done is put WMMS in a much more natural position as a radio station. Before, when we didn't have a competitor, we could cheat and try to be a little broader-based than we actually are. Before, we were trying to be a shotgun and hit as many people as we could, and now we're a well-tuned rifle that's dead on target. The cool thing about Cleveland listeners is that they see right through [92.3's] bullshit."
In the attempt to beat the Buzzard, as WMMS has long been known, Xtreme Radio has run ads poking fun at the bird's mullet ("If guys with mullets wanna listen, they're welcome," Tilford says). WMMS has countered with ads suggesting that Xtreme Radio, which broadcasts from Cleveland Heights, has a signal too weak to pose serious competition and isn't a truly alternative station. Neither will know who's winning the battle until the summer Arbitron ratings come out in October (and that's assuming that Clear Channel resolves a contract dispute with Arbitron). But some experts suggest WMMS hasn't been quick enough to the draw.
"For years, WMMS was flogging the same 20 songs by AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd," says Anastasia Pantsios, a local rock scribe who's writing a book about the history of the station. "All of a sudden, they've added 9 or 10 new songs. It's almost tragic that they have this knee-jerk reaction. Here's WMMS, [which] has positioned itself as the keepers of this legacy, and somebody else comes out to supposedly challenge them, and within slightly more than a week, they've cloned this upstart. It's not an intelligent response. If they'd been thinking, they should have done this two years ago."
While fighting for the allegiance of the "mooks," as rap-metal fans are known, is bound to get uglier, listeners can only benefit. Aside from having two sources of new music on commercial radio, Cleveland also has two stations competing to sponsor concerts. In the past, several big shows -- Moby's Area One Festival and the Family Values Tour, for example -- didn't stop here because of the lack of radio support. The Crystal Method, an electronic act in rotation on Xtreme, is stopping in Cleveland partly because of the backing it now has from the station.
"Already a couple of booking agents have told me they're excited that their bands are getting played on Xtreme Radio," says Agora manager Anthony Nicolaidis, who booked the Crystal Method because of Xtreme Radio's support.
Bill Peters, who hosts the underground metal show Metal on Metal on WJCU-FM/88.7, likes Xtreme Radio because "the more new music gets played on commercial radio, the better."
"I think they're totally different crowds," he says of the two stations. "I think [92.3] has pushed WMMS to expand their playlist to compete with them, of course, but they have their own customer base that's loyal to them."
So if it comes down to one station surviving, who will it be?
"An 18-year-old is going to be intrigued by something that's new and will listen [to Xtreme Radio] initially," WMMS's Tilford says. "But when the shiny-new aspect wears off, they'll see it for what it is and spend more time with us."