Thursday, April 10, 2003


by Wayne Robins

The news that one-time rock radio pioneer WNEW-FM was switching from its failed talk format to focus on "Free-Form Music" got big play in the Metro section of Thursday's New York Times. But the hope that the new format would in any way resemble the anything-goes, free-form format that made the station's reputation in the late 1960's was immediately dashed. And it raises questions of a reporter's gullibility.

It seems that east coast music business reporter Lynette Holloway bought the hyperbole, and lacked the awareness or skepticism to question what "free-form" really meant. And where were the editors who should have been watching her back?

Holloway reports the station will sport new call letters: BLINK. That's very doubtful. Radio stations can nickname themselves whatever they want, so WRKS-FM/92.3 in New York calls itself "K-Rock," and WHTZ-FM is known as Z-100. But it would be a violation of international radio treaties for the FCC, which has the sole authority to assign call letters, to name a station BLINK. Radio stations in the People's Republic of China are authorized to have a call letter beginning with "B" or "BL," but in the United States, broadcast stations get a prefix beginning with "W" east of the Mississippi River and "K" West of the Mississippi. (Which is why Southern California's original 'K-Rock' was KROQ-FM). It's been that way since 1923.

The new so-called "free-form" format doesn't sound free-form at all from Holloway's description and the interviews given her by the station's management. Andy Schuon, president of programming for Infinity Radio, which owns WNEW-FM...uh, BLINK...cites artists such as Michelle Branch, the Dixie Chicks and Etta James as those who will be played: a relatively narrow slice of the spectrum. But there's a reason. "BLINK will focus on young women, hence the color of its new logo: pink," Holloway writes. How much of r&b veteran Etta James you'll hear seems dubious. At Thursday night's kickoff party in Chelsea, celebirty guests expected are Mariah Carey, Shania Twain, and Lisa Marie Presley. And what male artists will qualify for the "free-form" treatment wasn't said. How can anyone accept that a format aimed at young women is free-form? It's formatted right down to the ads for nail polish the station will probably seek.

When Tom Donahue invented free form radio in San Francisco in the mid-1960s, the idea was to have no playlist, and that the disc jockey could play any track from any album: you could mix psychedelic rock, soul, jazz, even classical bits. The implication of freeform as a radio term is alternative to the mainstream. Somehow I don't think the morning show hosts Chris Booker (of "Entertainment Tonight") and Lynda Lopez (J-Lo's sister) will play much Jefferson Airplane or Country Joe and the Fish, followed by John Coltrane. Will they even play Lucinda Williams? She may not be pink enough.

But that's not what BLINK is about anyway. Holloway says the station will "rely on a basic top-40 playlist that will be driven by disc jockeys like Erica Hamilton, known as D.J. E-Love." There's also to be a "Reality Radio" segment in which celebrities will play whatever they want. Who are the first celebrities? If you guessed Sean Paul and Kelly Osbourne, you know the scam.

But Holloway doesn't seem to know when she's being scammed. A top-40 free-form playlist is as oxy as oxymorons get. "We're not going to be bound by restrictions," said Andy Schuon, president of programming for Viacom's Infinity Radio chain. That is, as long as you think pink.

(c) 2003, Wayne Robins. All rights reserved.

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