Making Airwaves

The Sale Of Wrnr -- Radio Free Baltimore To Its Small, Non-mainstream Audience -- Cranks Up Fears Of A Format Change.

April 29, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Radio renegade WRNR has been sold. Now its fans want to know: Has it sold out?

Most radio plays to the masses, giving people what expensive surveys and Billboard magazine say they want to hear. Not so WRNR-FM (103.1), where eclecticism and the element of surprise are the rules, not the exceptions. Deejays at the Annapolis station play pretty much what they want to play; playlists put together by the program director are suggestions, not requirements. Modern rock, mainstream rock, adult top-40, adult contemporary, oldies: None of the convenient labels applies to WRNR.

John Mayall, Marianne Faithfull, XTC, Brian Eno, Fats Domino. Calling WRNR's playlist "eclectic" is understating the case, which is exactly why many people are so devoted to it -- and why they hope the station's new owners will keep their mitts off the format (or lack thereof).

They may not have anything to worry about. The new guys in town promise to stay the course, sticking with the no-format format that WRNR's soon-to-be-former owner, Jake Einstein, pioneered at WHFS until selling that station in 1988. In 1995, he bought WRNR and started over again.

"They need to stay format-less. They need to let their deejays have the freedom to play everything," says Karen deCamp, a WRNR listener who lives in Roland Park and teaches sixth grade in Howard County. "I consider myself an incredibly well-rounded musical person, because I've been listening to them for years."

The deal

Earlier this month, Einstein, the beloved 79-year-old father figure to Maryland's progressive music scene, sold the station, saying it was time to bring in younger blood (and also finish a running dispute with his partners, who didn't always share his philosophy). Once the deal is finalized, within the next two months or so, the station will belong to Empire Broadcasting, a group whose leadership includes Steve Kingston, program director at K-ROCK in New York City.

For $2.4 million, Einstein sold Empire two of his three stations: WRNR and R&B-oriented WYRE-AM (810). He retains WNAV-AM (1430), where he has altered the format (from easy-listening, or what Einstein calls "tired businessman's music) to concentrate on singer-songwriters (everyone from James Taylor and Kris Kristofferson to Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello, with the occasional Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra thrown in).

Sure, there's a station here in town for every format -- country, oldies, progressive, modern rock, rap and hip-hop. And all of them (depending on how specific your taste is) play good music.

The problem is, they play the same good music. Does a day go by without "Unchained Melody" being played on WQSR? Without Pearl Jam thundering from WWMX? What's the chance of hearing an obscure Rolling Stones cut on WIYY?

Unless you listen to WRNR, when's the last time you heard a cut from a band you'd never heard of -- one whose discs probably aren't available at the local music store?

"The other stations," says Einstein, "they're playing the same thing, brainwash radio. They play it constantly, they wear it out."

That's what makes WRNR so valuable to its fans. Nowhere else, within the same half-hour, will you hear Neil Young's "Powderfinger," John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth," Big Head Todd's "Heart of Wilderness" and the Church's "Under the Milky Way." No other station bridges the musical genres and generations, jumping from '20s blues to '90s techno, from Woodie Guthrie to Phish.

"The people who play the music are people who really know music," says Andrea Camp, a senior fellow for a Boston think tank who lives in Catonsville. "They're not just playing blindly from playlists."

Even more telling, the next song on WRNR could just as likely be from a local band struggling to find a label, rather than some platinum-selling juggernaut.

"They're really strong supporters of the local music scene," says Susie Mudd, publisher of Music Monthly, a chronicle of Maryland music. She singles out the ubiquitous Damian Einstein, once a fixture at WHFS and now at WRNR, for special praise. "You could turn on that station anytime, and within five or six songs, you'd hear something local."

Deanna Bogart, Laughing Colors and Once Hush are just three of the local acts that get airplay on WRNR, she says. WIYY and WHFS play their share of such music, but to nowhere near the degree WRNR does.

"They talked about the music, they talked about who the bands were, they talked about where they were playing, they talked about the clubs that were hosting the bands," Mudd explains. "That's the thing this area needs, [radio stations] that really care."

Venting angst

The news of their beloved's sale sent a jolt through WRNR's small but passionate listenership, which felt doubly threatened: One, the listeners remembered when Einstein sold WHFS and how that station became way too mainstream for their tastes; and two, K-Rock is the home of Howard Stern, an association that left them crossing themselves at the very thought.

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