I’ll say it right away: I Love WDBS.
Love a radio station? Isn’t that a little like loving a vending machine or a utility company?
Sure, if you’re talking about most radio stations. But I’m talking about WDBS. And, as any regular WDBS listener knows, this is not your ordinary radio station.
WDBS is an institution, as much a part of local culture as Somethyme Restaurant, Apple Chill Fair, Breadmen’s, Carrboro and canoeing the Haw River. It’s one of the things that makes this area a nice place to live. Without it, life would be different.
And we may be without it soon. Or we may not. Either way, DBS is being sold. After seven years of chaos, beauty and freedom, the voice of a lifestyle that was never quite the voice of Duke, will most likely become the FM property of Village Broadcasting Company [see note, page 14], owners of WCHL in Chapel Hill and the Village Advocate. DBS, the station that gave us the slogan “Let the Music Keep Our Spirits High,” will become a sister to the station that gave us “I’d rather be in Chapel Hill.” Bumper sticker rivals, Volkswagen vs. Pontiacs, will become adoptive siblings.
In its literature, WCHL, itself a local institution, used to say “WCHL is Chapel Hill.” Well, WDBS is something too, although its constituency is a bit harder to pin down. Four years ago, when I sold advertising for WDBS (after coming within a hair’s breadth of selling for CHL), somebody asked me to describe the station’s listenership. “Basically,” I said; “ . . . leftist low-rent.” Visions of vegetarian kitchens, struggling grad students, breast-fed babies and broken-down VW vans sprang to mind. They still do, though now there’s so much more. Once the “underground” voice of the local airwaves, DBS has become too popular for it to remain submerged in subculture, especially when the subculture it was born into is now pushing 30 and beyond. For connoisseurs of good radio (and this is a region of highly developed tastes), WDBS is the station to listen to. Like a good wine, DBS is special. Name almost any other radio station, and I can name ten more that sound just the same. Nothing else sounds like DBS. That’s because DBS is among the last of an endangered species — radio stations that possess human qualities, that enjoy a close relationship with their listeners.
Despite its left-of-normal image, DBS is really an old-fashioned radio station, a throwback to the days when the dial was a Main Street of familiar sounds and voices, when stations were as warm and genuinely friendly as your oldest neighbors.
Today the radio dial is a four-lane highway of plastic franchise operations that pump out research-programmed music the way McDonalds pumps out hamburgers. Many big radio stations aren’t interested in people anymore. The name of the game is “numbers,” which is another word for Ratings. In the ratings game, people are lost behind the abstract proxy of demographic categories. So instead of playing music for listeners, a station will “target” programming for, say, “Men 18-24” or “Adults 25+.” This dehumanization extends to the studio as well. Disc jockeys and record libraries are being supplanted by “automation systems” — racks of tape machines and computerized electronics that play research-programmed music supplied by national syndication services. A local example is WRAL in Raleigh, which plays music taped in California for 350,000 listeners from Virginia to South Carolina. [This figure is an informed guess. I know what the ratings say, but the rules governing quotes therefrom prevent me from being specific.] The research and the automation do a good job, and WRAL makes a lot of money. Like food from McDonalds, WRAL is agreeable and convenient for most people, but not very interesting or personal.
If other stations are the McDonalds of the airwaves, then DBS is the local delicatessen. We might not like everything it offers, but the quality is excellent, the selection is great and it’s a warm and friendly place to hang around.
Every delicatessen has a personality of its own, a certain specialness in its offerings. The specialty at DBS is music. There are many other things that make DBS an outstanding radio station, but it’s the music that cements the emotional bond with the listeners. Music and radio go together like blood and veins. Music is an intimate art form and radio is an intimate medium; but it goes far beyond that. Music is about as deep a form of communication as there is. It goes straight to that place where our feelings live, and makes us move. As Arthur Rubinstein says, “music is love.” Like music, love is meant to be shared. Nothing shares music like a radio. And nothing on the radio shares music like DBS.
There is an art to playing music on the radio. In a way, disc jockeys are themselves musicians. Their artistry requires knowledge, technique and a “feel” for what they play. The radio station is their instrument, the selections they play are their notes. A set of songs can form a melody of its own, adding a new dimension to each separate piece. Essential to this is a neglected art known as the segue (pronounced seg-way ). A good segue is the back-to-back sequencing of two or more songs in a way that makes musical sense. It isn’t just the choice of songs: it’s the way they flow together. A good segue delights you, like a good guitar riff. DBS is one of the shrinking company of stations where great segues are common. They’re common because DBS is one of the few stations that leaves music selection almost entirely up to the disc jockey.
“Let me tell you, this place is like heaven,” says Caron Avry, who came to DBS about a year ago from Yale’s commercial FM station, WYBC. “There’s so much freedom here, especially compared to other ‘progressive rock’ stations.”
