Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh
chris_walsh

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The Epic of NRK (a Radio Geek post)

Radio stations promote themselves. Some radio stations do said promotion by playing listeners' comments. Very, very few radio stations will include negative, or even just fair-to-middling, listener comments. But 94.7 Alternative Portland? Its current promotional spots, which play at the start of song sets, are as likely to include "Their music selection sucks" as "One of the best stations I've ever heard."

(Seriously. I've heard "Listen now, because as time goes on, it's getting worse every month" and "So-so music, know-it-all DJs" along with comments like "The sort of station you listen to on the web while visiting another state or country.")

That takes balls. But it also shows why 94.7, the former NRK, has regained me as a loyal listener -- and, in a way, regained its soul -- after a genuine debacle: one of the most wrong-headed format shifts I've seen, which blew up in the station's collective face. And which led to that rare thing: a major radio station saying to its listeners we admit it: we screwed up. And -- perhaps just as surprising -- help us fix it.

I started listening to KNRK-FM, then known as 94.7 NRK, in 2001, partly due to Portland media babe Daria O'Neill being on its morning show Gustav and Daria. It was a genuinely geeky program, with Daria being loud, intense and hilarious and Gustav in quieter, but still funny, style. Ask a Portlander about "Marrrrrrk Trail, right here on NRK" (a recurring bit co-written by Daria and her beautiful madman of a younger brother) and said Portlander, should s/he not look blank, will likely giggle.

Daria was my gateway drug. I then became fond of Gustav, and I became fond of 94.7's midday DJ Jayn (handy pronunciation guide: Jayn is a babe, kind of a goofier and brighter-voiced Janeane Garofalo), and I became fond of the afternoon host Marconi, who was kind of a budding college-age Don Geronimo -- and, speaking as a Don Geronimo fan from 1984 on, this is potentially a good thing. And I liked the music, various forms of that large category known as "alternative" (lots of Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against The Machine), so I kept coming back through '01, and '02, and '03.

And then it all went to hell.

On October 8th, 2003 -- two days after my acquaintence Karel "Greyduck" Kerezman (greyduck here on LiveJournal), then the computer network guy for the building where NRK broadcast, observed up close Jayn having a really bad day -- Daria, Gustav, and Jayn had another really bad day. Station management had decided that Marconi's show, which had been huge in the ratings, pointed to the station's future, and so that morning the Forces That Be flat-out fired Gustav and Jayn, took Daria off the air, and announced that in a few weeks Marconi would move to the station's morning slot. Their plan was to groom Marconi as a syndicated shock jock, potentially going national after Howard Stern left his Stern-sized hole in public radio (which hadn't yet happened, but which the radio industry could tell was going to happen).

As Karel pointed out, this happened on Gustav's birthday (and a couple of weeks after Jayn's birthday, too; I remember the glorious profanity-laced singing tribute one of Jayn's listeners serenaded her with that day). And it happened with those three DJs never having been told that the axe was about to fall.

I didn't hear about it until that evening, as Marconi (who, again, I did like, or I wouldn't have tuned in while he was on-air) and his on-air crew celebrated their upcoming new jobs. I found out more later via Karel's post. And I was pissed off.

I weaned myself off NRK quite quickly, honestly. This evolved into me just not listening to it: I was more fond of the three gone personalities than I was of Marconi, and I didn't want to come anywhere near even seeming to support the station. I'd grumble at the print ads announcing the station's new direction. I hoped for news of where the DJs would land. I heard nothing of Gustav and Jayn: eventually I heard (first, I think, via this Greyduck post) that Daria would return to the airwaves on fellow Entercom radio station 105.1 The Buzz. (That move...uh, first didn't go well, then resulted almost accidentally in a very good move for Daria. But that's another story, maybe for another time...) I missed the NRK that I remembered, but figured it would do its thing, and I'd just ignore it. When it came to shock jocks, I'd always preferred the relatively mild Don & Mike (their soap opera-like ongoing stories, both made-up and real-life, were part of what hooked me on them) to their D.C. competition Doug "The Greaseman" Tracht -- a man who'd lost his radio show in 1999 when he made a joke related to the 1998 dragging murder of James Byrd.

That's kind of foreshadowing of what happened next.

In May 2004, Nicholas Berg was kidnapped, tortured and beheaded. This was recorded on video; the video (edited) made the news and (unedited) hit the Internet.

In a bit I have never heard and hope never to hear, Marconi and his co-host "Tiny" played the audio of Berg's torture. With added music. And jokes. And laughter at said jokes.

