Where's Waylon? 

Why you can't hear Waylon Jennings on commercial San Francisco radio.

Congratulations, San Francisco Bay Area, you are trés chic. Very cosmo. Über-hip. Fond of Gruyére. And if you believe the radio ratings, you are so much more Donny than Marie, seein' as you like your rock 'n' roll better than your country -- a format that has failed here time and time again. Actually, if it must be said, you aren't really even a little bit country or a little bit rock 'n' roll -- you are a little bit Bernie Ward. News-talk dominates the Bay Area's top twenty-five stations, according to Arbitron's quarterly ratings reports.

After talk radio, KFRC, the oldies station, ranks way up there in the ratings, along with KYLD, the Britney station, and KOIT, an adult contemporary station. That is where the big bucks seem to lie these days: adult contemporary, or AC. KYCY, the last country station ever to send out wattage in Frisco, died in December, only to be replaced by an AC station dubbed The Wave. Star 101.3, that former '80s station that Planet Clair took to task back in August, is now playing Celine Dion and Jewel. So that's at least two stations that switched to AC in the last year.

What is this alien life form that moves into a host and replicates? Adult contemporary is the new term for what was called MOR in the '70s, or "middle of the road." It's the home for adults who are too hip for KABL's senior sounds or KKSF's jazz-lite, but don't abide by any of that rap or heavy metal. Its goal is to attract listeners who are not yet willing to acknowledge that they are old, yet who hate everything that Live 105 or Wild 94.9 might play. Hell, for most AC listeners, probably even KFOG is too subversive.

Blame the boomers. They may have marched against The Man in the '60s, created braless modern dance in the '70s, and wanted their MTV in the mid-'80s, but now, dangit, they just want to hear UB40 sing "Red Red Wine" one mo' time. They are adults. Contemporary. There's something altogether Charlie about 'em. In fact, this wily group is probably the reason that San Francisco's last country station did OK during the '90s but is now The Wave. It was boomers who made the big switch to country in the early '90s, only to toss it aside at decade's end like a tainted band of gold from the window of a moving semi.

Advertisers want boomers. What they supposedly listen to is what stations scramble to play. Earnest James, general manager for The Wave and former manager of KYCY, says he's got nothing against country music -- it just wasn't working for his station. "We tried it for nine years," he says. "It never generated the ratings or the revenue that we hoped to generate." James says the station hovered somewhere around twentieth in the ratings but aspired to break into the top ten.

If a station is in the top ten, advertisers will buy time with it regardless of the format. The Wave wanted to create a station with no advertiser bias. "Many advertisers make decisions based on what they personally feel about a station," says James. In short, if the music appeals to advertisers, they will come.

The underlying problem is that the heavy hitters of commercial radio are focused on business, not music. Just take a look at Arbitron's latest report on female listeners, who happen to account for about sixty percent of KYCY's audience. What Women Want: Five Secrets to Better Ratings helps stations gain those valuable double-X chromosomes. The first thing you need to know is that gals come in several categories: "Women generally fit into one of nine groups according to their tune-in factors: Mood Seekers; Optimists; Infoholics; Laughers and Gamers; Worried, Poor, and Angry; Just Music Fans; Sports Fans; Loners; and Risqué Fans." What these categories mean isn't exactly clear (though KPFA has a lock on "Worried, Poor, and Angry"), but one can only draw the conclusion that Arbitron cares far more about audience segmentation than music. And check out these eye-opening findings: "Women overwhelmingly said that 'Music I Like' is the biggest reason they tune in (eighty-seven percent), followed by 'Lots of Music' (seventy-six percent)." Radio stations take heed: the number one reason people tune in is to listen to music that they like. The concept's a bit maverick, but it just might work. (Surprisingly enough, both of these reasons-to-tune-in seemed to edge out "Inane DJ Banter," "White Noise," and "Tom Shane from the Shane Company.")

What it all comes down to, if you want to get all Chomsky, is that the Radio Industrial Complex conspires to kill off all broadcasting niches except those with a real hope of ending up in the top ten, ratingswise. You'd think a large market would produce diverse commercial programming but, in fact, the reason Bay Area radio sucks is precisely because we are the fourth-largest market in the country. The larger you are, the more chance there is for profit, and thus the blander the programming is. The bigger they are, the harder they suck -- it's that simple. Have you heard radio in LA lately? It was fantastic in the '80s and even the early '90s. Now, it is programmed by big multinationals . It's the same here. Although a niche genre like country will find listeners, it just won't do well enough to make the kind of money these schmucks are accustomed to. Maybe Waylon had it right when he sang, "The city life's a hard row to hoe." RIP.

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