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WHEN RADIO WAS COOL
by Paige Nienaber

Pirates. Buried treasure. Castles and knights. Headless horsemen. Robin Hood. U-100. Legends that are the stuff of lore.

And no, U-100 was not a submarine.

It was a radio station in the Twin Cities in the '70s.

Every market had one. A station that transcended the medium and became, if only for a while, cool.

Yes: There used to be such things as "cool" radio stations. U-100 was one.

As a teen struggling through the odyssey of public high school, to listen to U-100 put you into the cool group at school.

You could achieve status through affiliation. Through listening and being a fan of this cult FM Top 40.

There were stories about U-100. Like the cheerleader who had to have her stomach pumped, everyone knew someone who knew someone who'd been to one of the late night skinny dipping parties in the small lake behind the station in what is now suburban Woodbury. Then it was just rolling country, halfway to the bridge that carried us to Wisconsin and bars that took fake ID's.

Like the deserted radio station that Richard Dreyfus's "Curt" journeys to, seeking answers in "American Graffiti."

Stations of mythological greatness and veiled mystery.

It was, simply put, cool to listen to U-100.

There really aren't any cool stations left. And that is the biggest death knell for our industry.

Oh, sure, there are a few that occasionally flirt with coolness.

WPGC in Washington is semi-sorta that way.

Wild in Tampa has its moments.

A few others, maybe.

But we've degenerated into a bland provider of musical content.

And any way you choose to look at it, that's not good news.

I was at a heritage Top 40 station last year that had just gotten decimated by a Rhythm station with a bad signal. A real ratings bloodbath.

I listened.

I went out and talked to kids.

I looked at the website.

And I concluded that no one under the age of 21 was going to consider this station to be even mildly hip.

I communicated that to the PD. I offered some solutions.

Nope; they were going to focus all of their energies into imaging the music.

My opinion? The music battle is over. We lost to little personal radio stations called iPods around 2004. The real battleground is between the songs.

About right now, many of you are going, "Geez, all he's focused on is the teens."

Yep.

Because teens were the ones that discovered FM in the early '70s and decided that that was the new thing. It was cool to listen to FM rather then AM.

And the morning the teens of the world wake up and say, "Radio? God is that lame!" is the day we should all stand in line to fill out job applications at the nearest food court.

You DON'T have to be a young station to be cool.

Hell, Oldies 106.9 in Honolulu was a cool station. It had a vibe to it. Vibe is a Clifton word. It is the by-product of the crashing together of "attitude" and "emotion."

You'll know when you hear a station that has vibe.

KMEL in the late '80s/early '90s? Massive vibe.

A station with vibe is one that 99% of Radio People won't understand. Because they'll be in another city, hear it and not get it.

Because in their minds, it won't fit in their market.

Like KMEL. You didn't hear a radio station when you listened to KMEL; you heard the Bay Area. It flowed from the speakers. It was everything. The music. The imaging. The jocks.

Any market other then San Francisco and it would have failed horribly. But out there, it was a one damn cool station.

Back when we were cool, we had announcers who people actually cared about. Trust me, and the truth is not always fun to hear: No one is looking at their watch tonight and going, "7 o'clock! Crap. I need to turn on (Station) to hear (DJ who borrowed his name from MTV sometime post-9/11)."

DJs are, in general, no longer cool. Because there is no mystery to them. There is no lore. No mythology.

Hell, you can go and meet him at the Hi Vee this Saturday from noon to 2 and spin the prize wheel and enjoy free pizza. The show business of Radio has long gone.

The closest thing I've seen in recent history of a jock who was cool, was when I went to visit a friend on Maui about eight years ago.

It was early evening and a bunch of her friends were over, we were cooking out and drinking beer in her yard. One of the guys suddenly yelled, "Hey, it's almost time for the Pirate" and ran to get a boom box.

The Polynesian Pirate. A disc jockey who ruled the airwaves and played his own eclectic blend of rock and reggae from a boat, sailing the waters of the islands.

It was like U-100. There were stories about the guy. Someone claimed to have seen him over at Molokai at a boat party. For all I know he was in a studio. Or, maybe not….

We got into Radio because we're geeks. Because it was cool. Sadly, we're among the few who still believe that.

Dare to break with convention.

Dare to embrace the attitude, the emotion that crash into each other and create a vibe.

Dare to sound local.

Dare to have fun.

Dare to create, not emulate.

Dare to tear up the game plan and start anew.

Cast aside the clichés.

And be cool.


Paige Nienaber is VP/Fun 'N Games for Clifton Radio and CPR. Between the two he consults over 50 stations promotionally in the US, Canada and the Caribbean. His e-mail is nwcpromo@earthlink.net and his website is www.cpr-promotions.com

© 2006 by Paige Nienaber. All Rights Reserved.

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