In the age of iPods, satellite and internet radio, the notion of FM radio station programming directors hand picking music playlists almost seems quaint. Radio advertising is a throwback to times when the captive consumer had no choice but to be yelled at. So if my iPod docks directly on my alarm clock, why do I continue to listen to commercial radio every morning? Two reasons: music and people.
I’m a music person: someone who needs a soundtrack in my life. If I didn’t, I’d listen to NPR and call it done. Luckily, I like a wide variety of music so I don’t pick a radio station based on just its genre. My main criteria is that the people are likeable and aren’t annoying. Unfortunately, this limits my options down to two music stations in Seattle: 103.7 KMTT (“The Mountain”), because they have good people, and JACK FM, because they have no people (their gimmick is that they totally DJ-free).
Someone on Yelp described The Mountain as, “The radio station that doesn’t insult your intelligence,” and that’s an accurate baseline. The DJs on the Mountain are “good people”; they are genuine and likeable and you’d be comfortable and have fun hanging out with them. After listening to them every day for years, they feel like friends and I truly care about them as people. They lack the superficiality and ego that pervades most radio shows on rock stations and they don’t resort to base humor to get laughs. The topics they talk about are mainstream with a lefty bent. It’s like a wonderful little No Kardasian Zone.
The Mountain also has a deep history in Seattle. In line with their moniker, they are very environmentally aware and involved, partnering with Subaru (“on the road to carbon neutral”) to plant trees on the mountain to Sound greenway. The Mountain also sponsored the much-missed Summer Nights Concerts on the Pier (hey – join my Bring Back the Concerts on the Pier Facebook group!), they put out a compilation album every year of live tracks from “Mountain Artists” recorded in their studio, and they even go on the road and broadcast from local coffee shops. I previously blogged about their broadcast at the Redmond Tully’s in 2006 and 2007 (check out my photos, which they published on their website). Events like these keep their core listeners involved and invested in the station.
So what happened?
In 2009, Dave Bensen came up from SF to become the new Program Director and the programming seemed to shift from the strong heritage of acoustic adult alternative genre to the more “variety/classic rock” format you see at JACK FM stations. The Mountain’s position of being intelligent and progressive started getting diluted. They started playing more Pink Floyd and less Brandi Carlile. The idea was to widen their audience which is a totally fair goal, but I believe they alienated their core listeners. Core listeners are not only less likely to change the channel, but they are more likely to buy their CD compilation, attend their concerts and events, and market them with bumper stickers (and blogs!). Maybe there aren’t as many of us as they’d like, but we are more valuable (and vocal!) than transitory listeners.
I think some of the problem is their narrowing the age of their target audience. The feedback on the Mountain’s Facebook page is very anti-classic rock and I know that a particularly grating “oldie” is what makes me flip the channel the fastest. Most people identify the music that was popular before they came of age with their parents. For me, that’s the music of the 60’s and early 70’s. I don’t consider 80’s music “classic”, just nostalgic because I lived through it. I imagine people ten years older than me feel the same about music from the 70’s, and people twenty years older than me feel great about 60’s music. I think the Mountain has targeted older people by playing more music from the 60’s and 70’s (and replacing the engagement ring ads with cancer care ads! Thanks, I think). In some ways this may have made sense when considering who is still listening to FM radio in general (those young whipper-snappers and their technology!) but there are some people like me (Ok, admittedly more technical than young) who are committed to FM, for better or for worse and diluting the qualities that made me a core listener doesn’t seem smart.
It sounds like other listeners are just as confused and concerned. Recently, the station has started hammering on their new tagline so hard it’s gotten grating. “Acoustic, Electric, Classic, Eclectic”, while catchy, is too broad and only somewhat accurate. Acoustic yes. That’s the Mountain’s key differentiator. Indigo Girls, Brandi Carlile, Jack Johnson, Lyle Lovett. Yes, yes, yes. But Electric? That’s a little fuzzier. Why not play some Def Leppard then? This butt-rock chick would dig that, but that’s not what the Mountain is about. Classic? That’s relative, plus there are other stations doing “Classic Rock” (like 95.7). Eclectic? OK – play some Bjork! Yes, I get it, I am just not totally sold.
Then amongst this programming shift, 12-year station vet Marty Reimer, and his sidekick Jodi Brothers, were abruptly “fired” back in 2009 and were replaced with a pair of DJs that sounded robot versions of them. I felt bad for the new guys, they were put in a tough position, but they were lacking the warmth and humanity of Marty and Jodi and people were rightly pissed. Protest groups sprung up and the Mountain’s Facebook page was filled with toxic vitriol for months. At that point I started changing my listening habits. I now listen to JACK or the Mountain, switching back and forth when one or the other plays “Tiny Dancer” (inevitable, unfortunately). I don’t like listening to JACK in the morning though – it feels very lonely with no DJs and I feel out of the loop without news updates.
The Mountain has been talking about making a lot of changes starting on Monday the 17th and have gone through an excessive palette cleansing period (two weeks of an A-Z and then Z-A playlist with no DJs at all). It’s clear since the morning DJ Sean Demery left at the beginning of the year that there will be someone else at the helm, but they’ve alluded to changes in the programming as well. And as crazy as it seems, clues point to Marty Reimer making a return. The station actively solicited and publicized listener feedback, including the persistent cries to bring Marty back (they even included listeners expressing this in a recent promo for the impending changes). Also, I have found it puzzling that Marty continued to stay in Seattle and broadcast from his basement to a podcast audience for the last year and a half. I don’t think he would have done that if he didn’t think he could get his job back. If he really thought he couldn’t, he would have moved to another market or on to a new career. However, I find it hard to imagine the Mountain would take him back after whatever it is that caused him to be let go, plus there was the defiance he showed by moving his daily stand up comedy feature to the Mountain’s competitor Jack FM, calling it the “5:19 Funny”, airing one minute before the Mountain’s “5:20 Funny”. I’d pay good money to be a fly on the wall during their negotiations if he’s really coming back.
And even if Marty comes back, I’ll still miss fan-favorite Lee Callahan (now on the air at several other stations, including JACK) and I’ll still miss the duo of John Fisher and Mike West. Remember the Fisher and West Rock Test? “Pass the test and we’ll play your request!” I actually bought a waterproof radio for my shower because I kept listening for the Rock Test every morning and running late for work. I always wanted to pass the test and then request something crazy like Metallica. I was devastated when Mike West left in 2006 and John moved to afternoons and Marty took over in the mornings (and Lee left abruptly afterwards). What I’d really love is for Fisher and West (and Lee) to come back in the mornings, Marty to move to the afternoon, and all will be right with the world. But that’s turning back a lot of time. I guess we’ll all find out on Monday!