March 20, 2001

Daily Herald
The Drive gets stuck in radio traffic jam
By Ted Cox - TV & Radio
Posted on March 20, 2001

Hey, everybody, there's another new station playing the Beatles!

Eric Burdon might well have been singing about the new WDRV 97.1-FM when the Animals' "It's My Life" aired on the station hours after its debut Thursday morning. The Utah-based, Mormon-owned radio conglomerate Bonneville International agreed to pay $165 million for classical WNIB 97.1-FM last year, only to find all the good formats were already taken by the time it took control of the station last month, especially after classic-rock WXCD 94.7-FM became '80s WZZN and dusties-for-white-folks WUBT 103.5-FM became Top 40 WKSC.

So "The Drive," as the station is calling itself, fell into lockstep alongside Bonneville's other Chicago classic-rock station, WLUP 97.9-FM. The format is subtly different, but only just so, falling in between the Loop and oldies WJMK 104.3-FM. Where the Loop emphasizes Led Zeppelin and the Who, the Drive emphasizes Chicago and the Guess Who. It takes a mellower approach to targeting the same male 25-54 demographic the Loop does.

I predicted as much before the new format was even announced, except that the Drive turned out to be even more tame than I expected. I had the new 'NIB going slightly forward in time from the classic-rock Loop; instead, it went slightly backward.

Although the Drive promised "timeless rock, true variety" in one of its first on-air promo spots, the variety it offers is akin to setting out a loaf of butter-top, split-crust white bread next to a loaf of plain white bread. When you spend $165 million on a radio station, there's no appealing to esoteric tastes like classical music or jazz. You have to take the sure thing, the music everybody knows. And so the Chicago radio dial gets a little less varied and a little more homogenized.

The Drive introduced itself Thursday morning with Aliotta, Haynes & Jeremiah's "Lake Shore Drive," a nice, safe, Chicago choice, followed by the Beatles' "Baby You Can Drive My Car." (Get it?) The Eagles, the Guess Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doors and Elton John followed. All white guys. All classic-rock staples. All songs you've heard 2 or 3 million times, depending on whether you're at the low or high end of that 25-54 age group.

If that's variety, I'm George Clinton. "Most radio stations are just loud, obnoxious egotism," an announcer intoned, going on to promise "no hype, no contests, no silliness, just music, the best music, all the time."

But when you start hyping your no-hype message every other song, that's hype, the old no-tricks-up-my-sleeve trick.

The Drive also pounded Chicago - the group, not the city - early on, as if to give the station a local feel. But, while some of the members of Chicago might originally have been from Chicago, by the time the group got popular they were just a bunch of El Lay studio hacks. Chicago is no more Chicago than the Beatles are beetles. Look, I'm not saying the music the Drive plays is awful (I mean, aside from personal dislikes like Chicago and Jethro Tull). What I'm asking is did the city really need a station that was slightly more rock than oldies 'JMK and slightly more mellow than the Loop? Are there really listeners who can't stand the Loop's occasional forays into heavy metal and 'JMK's occasional drift into soul and who needed something even more uniform? And just how tightly formatted is radio going to get?

What about hearing something different, something new, something you've never heard before? The way things are going in the radio industry, you'll never hear anything unique again.

The "new" Dave Matthews Band album: talk about an oxymoron. If you ask me, this Drive is a trip to Bloomington-Normal: 100 miles of flat pavement, with nothing but the same old scenery to the left and right. I know I've written it before but radio has become a dead medium since the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act allowed conglomerates to dominate ownership of local stations. Station prices went up, demands for profits went up, independents were driven out, and in their place has come a sameness of sound across the dial: standardized formats and a refusal to take anything resembling a risk.

Classical 'NIB becoming classic-rock the Drive isn't the end of all culture on radio; it's simply symptomatic of changes across the industry. All stations have become more bland and formulaic in response as everyone squeezes into the mainstream where the mass audience is.

As for me, driving around, I find myself listening more and more to college stations like WLUW 88.7-FM - when I'm not abandoning radio entirely and listening to tapes like the Magnetic Fields or Franco & Rochereau or my current favorite, George Clinton's "Dope Dogs."

I can't blame Bonneville for the changes in radio. When you pay $165 million for a station, you've got to get a return on the investment. But I do blame the short-sighted members of Congress and the Republican deregulation ideologues and the wishy-washy Clinton administration for not seeing that the 1996 "reform" act was going to lead to less diversity and less innovation in the industry.

As for the 97.1-FM frequency, hey, it's Bonneville's station and it can do what it wants.

Ted Cox column runs Tuesday and Thursday in Suburban Living, Friday in sports and Friday in Time out!

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