Ribbit, Ribbit

WEBN has always been our sniggering, off-color, can’t-take-you-anywhere radio station. But is the lunatic fringe ready to croak?

Disc jockey Laura Steele’s voice purrs through the speakers in the WEBN studio. “That was Stone Temple Pilots, and this is Three Days Grace, on 102.7, WEBN,” she says. But she’s not actually in the studio. No one is. Not an engineer or producer or intern to be found. The lights are off. An empty black leather chair faces a half-dozen computer screens, a wide mixing board with knobs and dials and faders, a mic perched on a hinged metal arm. The room feels almost eerie, the only sound Steele’s ghostly, disembodied voice.

WEBN disc jockey Jay Gilbert explains that Steele records the show in her home studio in Indianapolis through a process called voice tracking. Right now she might be folding laundry or running errands or recording one of the other shows she hosts throughout the country. She does none of them live.

Voice tracking is popular with station owners because it reduces staff, lowering costs, and in radio today, the bottom line is the top priority. Competition for listeners no longer means simply besting other stations in the market. Internet and satellite radio, MP3s, and YouTube have fragmented the audience. Even successful stations in a market don’t post Arbitron ratings as large as those from a decade ago.

At WEBN, cutting costs is essential. For years one of the top two or three stations in Cincinnati’s ratings wars, it has seen its listenership erode, particularly after Eddie Fingers—who for 20 years anchored the Dawn Patrol, the station’s successful morning team—moved to sister station WLW in 2007.

“EBN enjoyed a long run as a top five station, and that’s over,” says John Kiesewetter, the longtime media columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer. He explains that in September 2010 the station ranked fifth in the market with a 6.0 share, according to Arbitron. In January 2012 it fell out of the top 10 for the first time, he says, “since as far back as anybody can remember.” In May it ranked 14th, with a 2.7 share, less than half of what it had been 18 months before.

Those numbers might explain why the EBN office is so quiet—and also why, two days before my September visit, the morning team of Mark and Mo, who came to the station in February, were fired, along with program director Casey Krukowski. A year before, almost to the day, Dawn Patrol staples Wildman Walker and Bob Berry were let go. (In October, Chris Foley was hired to host the KiddChris Show each morning.) In the honeycomb of workstations at the Clear Channel offices in Kenwood there is no chatter in the hallways, no zingers tossed across cubicle walls, no hijinks of any kind. The atmosphere doesn’t remotely suggest that the station, despite its slogan, is on “the lunatic fringe of American FM.” Take down the posters announcing promotional events and this could be the office of an accounting firm.

Format and staff changes are nothing new in this volatile business, but in Greater Cincinnati, WEBN, since its earliest days, has been more than a radio station. It’s been a cultural force, as much a part of the city’s identity as Skyline Chili or the Carew Tower. From its annual Labor Day fireworks to its legacy of controversial billboards and stunts, the station has been a fixture even among people who never listen to it. Fomenting outrage and hilarity has been its true raison d’etre. EBN was our merry prankster, our tipper of sacred cows and puller of legs, the mischievous flipside of our conservative, squeaky-clean image. How could an entity so deeply woven into the city’s fabric suddenly find itself so irrelevant? Is a return to its role in the municipal gestalt even possible? And if it’s not, where does Frog Nation go from here?

The place where it all started—a little blue house on Considine Avenue in lower Price Hill—is now an empty lot. Behind a rusted chain link fence, a short gravel driveway overgrown with weeds trickles into a small, grassy field.

“It was a landmark in its day,” recalls Tom Sandman, who came to the station in 1975 as a producer and DJ. “I went there once when I was a listener, before I worked there. People were drawn to that place. It was a magic hippie house.”

The station was born in August 1967, during the Summer of Love, the brainchild of businessman Frank Wood, who wanted to focus the format on classical and jazz. He let his son, Frank Jr., better known as Bo, host a three-hour show on Saturday nights called Jelly Pudding, which targeted baby boomers who had outgrown the pop ditties played on top 40 AM stations. As rock segued into its psychedelic phase, led by bands such as Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, and The Beatles, a growing audience needed a station that played the new music and embodied the accompanying lifestyle.

With Jelly Pudding, they found it. Bo Wood, using the oh-so-hip moniker Michael Xanadu, began attracting far more listeners than his dad’s classical/jazz programming. Soon the emphasis switched to what became known as Album Oriented Rock (AOR).

