By Ashley Zimmerman
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With the best intentions, Palm Beach County public radio station WXEL-FM (90.7) has made an offer to fill the classical-music void created by WTMI. That'll provide drive-time relief in the northern wilds but is unlikely to do much good farther south, where the mighty pirate signal of 90.9, broadcast from somewhere in northwest Lauderdale, smothers it. Possibly the only station capable of inducing more apoplexy than Party 93, 90.9 proclaims itself "ghetto radio," offering a roster of the latest gangsta rap undiluted and uncensored. A Debussy fan tuning in to WXEL only to catch Khia's rather bossy cunnilingus instruction manual ("my neck, my back... lick my pussy and my crack!") may well decide Party 93 ain't so bad after all.
On second thought, 93.1's current agenda is numbing even to the initiated. Though it proudly pumps its low ratio of commercials to music (in stark contrast to Power 96.5), it has quickly eroded any benefit by keeping to a strict regimen of the same songs repeated ad nauseam. Power, far more eclectic, also doesn't sound so horrifically out of place when heard someplace with sunlight and fresh air -- anywhere outside of a club, that is.
"The station will broaden," promises manager Mike Disney, as an acknowledgment to the complaints. "It is very tight, bright, and repetitive. We're grinding it hard, but that's by design. It will move out."
At the beginning of February, Party 93 increased the ad load to four commercials per hour, much less than Power, but lashed fast to a far stricter format. Interestingly, the station's ads make no apology for this narrow focus, underscoring again and again that unlike its more urbane competition, the trance and techno font plays only velvet-roped VIP fare and nothing from the street. And the spots took shots at Power, setting up a back-and-forth promotional campaign that gets more interesting every day. The latest salvo finds Party firing, "No annoying rap! One hundred percent your music!"
Disney sounds as if he's had fun orchestrating the competitive commercials. "It's a radio thing -- a way to differentiate the brand. They play hip-hop and rap, and we don't. They're the big kahuna on the block, the 800-pound gorilla," he says. "I'm amazed by how they've acted on the air to a brand new station."
But he's not surprised by the angry mobs calling for his head, vilifying him for replacing the area's sole classical-radio mouthpiece with music its detractors won't even dignify with that term. The calls and e-mails have diminished to a trickle, he says, reemphasizing his point that Cox Communications, which owns FM stations Party 93, 99 Jams, Hot 105, and Coast 97.3, gave the beleaguered classical outlet 18 months to prove itself before pulling the plug. And he's well-aware that the flippant tone taken by Party on the day of the switch made him even more of a target for abuse.
"Yeah, I know," he admits, almost regretfully. "I can see where that's viewed that way. We kind of teased people, but it was as much to trick the competition thinking we were going talk. It was not designed as a slap in the face to [the classical audience] but more as a means to obtain maximum publicity. We were looking for a big bang."
As if the new station should have made weepy concessions to the shuntified WTMI faithful, some of whom kept the new station on for days just to let each feather ruffle fully. But Disney proclaims that once 93.1 is running smoothly, "We'll be very active in the community supporting events and causes and things like that. I mean, you won't find many companies with community service at the level of Cox Enterprises."
Disney also wants to mollify the mob by placing blame on Howard "Woody" Tanger, who sold the station to Cox in July 2000 and has admitted he feels no guilt about the station's changing its format after the sale. "I think the bandit was the guy who sold it for $100 million and ran," he says half-seriously. All of WTMI's recordings and intellectual property have reverted to Tanger, Disney explains, and Tanger has reportedly parked the retired call letters on a small Connecticut AM station.
Party 93 did manage to position itself to take advantage of the Winter Music Conference, techno's big South Beach to-do taking place next month. But since the station is in start-up mode, says Disney, "we won't be able to embrace it as much as we will a year from now."
That's if the station lasts that long, depending upon whether it can accumulate enough advertisers to make it more lucrative than its predecessor. (Now, most of the commercials are self-promotional spots.) But until Party can demonstrate that it's willing to throw a wrench into its increasingly predictable mix and show more eclecticism than did WTMI's rather bland classical selection, it may have trouble attracting long-term listeners.
Disney, toeing the party line, says he'll opt for safety. "People say they want to hear different stuff," he says, "but when you play something too different, they're like, "I don't like that,' and they turn your radio station off."