Drive Off 

The Bay's easy-listenin' outpost goes country. Yee-haw!

Alas. There used to be an easy-listenin' place on the dial that we could go for our daily Bread -- a channel to take a respite and replenish our Air Supply. But now 96.7 FM, "The Drive," has crossed the river Styx, away from the lands of Chicago, Asia, and the League of the Pure Prairie, and traversed into Young Country. The Drive, gentle reader, now might just as well be called "The Tractor Pull."

Yet in the interest of variety, one can't help but celebrate. It's been over a year since our last country station flew the coop, only to be replaced by an adult contemporary station. It all happened after the Wrangler genre's ballooning popularity in the '90s, when folks who used to sneak into Kiss concerts in the '70s turned to the twang in droves.

But country's two-step with aging rockers was short-lived. At the start of the new millennium, the Boomers seemed to lose interest in all things Achy-Breaky, preferring instead to listen to Celine and Dido. If a station wanted to remain in the top ten in the Bay Area, it best not play country, even though this is the fourth-largest radio market in the God-blessed USA. But surely there are a few million people out here who like the Dixie Chicks, right?

That's what the Bonneville Broadcasting Corporation is banking on. The Salt Lake City-based owners of KOIT and 95.7 are hoping that we'all be ready for country ag'in. They have temporarily renamed the station "My Country" (call 1-800-905-9570 to suggest a better name) and hope to create a hometown feel in our pleasant hamlet of 6.7 million. Even though the Drive had only just begun in May, "It just wasn't showing the right pattern of growth," explains station GM Valerie Howard. Meaning, the numbers of listeners didn't seem to be expanding at all. Apparently that same core group of dudes in their Epcot Center T-shirts never bothered to tell their friends about their favorite easy- listening station.

The folks at Bonneville are from Utah, and if that reminds you of a certain fella who saw visions in the woods, you are right. Bonneville identifies as a Mormon outfit: "A values-driven company of values-driven people," as it states on its Web site. It's also value-driven. Bonneville is huge. It all started back in '64, when Arch Madsen had a vision as big as Joseph Smith's: profitable radio waves all over the country. Whatever your opinion of the Mormons, they've never been afraid of technology, as the twelve-foot-high talking Jesus statue at the Temple in the Oakland hills will attest.

But lest you think Madsen was some cigar-chomping Mormon mogul, he was actually a pretty cool guy. He was a staunch believer in freedom of speech (ergo, freedom of the airwaves), and put his money where his mouth was by traveling all over the world to areas that were less than democratic and advocating the power of radio. He also seemed to abide by the idea that the airwaves belong to the communities they service. "Holding a broadcaster's license is a sacred responsibility," he was quoted as saying.

How this translates into his company's current philosophy is giving out free public service announcements and letting the listeners choose the music, which is a fancy way of saying taking requests. Not exactly revolutionary. But no one except Berkeley Liberation Radio would fault a radio station for not feeding the homeless. It's a dangdern business, after all.

The real question is, do these guys realize that country has failed miserably here, dying a pathetic death? "Yes," Howard says. But she points out that our last country station, KYCY, didn't have the range that My Country will have, reaching way into the suburbs of the East Bay to the hillbillies who are much more likely to listen to Faith Hill. KYCY's numbers were based mostly on an urban listenership. Once the kinfolk in the farthest reaches of Brisbane, Milpitas, and Antioch get an earful, Young Country might just survive. Saaa-lute!

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