At the time, FM didn’t draw a lot of listeners. Many car radios couldn’t grab the signal, and even if you could hear it there wasn’t a whole lot to hear. Most AM stations had an FM counterpart but weren’t sure how to program it yet.

If WEBN had little competition for its audience, it also attracted few advertisers, giving the brash young staff plenty of airtime to fill with commercials for products they made up. Brute Force Cybernetics, using the slogan “We create a need, and then fill it,” sponsored no end of crazy offerings, from Negative Calorie Cookies to The Portable Hole. Listeners laughed at commercials for The Indianapolis School of the French Accent and at various pranks developed by The Committee for Aesthetic Public Spectacle. Most enduring of all was Tree Frog Beer—“It doesn’t taste like much, but it gets you there faster.” These products and slogans became the local youth culture’s lingua franca.

DJs such as Denton Marr, Ty Williams, Mary Peale, Geoffrey Nimmo, Brian O’Donnell, and Ginger Sutton were local underground celebrities. Unlike the amphetamized chatter and clatter of AM jocks, WEBN’s DJs spoke slowly, and they never spoke over the end of a song. Often they sounded like they were stoned, but listeners didn’t mind because just as often they were too.

Sandman says DJs were given the freedom to pick their own music, within the parameters of the station’s system. One DJ’s show, therefore, sounded different from another’s, based on their personal taste. “There were only a handful of stations like it across the country,” he says. By the mid 1970s, the station was more firmly established and more securely funded with advertising. They moved to Hyde Park Square, referred to on the air as “Hyde’s Meadow,” which became the setting for the annual, totally fictional “Fool’s Day Parade,” an audience favorite that drew people to the square to see for themselves that, in fact, there was nothing to see.

They broke new ground in gender equality by installing Wood Sr.’s daughter, Robin, as the anchor of the morning drive-time show. By then the format had narrowed, focusing on hard rock. Robin was eventually joined by Craig Kopp to form the first incarnation of the Dawn Patrol. The key to the station’s continuing success was its attitude—funny, smart, irreverent. “The atmosphere was very communal, and creativity was encouraged,” says Rick Bird, who worked as a news reporter at the station from 1979 to 2000. “A lot of that came from the atmosphere Bo Wood created. He thought the station should be the court jester in town. There was that iconoclastic view—poking fun at things.”

The jokes—and WEBN’s success—reached a peak in the late ’80s, with new additions to the Dawn Patrol. Sports reporter Wildman Walker came aboard in 1985, as did Eddie Fingers, who partnered with Robin Wood. Kopp and Bird became the News Brothers. Bob Berry joined the station in 1988, though initially, he says, just to “write bits for Robin and Eddie.” But as a mom with young children, Wood usually left for home not long after the show ended. Berry would brainstorm ideas with Fingers, who began to encourage him to do the skits himself on the air. Thus was born Bob the Producer. His eulogies, his phone calls to unsuspecting businesses, and his recurring character of Biker Bob soon became popular. His on-air vasectomy brought particular attention to the show and to his emerging persona. “That was a great cast and a great time,” Berry recalls. “The chemistry was really good. Robin was the voice of reason. And Eddie was perfect. After he left, they never really had an answer for who should be in the hot seat.”

The Dawn Patrol became the most-talked about radio show in town and also grabbed the highest ratings. “When we were doing really well, we always were first or second,” Berry says. “It was WLW, the Dawn Patrol, and WUBE in the top three in [the 25–54 age demographic]. In 18–34 we were so strong that the second-place station would have half our number.”

As WEBN became more commercially successful, the emphasis on cutting-edge rock music and on “breaking” new artists lessened. As early as 1987, Jay Gilbert wrote a commentary in this magazine celebrating the station’s 20th anniversary and noted that “much of the fire has dimmed.” Even if they were no longer on “the lunatic fringe” of music, plenty of lunacy prevailed, and Cincinnatians tuned in to ensure they didn’t miss it. Like the ghostly driveway to nowhere in Price Hill, however, those days are relics of the past. Today, wallowing in poor ratings, the iconic frog and its devilish r-r-r-r-r-r-ribbit struggle to draw much interest.

