Eclectic rock station aims to keep listeners guessing

June 09, 1994|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,Sun Staff Writer

Jake Einstein fancies himself as the sort of guy who swims against the tide. And he runs his radio station in Annapolis, WXZL 103.1 FM, his way.

"I've always wanted to go up if somebody else wanted to go down," said Mr. Einstein, 76. "I have never been predictable and I never will be associated with something that is predictable."

The credo of the station, which he bought last December, is to play what other stations won't touch. There are no set play lists for disc jockeys, who often decide what to play as a song is ending. Disc jockeys also are free to bring recordings from home to play on the air.

said Ron Bowen, programming director. "Attitude-wise, we're just saying, 'Why not?' "

It isn't uncommon to hear "Release," a song from Pearl Jam's 2-year-old album "Ten," followed by "I Love You," the first track from the 1972 Steve Miller Band Anthology.

"It all fuses together, I think," said Mr. Bowen one recent day during his show. He said he likes to try to show listeners the relationship of music over a span of time.

"We're trying to be a little more eclectic, to go a bit deeper," he said. "We're trying to challenge the listener."

Mr. Einstein hired Mr. Bowen last December to change the station's format from hard rock to progressive rock.

There are about 40 progressive rock stations across the country, according to Shawn Alexander, an editor for progressive rock at Radio & Records, an industry trade paper in Los Angeles. The stations, popular in the early 1970s, hit a lull later in the decade.

"It was a hippie-type thing where the DJs would come in and play what they wanted to play," he said. "Many of them would bring their own records."

In the past few years, he said, progressive rock stations have become popular again, with record sales indicate progressive rock can be profitable. "It's really started to pick up as a niche for a station to go in and pick up adult listeners."

The music can appeal to those from 25 to 54, often those who are not being satisfied by regular radio. "The people listening to this format don't particularly like, quote unquote, normal radio with the hype," Mr. Alexander said.

Most of WXZL's listeners -- 75 percent -- are males, with an average age of 25.9.

The station's signal covers a relatively small area from Annapolis to Baltimore and some communities in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, making it difficult for the station to compete with others, said Mr. Alexander.

WXZL has not advertised since the changeover, depending on word of mouth to get new listeners. And the station doesn't bother with ratings services such as Arbitron. Mr. Bowen and Mr. Einstein consider it an inaccurate system best ignored. Instead, the station relies on calls and letters from listeners to gauge its success, they say.

Mr. Einstein, a newspaperman in the 1930s, served in the Navy during World War II, then went into advertising, promotion and radio.

He has owned several radio stations during his career. In 1966 he bought WHFS-FM, then in Bethesda and in poor financial shape, for $144,000, ditched the Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee format in favor of Joe Cocker and Van Morrison and sold the station in 1983 for $2.2 million.

"It was the sound of the West Coast," he said. "The L.A. Sound."

It was also the sound of Woodstock. "That's where the hippies where born," he said. "You're looking at the oldest hippie in America."

Mr. Einstein credits Frank Richards, a young upstart from the West Coast, with helping to create the format that sold WHFS to listeners.

"He walked in in engineer boots, cutoff jeans, a leather vest, and he had unkempt hair with a cowboy hat on, and he said, 'Man, I want you to listen to this music,' " Mr. Einstein recalled. "He was a musical freak. He knew music as it was coming.

"He was playing Frank Zappa and Joe Cocker. The rest is history," Mr. Einstein said. "He hit and the phones lit up."

Shortly after he sold WHFS, Mr. Einstein and a partner bought two Annapolis radio stations -- WNAV-AM and WLOM-FM -- for $2.8 million. Mr. Einstein re-acquired the WHFS call letters, and stamped them on WLOM. He boosted the station's broadcasting power. And of course, changed the station's format from middle of the road to progressive rock.

In 1988, he and his partner sold both stations for $8.2 million.

A year later, Mr. Einstein bought back WNAV, WXZL's AM sister station.

"Jake is a rare breed," said Mr. Bowen. "This is the kind of radio station he wants to do."

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