Cleveland college radio is like the kid who had to dress next to Tommy Lee in gym class. Surrounded by supremely endowed corporate stations with tens of thousands of watts at their disposal, public broadcasters have had trouble measuring up. And despite what your girlfriend says, size does matter.
Just ask the folks at WRUW-FM/91.1, the radio station for Case Western Reserve. After a 12-year struggle to find a location for a larger broadcasting tower and secure the funds required by the FCC for a power increase, the station recently went from 1,000 to 15,000 watts, making it the area's most powerful college station.
"The listener response was effective instantly," says WRUW Promotions Director Roger Ganley, whose Tuesday night metal show was on the air when the wattage was upped. "I'm getting calls from Ashtabula, all over Lorain, parts of Norwalk. We're also getting calls from Canada. There's a lot more people listening."
WRUW now reaches as far as Lorain to the west, Mentor to the east, and Strongsville to the south. And while WRUW still has only about a third of the power of big-timers like WMMS and WNCX, its expanded range means it'll be able to reach thousands more potential listeners with diverse, commercial-free music. And no goddamn Journey.
"WRUW is now like this eclectic, fund-raising-irradiated Godzilla," says WRUW General Manager Michael O'Neil. "I think it is just what Northeast Ohio radio listeners have been desperate for, as consolidation, automation, and commodification choke the life and community out of a medium that has so much to offer the public."
Realizing this potential isn't without its possible costs. For years, the Cleveland area's college stations have worked in unison, promoting one another's shows, helping each other in fund-raisers -- even doing joint program guides. But now that WRUW is the dominant force, will the communal atmosphere be disrupted? As Morrissey sang, "We hate it when our friends become successful."
"I think it'll have a good impact; a rising tide will bring up all the ships," says Craig Callander, former music director at WCSB and current host of 669, which airs on the station Friday nights. "College radio is kind of a niche market as it is, and once people turn on to it, they'll turn on to other college stations. It's an inroad to alternative radio."
Adds Bill Peters, who's hosted Metal on Metal Fridays on WJCU for 20 years: "There's really no thoughts of 'us against them' or anything. If one of us has more power, that's great; it's more for the cause." The cause is the struggle against commercial radio. Since the passing of the Telecommunications Bill of 1996, which greatly loosened restrictions on the number of radio stations a company can own, commercial radio has become increasingly centralized and, as a result, distanced from its audience. Corporate giants like Clear Channel have been forced to compensate for their buying sprees of a few years back by upping the on-air time dedicated to commercials (from 8 minutes an hour in the mid-'90s to close to 20 minutes now), slashing staff, and piping the same programming into different markets. This has depersonalized commercial radio, made it increasingly slow to react to trends, and caused ratings to suffer by up to 20 percent.
"The only stations that have gone up in the ratings since 1996 have been the public radio stations," says John Gorman, former program director for WMMS and founder of Cleveland's The Crow Internet radio portal. "At this point in time, there are more people that have a greater awareness to what's on the left side of the dial."
This is obvious. Just look at the success of the University of Akron's WZIP-FM/88.9. Though the station boasts a modest 7,500 watts, it regularly beats out its corporate competitors in the lucrative age categories of 12 to 17 and 18 to 24, and ranks in the top third of the Arbitron ratings for Northeast Ohio. The reason for WZIP's strong showing? It's run by students -- young music fans in touch with local music trends -- rather than suits programming a cluster of stations. As commercial radio becomes more detached from its audience, the vitality and intimacy of community stations like WZIP and WRUW have become more attractive to listeners.
This isn't to suggest that WRUW is going to pluck the Buzzard any time soon, but it's clear that the station is gaining momentum. "Will they be a major influence? Probably not," Gorman says. "But they'll be enough of an influence to create a spark, and if you get enough sparks flying around out there, you're going to get a fire."