Marconi, Tiny and their producer got fired. Their stunt made the news. It earned this mention at Intellectualize, which 'rewarded' them a DUMB@$$ Award. Karel chimed in here. Marconi himself went on his old personal website, Suckie Central (partially archived here), and at least had the decency not to dispute that he had done a stupendously stupid thing. (His message, paraphrased from spotty memory: I was a dumbass. I deserve to have people outraged at me. We also should be outraged that this murder happened. And again, I was a dumbass.)

As Daria later pointed out, and I appreciate her saying it because I hadn't thought of it that way, "you can only fault [Marconi] to a certain degree, because the fact is, that behavior was encouraged -- strongly -- while it was working, for months and months and months. And the fact that he went too far and took it to a degree where it should not have been taken? That had been accepted from him by his bosses, and in fact encouraged."

So. Station management was hugely embarrassed. Their signature show (which had started with Marconi broadcasting to Seattle as well as Portland, until 107.7 The End had dropped him, leaving Marconi in only one market when the Berg incident occurred) was gone. Their station was, perhaps, doomed to lose many listeners, even to become a bad joke.

To quote Joss Whedon, via his uncredited rewrite for Speed, "What do you do? What do you do?" To quote Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda, "What would an intellectual do? What would Plato do?"

They apologized.

Remember L.A. Law's seventh season, in 1992 and '93? In that, new show runners John Masius and John Tinker, the former producers of the great St. Elsewhere, showed they truly had no clue how to produce L.A. Law. The show spiralled into deep ridiculousness, becoming hysterically grim and a bad parody of soap-opera cliches. Ratings plummeted. But I admire NBC doing a bold move: taking L.A. Law temporarily off the air, firing Masius and Tinker, bringing back producers with L.A. Law experience, and announcing to its many fans (via both on-air announcements and the show's stars fanning out to talk shows) that they knew they'd messed up the show. And that they'd be trying their hardest to repair it.

That's what 94.7 KNRK did. The station apologized. And then -- in a move I believe to be rare, rare, rare in radio -- it started to poll listeners on what they thought the station needed to do to restore trust and listenership...and then implement many of the listener suggestions.

Among those: the rehiring of good guy Gustav.

Because sometimes good things need to happen to the good guys.

I tiptoed into listening again to KNRK (now rebranded as 94.7 Alternative Portland) in the fall of 2004. The new morning show was (still is) run by record producer and music geek Greg Glover (I missed the era of his co-host Sarah X. Dylan, but she now produces The Rick Emerson Show at AM 970, a CBS Radio station, and has fun with celebrity photos on her blog.)

And I grew to listen to it more.

I liked the mix of music; I also liked the on-air talent, now Greg and Tara and Gustav and Jaime Cooley (who survived every station upheaval I've mentioned here) and Squid. They struck me (and still strike me) as people committed to music, and more specifically to getting good music out there. The station gives them some leeway to critique the music, as well as admit what they personally like...and what they don't like as much.

And the station has found and encouraged more programming: the music-for-alterna-kids show Greasy Kid Stuff, the import show Passport Approved, the punk program Total Control on Friday nights (I'm hoping to hear more punk, so hey: another outlet), and Greg Glover's almost-experimental-at-times The Bottom Forty. And in a nice interactive touch, Gustav now hosts a daily segment called "Your Perfect Playlist," with five-song sets sent in by listeners...and often introduced and discussed by those very listeners on-air, in the studio. Gustav is good at making this a comfortable experience for people, as radio is a strange business to do. (See what Mike Russell has to say about that.)

94.7 Alternative Portland is a radio station that has had its big corporate decisions thrown back in its face, and has reacted about as well as I could ever hope a station to react to such a debacle, to repair the damage from such a debacle. (I like the word "debacle.") And it's staying vigilant, knowing that no matter what it does, it won't please everyone. And it acknowledges that with those listener comments you're, heh, not likely to hear on other stations. (It's counter-intuitive but striking, kind of like David Lynch quoting Siskel and Ebert's "Two Thumbs Down" for Lost Highway.)

I miss Jayn, but fret not: she landed on her feet. I learned that she'd become program director of San Francisco's Radio Alice; I eventually e-mailed her, and found out from her that she was doing what she considered her dream job. (And here is her page on Radio Alice's website, with a link to her photo gallery.) And I don't have to miss Daria: she remains a major part of 105.1 The Buzz (afternoons with her co-host Mitch), and keeps performing in plays and improv in Portland.

And Marconi regrouped, spending time in Oklahoma and returning to radio there, then rejoining Portland radio as an afternoon guy, this time on 101.1 KUFO. I wonder how he's doing. If I decide to listen again, I know where to find him.

Radio can be a strange, difficult, soul-sucking business. But it's possible to regain your soul...and your listeners.

Well done, 94.7 and the people who put it on air.
Tags: creme de la chris, radio
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