Formatless radio. The time has come.

First, some background. Around the time of the invention of radio, stations were generalist in nature and simply trying to draw the largest possible audience. Back then, families gathered around the radio the same way they would gather around televisions in later years. To appeal to the masses, just sponsor a radio show and sell your soap. Simple.

But as the radio industry matured and stations proliferated, owners recognized the value of being No. 1 among a certain demographic or psychographic. There’s an old radio joke that says, “Everyone’s No. 1 in something.” Audiences consisting of soccer moms, sports-obsessed men, hip teens and the elderly all have their own associated products and services. Stations that could be counted on to deliver most efficiently the audiences that were likely to purchase those goods and services were most likely to get available advertising dollars.

That’s why you have formatted radio stations. Whomever the advertiser is trying to reach, there’s a station (or stations, in the days before the 1996 Telecommunications Act when there was more competition among stations) that tailors its format — be it classic rock, teen pop, right-wing talkers, oldies, sports, or whatever — to the listeners their advertisers wish to reach.

Armies of consultants have stretched this atomization of the radio audience to sometimes absurd dimensions. It’s almost to the point where a station can tout its appeal to left-handed dentists. If you’re trying to sell a certain model car, you’d better place your ads on stations that play the songs that attract the same type of person you’re trying to sell that car to. “The suits” can hand you a list of a few hundred songs that appeal to whatever audience you’re aiming at.

But what if a station didn’t care whether you were 12 or 80, male or female, a parent or childless, or a cat or a dog person?


What if a station played, oh, say, a set of music featuring Frank Sinatra, Bob Marley, Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash, and Led Zeppelin? Or Metallica, Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald, Muddy Waters, and Frank Zappa?

It can work. I know because I played those sets and countless more like them right here in Maine. In the 1980s, the 50,000-watt WTOS out of Skowhegan reached four states and three Canadian provinces (and still does, I assume). I had cousins back in Quebec who listened to my show.

We were never No. 1 among a single demographic, but we were very competitive in most of them across the board. Our listeners were loyal and not channel-flippers; if they didn’t care for a particular song that was airing, they knew they’d probably like the next one. So they stuck around. And our huge signal meant a large, regional audience that registered in Arbitron listener diaries in many distinct, separate geographic markets across states.

The old “pirate days” of 1980s-era WTOS didn’t die. They just make do with 49,980 fewer watts now. Many of the deejays from those days have been reunited and all work for no pay at tiny WXNZ-LP (the LP stands for “low power”), an all-volunteer community station in Skowhegan, where the old WTOS was located before it decamped for Augusta in the 1990s and became another casualty of radio homogenization. At 98.1 on the FM dial, WXNZ has a broadcast radius of maybe 25 miles. It may possess a far weaker signal, but that rebellious spirit still thrives.

Fully three of the daytime disc jockeys (including yours truly) and the broadcast engineer from the old days submit shows that run in a randomized computer rotation on WXNZ. The result is something that you have to hear to believe. It jumps off the dial at you.

What each jock brings is an encyclopedic knowledge of music that transcends genre, and differs from one person to the next. You can hear it in their voices, whether they happen to be playing blues, punk, jazz, country, rock, reggae, bluegrass or whatever trips their fancy that day. It’s contagious, and they see themselves performing the same service that your local record store clerk does when you ask him or her what’s new. Good music is good music, irrespective of genre.

Wouldn’t you rather hear that than “Old Time Rock & Roll” for the umpteenth time? Played by a deejay who talks normally instead of with that “radio voice,” who breathlessly tells you who the artist is, like you’ve not heard it every week for four decades?

Radio has been dumbed down over the years. It’s time someone made it intelligent again. You want to breathe life into central Maine’s economy? Then start by treating radio listeners as people instead of the consumers of the products described in commercials.

Louis Morin, who grew up in Skowhegan, lives in Freeport.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: