By Theresa Miller   Published Sep 07, 2005 at 5:37 AM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo

{image1}When the now-defunct Lazer 103 changed its format and unveiled its new name, "The Hog," a few weeks ago, many Milwaukeeans felt that it was yet another nod to status quo in the Brew City.

Clearly, Lazer's owner, Saga Communications, saw it needed to make a change -- and fast. Lazer had been steadily losing listeners to WQBW (The Brew) since its arrival in September 2004, according to Arbitron radio ratings. By spring of this year, Lazer had fallen to seventh place among the coveted 25-to-54 age group, down from second in spring 2004, while The Brew had shot up to first.

However, Lazer's decision to completely abandon new rock and play only tunes from the '70s, '80s and '90s was seen by many as a step backward rather than a step forward. Milwaukee currently has three stations playing classic rock from various decades: WQBW, WKLH and WRIT, not to mention other stations, such as WKTI and WMYX, that play a healthy dose of classic rock.

Some of Lazer's fans may have been thrilled at the prospect of hearing more Ted Nugent, but others, particularly younger listeners who had looked to the station as a source for new rock, were disappointed.

"The Hog may be hitting what's going on in music, but they are alienating a lot of younger listeners," says Mike "Buzz" Bereiter, music director for the free-form, alternative and college rock station, 91.7 WMSE.

Mike Bacon, senior director of modern rock for Friday Morning Quarterback, a purveyor of publications for radio programming departments, is familiar with the old Lazer, as well as the circumstances surrounding Saga Communications' decision to switch to The Hog.

"With the move to The Hog (WHGQ), Saga is trying to create an iPod for blue-collar, upper-end listeners between the ages of 25-to-54, by offering a wider breadth of current classics," says Bacon.

That's exactly what management at The Hog says it was trying to do.

"We have more than doubled the number of songs in our music library," says Keith Hastings, program director for WHGQ. He says the response to the new format has been "better than expected."

Bacon says that Saga's decision to go after the older demographic instead of the younger 18-34 demographic was a smart business decision.

"Radio stations pursue the older demographic because this group can bring in the 'beer money,'" says Bacon. "Stations must have a certain percentage of their audience over a certain age in order to receive 'x' amount of ad dollars from beer companies."

But why do so many Milwaukee stations play classic rock? Says Bacon, "Milwaukee is a conservative town with a blue-collar work ethic."

Back in the Day

Rock radio in Milwaukee can be traced back to WZMF, a free-form station popular in the '60s and '70s. In those days, DJs controlled the music, without set play lists. WZMF battled with competitors, WQFM and WLPX, both Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) stations, until 1979, when the station switched to a classical format. The AOR format continued to thrive in the '70s and '80s and eventually splintered off into various formats, most notably classic rock, active rock and alternative rock. 96.5 WKLH, widely recognized as the first classic rock station in the country, took to the airwaves in 1986.

That same year, Milwaukee was introduced to WLZR (Lazer 103). Initially an AOR station, Lazer later morphed into an active rock station, playing current rock as well as classic rock. Rocker WLPX converted to a Top 40 format in 1984. WQFM, a mainstay on Milwaukee radio for 23 years, conceded to Lazer in 1996, and switched to a smooth jazz format.

In the early '90s, alternative radio stations began popping up across the country, in response to the growing popularity of artists like Green Day, Pearl Jam, The Cure and Nirvana. The alternative format encompasses a number of genres including punk, indie, grunge and college rock. Local station WLUM became an alternative rock station in 1994, tweaking its format several times since then. Today, 102.1 is "Milwaukee's Alternative Station," playing newer rock and alternative "classics."

These days, classic rock remains strong, while alternative rock continues to decline. According to Katz Media Group's "Radio National Averages Report," which reflects data for Arbitron's spring 2005 market reports, "younger-skewing" formats, including alternative and active rock, show a drop in shares, while classic rock is marginally up. In its "National Format Averages and Share Trends Report" for fall 2004, Katz indicated that alternative/modern rock and AOR formats saw the biggest share declines.

Bacon points out that certain formats are more dominant in certain regions. He compares Milwaukee to Detroit and St. Louis, working-class markets where classic rock formats prevail.

Times Like These

Years ago, radio formats were more clearly defined, and there weren't nearly as many formats as there are today. One could hear a rock song on an AOR station, but not on an adult contemporary (AC) station. There was a distinction between the radio station you listened to and the station your parents listened to. The play lists for both stations were completely different. Now, parents and kids might be listening to the same songs on different stations. For example, a song played on WLUM might also be played on WMYX or WKTI.

"There's more of a blending of genres," says Marilyn Mee, WKLH disc jockey and a former Lazer 103 music director.

No doubt, rock music has become more mainstream and contributed to this trend. Led Zeppelin's music used to be considered counter-cultural; now it's being used in car commercials.

This blending of genres has made the playing field even more competitive for radio stations. Why would a listener be loyal to one station when he can go to a number of stations to hear the songs he likes?

Mee sees the mixing of genres as a benefit, because it makes radio stations work harder to keep listeners. Stations have to do more to differentiate themselves. DJs need to work harder to build a rapport with listeners.

Commercial radio's job of attracting and retaining listeners will only get tougher, given the increasing number of media choices available to listeners, including satellite radio and MP3 players. Satellite radio, for a monthly fee, offers subscribers a countless number of channels and a variety of genres that can't be found on commercial radio. For example, Sirius Satellite offers "Sirius Disorder," a free-form station that plays a range of music genres, as well as new music.

MP3 players continue to impact the radio industry. According to Parks Associates, a research firm focused on digital technologies, portable MP3 players reached a 20 percent penetration rate with the U.S. online population in May 2005.

MP3 players have filled a demand for personalization, as listeners want more control over our music. But fans also want spontaneity, which defined radio before the days of programmed music. "Shuffle" technology (as in the iPod shuffle), provides the spontaneity of radio. Of course, the technology is superior to radio because the songs being shuffled are from one's own music library.

So with all the other media choices available why would anyone still tune in to commercial or terrestrial (land-based) radio?

"What satellite radio stations can't offer is talent and locality, such as disc jockeys who relate to the audience, local traffic reports, and news on area events," says Bacon. "People can get their music anywhere. It's what's between the music that will determine which terrestrial radio stations endure."