“There are three main reasons why our ratings have declined and two of them we can’t do anything about,” says Gilbert, seated in the studio wearing a black short-sleeve button-down shirt with a WEBN logo over the heart. At 63, he is one of the last survivors of what he calls “the glory years,” having arrived at the station in 1974, left to produce his own commercials and jingles in ’77, and returned part-time in ’82 and full-time in ’87. To weather the changes, he has cultivated a philosophical approach to his job and to the business of radio. He breaks into a wry grin when recalling that, on his first day, nearly 40 years ago, a caller told him the station had gone downhill. “I still hear that,” he says. “We’re always going downhill. There’s a joke in the business that goes: ‘Why do we call them listeners? All they do is say why they don’t listen anymore.’ ”

The first reason he gives for the drop in popularity is the state of rock music. Despite any number of evolutions, rock remained American youth’s favorite music until the new millennium, when the rise of other genres—such as hip-hop, rap, electronica, and dubstep—diminished its popularity.

Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media, a leading consulting firm for the radio industry, explains it this way: “The last 10 or 15 years of rock music haven’t been real pretty,” Jacobs says. “Active Rock stations have cut back on the new songs they play, and they’ve found that the [bands like] Godsmack just don’t have the same staying power as some of the older artists that got them to the dance. They’ve struggled because there’s not enough new music coming out to sustain them.”

For a large chunk of today’s youth, rock is no longer cool. Rock is seen as the primal-scream bastion of the inarticulate—politically conservative, working-class young white men struggling to express testosterone-drenched rage at their socioeconomic disenfranchisement. On the station’s website, you’re not likely to find sly social commentary and hipper-than-thou wit amid Bengals updates and Thong of the Day photo galleries. The station, it seems, has become as predictably mainstream as the institutions it used to parody.

“In the mid-to-late ’90s it looked like the music was healthy, but that was based on the success of one band—Metallica,” says Jacobs. “When they started showing signs of weakness, that really exposed the format for not having a lot of tent poles.”

The second culprit in the station’s decline, says Gilbert, is the rise of new sources of commercial-free music, which enable listeners to discover new artists and enjoy old favorites without interruption from advertisers. Load your iPod, connect it to your car or home stereo, and you don’t need a station’s computer system to make the choices for you. Internet radio sites such as Pandora, Spotify, and Grooveshark allow you to hear only the music you like, thereby negating the serendipity of radio and its ability to introduce you to new songs and artists.

Satellite radio features narrowly focused stations. These stations both foster and reflect the splintering of music genres into shards so self-inclusive that a “big star” in one niche can be invisible to fans of a different one. With video sites such as YouTube, you can discover new music and share it with friends—and link to the artists’ websites. The sites provide links to iTunes, where you can buy the specific songs you like (if you haven’t already pilfered them). Through all of this technology, you can become a seriously informed fan of an artist who, a few hours before, you’d never even heard of. For today’s young people, relying on terrestrial radio as a main source of music would be akin to hitching up a horse and buggy for a trip to the mall.

The third reason, says Gilbert, is the station’s letting go of key talent and its shift from devious pranks to a safer, more homogenized approach. That change began with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed corporations to own an unlimited number of stations within a single market. By then, WEBN was owned by Jacor Communications, a locally based company that owned stations throughout the country. In the ensuing merger-mania, Clear Channel Communications bought Jacor in 1999.

“Big companies buying smaller ones has been the way of American life for decades,” says Gilbert, “but it happened gradually in other industries. For radio, 60 years of it happened in five years.” Though locals usually vilify the corporations for ruining their previously beloved station, the truth is more nuanced, says Gilbert. In fact, change arrived at 102.7 more slowly than at similar stations in other cities.

When Jacor bought the station from the Wood family, Gilbert explains, Bo Wood became an executive in the corporation and protected his baby. After Wood left, another force in local radio, Randy Michaels, took over and kept WEBN’s spirit intact. When Clear Channel bought Jacor, Michaels was named head of the radio division, and he wielded enough influence in the San Antonio–based corporation to insist on locating the division in Cincinnati. “Randy left us alone,” says Gilbert. “He knew and trusted us, and we were having a good time and things were great.” Then in 2002, Clear Channel removed the controversial Michaels. Since then, Gilbert notes, “we have slowly become just another cog in a large wheel.”

Having lost its favored-station status, WEBN curtailed its bad boy antics to avoid trips to the principal’s office. “Before then, we would do things that would make people angry,” says Gilbert, “but we believed that in the long run that would make our audience grow. The philosophy was that, to a certain point, we were willing to lose business as the cost of doing business. That’s an unusual attitude to have and, well, we don’t do that anymore.”

