Within the space of a few days last week, low-rated WYCQ-FMknown to its listeners as “Moo 102”instantly became the most talked-about radio station in Nashville. It was not, however, the kind of talk that thrills station owners. Changes in direction at the progressive country station, especially the stormy departure of a popular staffer, have sparked concerns that reverberate well beyond Moo 102’s modest listenership.
Trish Hennessey, Moo 102’s music director, left the station two weeks ago after WYCQ’s then-general manager, Sally McClanahan, and then-program director, Dale Jones, told her she was being relieved of her programming duties. (McClanahan herself was let go a week later; Jones was given a new title and relieved of his programming duties.) Stories vary as to whether Hennessey resigned or was fired. A Moo 102 executive says she quit, but Hennessey says she left only after station officials posted a memo effectively barring her from the premises.
Regardless of the exact circumstances, Hennessey’s departure has triggered an outcry from the local music industry, which was watching the station with great interest. Hennessey was widely credited with sharpening the station’s offbeat format, a mixture of alternative country and roots rock billed as “rockin’ country.” While WSIX-FM and WSM-FM duked it out for Top 40 country fans, Moo 102 drew a buzz by mixing in performers the larger stations ignored. Under Hennessey’s guidance, the WYCQ playlist featured album cuts by mainstream country faves while seguing from Nanci Griffith to the Subdudes, from Irish songstress Maura O’Connell to Austin honky-tonker Joe Ely.
WYCQ also gave invaluable drivetime exposure to Nashville artists such as Victor Mecyssne, Webb Wilder, Sheila Lawrence, and the Bum Steers, whose “NatKingColePorterWagoner Sorta Thing” was a request-line blockbuster. The station’s popular Sunday-night No Boundaries show cemented WYCQ’s ties to the community. When Walter Hyatt died in the ValuJet crash last April, almost every local country station noted his passing, but only Moo 102 could say it regularly played Hyatt’s music.
Casual listeners didn’t find Moo 102 much different from its larger competitors. The most common complaint was that you had to wade through too much routine contemporary country to get a nugget of vintage Steve Earle or recent Dale Watson. At its most adventurous, the station sounded very much like FM 100, which appeared radical only in comparison to its stodgy album-rock competitors. Compared to Top 40 country, Moo 102 was similarly regarded as something groundbreaking.
As a result of its relatively unusual programming, Moo 102’s listener base grew to include a well-connected roster of publicists, artists, music writers, and musiciansas well as staffers up and down Music Row. The influential trade magazine The Gavin Report negotiated to make WYCQ the flagship station for its burgeoning Americana format. Had that happened, several labels, including Rounder and Sugar Hill, stood prepared to sink significant advertising dollars into the station.
With country radio’s overall share of listeners on the decline for the third straight year, Moo 102’s progressive programming was seen by many as the shape of things to comeespecially since Music Row majors like Mercury and Asylum have begun to look closely at signing and breaking alternative-country acts. Somehow, though, this influence was never reflected in the quarterly Arbitron ratings, which placed WYCQ consistently near the bottom of Nashville stations. The station’s ratings rose from a .7 share in the fall of 1995 to a 1.5 in the winter of 1996, but McClanahan told Hennessey this was a fluke; by the spring of 1996, the station’s Arbitron rating had somehow dropped to .5. (Surprisingly, WYCQ does not subscribe to Arbitron.)
To boost its ratings, the station hired a consultant, Kent Burkhardt, a longtime proponent of hit-radio formats. Hennessey says Burkhardt never understood the Americana format and lobbied against playing less established artists like Gillian Welch. According to Hennessey, he advised WYCQ to play more current country hits, fewer local or national obscurities, and no rock.
Moo 102 is apparently heeding Burkhardt’s advice. Hennessey’s departure coincided with the arrival of WYCQ’s new chief operating officer, a 30-year radio veteran named Bob Reich, who has worked with Burkhardt at various stations since 1979. Reich arrived in Nashville two weeks ago after stints at stations in Orlando, Miami, and Dallas. “We’ll run ideas by [Burkhardt],” said Reich, “but all programming decisions will be done here.”
For that, WYCQ has hired program director Brian Krysz, who previously programmed modern rock for the Hartford, Conn., station WMRQ-FM. Krysz has never programmed country before, though he did once work for a country station in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He doesn’t think that’ll be a problem, however. “There’s not really a difference,” he says. “If you listen to ’SIX or ’SM, they’re just Top 40 stations that play country.” Krysz says that personalities and features, not music, make the difference with listeners.
Asked if Moo 102 will continue to play alternative country, Reich says the station will still play artists like Kim Richey and Kevin Welch. Although Reich and Krysz say the station will keep its existing alternative-country weekend programming, neither would say whether Nashville artists without record deals will remain in regular rotation. Changes have been subtle thus far. Where the station previously segued Steve Earle into Tom Petty, it now follows 4 Runner with Eric Clapton.
Nevertheless, the proposed changes have not pleased Moo 102’s listeners on Music Rownot the publicists, whose artists were receiving airplay on the station, nor the artists themselves, who found Moo 102 unusually receptive to their music. Nor are labels happy about the narrowing of a format friendly to new artists. “There’s a certain amount of disbelief that they’d go up against WSIX or WSM,” said one music-industry listener, who also wondered why the station would rely so heavily on the Arbitron book when it doesn’t even subscribe. “When revenues are up and people are talking about it all over town, why are they listening to consultants who know nothing about the station?”
Depending on whom you ask, Moo 102 was either scoring big with listeners or not even appearing on the city’s radar. Reich says he’s received almost no response, “which says nobody was listening”; Hennessey says that she would receive 40 to 45 calls within a 90-minute period. “We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if we were making money,” Krysz observes. What can’t be denied is that the proposed changes are coming at a bad time.
Last Thursday, USA Today published a grim, widely read story by Nashville music reporter David Zimmerman, who cited statistics that show country album sales for the first half of 1996 are down nearly 11 percent from the same period last yeara drop of more than 3 million units. One theory, Zimmerman wrote, is that country music in general, and country radio in particular, have “become bland.” Alternative country, an amorphous category that engulfs everything between Freakwater and Emmylou Harris, has been seen as an antidote to that blandness.
To break alternative country acts, however, the acts must get airplay, and that means convincing stations to embrace the format. The changes at Moo 102 show how formidable a task that will be.
“The thing that saddens me,” says Billy Block, the Bum Steers’ drummer, who frequently appears on WYCQ and formerly worked for Gavin, “is that we’ve lost this wonderful resource for music we all love. There are all these diamonds lying on the streets of Nashville, just waiting to be picked up.”
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