Rick Bird says blame cannot be thrown completely at Evil Corporations but admits that things changed when Clear Channel took control. “Staff meetings used to be when we’d brainstorm,” he says. “By the end of the ’90s, it was just about what jock was going to go to what sponsor and hand out stickers. The commercial load went up and that takes away the time you have to be clever and entertaining.” Even those changes haven’t made life especially rosy for Clear Channel. Dwindling ad revenues during the recession led to massive layoffs in 2009 and 2011 amid rumors of impending bankruptcy.

Tom Sandman concurs. “The consolidations made them dramatically cut staff,” he says. “How do you build rapport and get listener loyalty and talk about local stuff? If there was something worth listening to, it could find an audience.”

With voice tracking ever more prevalent, stations are losing the ability to cultivate a unique, local identity. Fred Jacobs thinks that’s exactly what they need to do. “Successful stations in the EBN mold all have a least one big personality,” he says. “Those stations are different from each other because they reflect the local flavor. EBN was the quintessential Cincinnati experience. I would come there [as a consultant for The Fox] and not know what they were talking about. And I looked at that as a good thing. The stations that have survived—and thrived—are intensely local.”

The radio overlords beg to differ, and they base their argument on a new research tool called a Portable People Meter or PPM. In the past, Arbitron paid select listeners to keep diaries of which radio stations they listened to and when. These diaries were used as the basis of the ratings. The PPM, a small electronic device that looks like a pager and is worn or carried by the listener, bypasses human memory by picking up radio signals near the person and transmitting the information to Arbitron. Every time the listener changes the station, the PPM records the switch.

Arbitron’s results showed that when people hear talk on a music station, they tend to search elsewhere. Opponents of the new system complain that the results cannot be applied equally to all formats and all times of the day. But, fearful of losing listeners, stations began to minimize talk.

“For a brand like EBN that was famous for personality and being funny, those kinds of PPM rules run against the grain,” says Jacobs. “What’s interesting about the survivors is that they break a lot of PPM rules. But they have the personalities and the gravitas and the verve to do that.” Jacobs mentions a recent study produced by his company that included a survey to determine why people listen to broadcast radio. The reason given most often was that they want to hear their favorite songs—for every type of station except Album Oriented Rock. “AOR was the only music category where the personality is just as important as the favorite song,” he says. “If these stations are going to survive they need to be a mixture of personality and local vibe.”

Will WEBN muster the gravitas and verve to do that? Producer Joel Moss believes it’s possible. A 29-year veteran who has created the soundtrack for the annual fireworks since 1985, Moss admits that “success” in radio can no longer be measured as it was a decade or more ago. “But we can still be a valuable entertainment resource,” he says. “We recognize this is a tough time to be doing this kind of radio, but it’s clear with this unexpected change [to the morning show] that there’s a commitment to give EBN its best possible shot. We’re still trying to do what we did; we just have to do it with fewer resources. Local radio can succeed if it’s produced locally. And a station with the kind of roots we have has a head start on that.”

Moss adds that he has “no illusions” about the difficult task ahead but takes comfort in the introductory remarks made by new program director Chris Williams when he met the staff. (Williams didn’t return calls or e-mails for this story.) “They have brought in a guy who has a plan and a vision and a respect for the EBN brand,” Moss says. “They haven’t thrown in the towel on the format.”

Given the challenges, can the station ride back into the winner’s circle? Jacobs, the radio consultant, believes it’s possible, noting the revival of such stations as KISW in Seattle and WMMR in Philadelphia. “Not everybody can do it,” he says. “It’s expensive. It’s people-intensive. MMR in Philly has gone through a lot of different issues, but they’ve come back stronger than ever. You can come back from the abyss but you’re going to do it with personality. You’re not going to do it with music.”

Cultivating that type of personality takes a certain commitment, says Mary Peale, one of the station’s best-loved personalities from the early ’70s until the late ’80s, when she moved to The Fox. Now doing a Saturday afternoon show on WNKU, Peale says, “There has to be a personal connection. If you think somebody shares your mental bent, you enjoy listening to them.”

She doubts the station can recapture that personal connection. “It used to be there were no sacred cows,” she says. “You could talk about anything. But you have to be able to laugh at yourself too. I don’t know if they can do it under a corporate cover. It would require getting out there where your peeps are. Making public appearances. But I don’t think that cult of personality is important to Clear Channel. At least not on a local basis.”

In such a fragmented media world, it’s tough to imagine any one source can muster the cultural wallop WEBN once delivered. It’s also difficult to foresee our aging court jester stickin’ it to The Man when, for the most part, the station has become The Man. Maybe the annual fireworks show, now an institution in itself, is all we can expect. We may have to look elsewhere for our lunacy.

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