That freedom is also a burden. DBS plays an extremely broad variety of music. Although the central focus is “progressive rock,” this category has grown to include such diverse types as Herbie Hancock’s highly electronic jazz and Emmy Lou Harris’ sweet-fragile country songs.
Cabell Smith, an old-timer by DBS standards (he started in 1972) finds challenge in the diversity. “It can be hard, because there is so much to play, and you play one record after another. But you live for those golden moments when a perfect set comes together. Those make it all worthwhile,” he says.
Greg Wells, the newest addition to the DBS air staff, has a career that includes lengthy tenures both at top forty and album rock stations (most recently WQDR, see issue number 27 of The Sun). He actually keeps a file of his favorite seques, adding to it every time he puts together an inspiring set. There is some control over all that inspiration, in the form of a loose “rotation” that simply assures a consistent mixture of old, new, popular, less popular and obscure records. Two different disc jockeys can play the same rotation and “sound” quite different. This would be unforgivable at most radio stations, where uniformity guarantees the predictability that assures a consistently large audience. On an album-rock FM station like Raleigh’s WQDR, for example, every other song is a popular one, as a matter of rotation policy. So a listener knows, perhaps unconsciously, that something familiar is never more than one song away. With DBS, a listener has little idea what’s coming up, except that it will flow musically from whatever preceeds it. It’s this uniform predictability that helps keep people listening.
The unpredictability also allows the disc jockey to express his or her personality through the music mix. I can always tell, for example, when Rob Gringle is substituting for someone else, without ever hearing his voice. Rob plays old songs that nobody else knows about — tunes by Tom Rush, Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band (with Maria Muldaur when she was still Maria d’Amato) and even the Kingston Trio.
This appeal of now-obscure “older” music points up one of the problems DBS has with its demanding audience. At 30, my tastes are on the elderly side for a rock-music listener. Although I matured to the sounds of Hendrix and Santana, I have little use now for the kind of endless burning guitar work that inhabits, like some kind of obligation, so many tunes today.
Meanwhile, many college-age listeners would like to hear nothing but groups like Styx, Foghat, and Aerosmith, who, with solo guitarists like Ted Nugent, form the core of the hard rock genre. It’s difficult for DBS to please both fogies like me and the younger folks who regard the Beatles from the same tolerant distance that my generation viewed Frank Sinatra and Patti Page.
Ironically, though, the burden of freedom on DBS music programming has lightened recently with the appearance of several new noncommercial stations that appeal to various factions in the balkanized state of popular tastes. The new UNC student station in Chapel Hill, WXYC, has pretty much cornered the hard-rock sound in the market. Even WQDR, which last year tried to increase its share of the “male 18-24” market with a “harder” music mix, has returned to the more light and melodious sound that made it so successful in the first place.
Seven years ago, when DBS first went on the air, it correctly billed itself as “alternative radio.” At that time, the entire “educational” part of the FM band (the bottom end, from 88-92) was empty. Now there are at least six local noncommercial stations on that part of the dial, each playing to tastes — jazz, hard rock, classical, bluegrass, etc. — once addressed exclusively by DBS. The only major holdovers from the days when DBS was the only alternative station are the “Daily Concert” and “Sunday Concert” classical music shows, and the Sunday evening “Maiden Voyage” jazz show. And, with WUNC around to satisfy classical music tastes, the classics are next to go.
Over those seven years, however, DBS has maintained a consistent reputation for quality. Many air personalities have moved on to bigger (if not better) places and (certainly) higher pay. Perhaps best remembered of all the high-quality shows on DBS was the morning program with Ken Ross and Kathy Dunn. When I moved south in late winter of ’75, I expected DBS to be good, just from its reputation. But nothing prepared me for Ken and Kathy. Although spoiled by New York, Boston and Philadelphia radio, I had never heard a morning “team” like those two. They were light, good-humored, professional and neighborly in a real way. Ken had the softest, most sincere voice I had ever heard. His live ads for Somethyme Restaurant gave me no choice but to go there. Kathy, trained as an actress, was crisp yet extremely versatile. You could tell they liked each other, and the audience. When they left in July of that year, the volume of mail exceeded the ratings in size. That tells you as much about the ratings as it does about Ken and Kathy. Ken now writes humor for the likes of comedian Steve Martin in LA, while Kathy holds down the afternoon shift on Milwaukee’s biggest radio station.
There are other success stories. Celeste Wesson, once News Director at DBS, went to WBAI in New York, where she became News Director in a few months. During my only trip to New York in the last two years, I heard a 3-hour program on Hollywood blacklisting which Celeste co-produced. It was one of the finest (if not the finest) piece of broadcast feature journalism I had ever heard. Two other women, Barbara Hedman and Ceil Price, went on to Lexington, Kentucky and Atlanta, Georgia, and did well. In the business end, Karen Worden, who was a salesperson for several months at DBS after graduating from UNC in ’74, now occupies the corporate stratosphere at CBS in New York. Her yearly income is higher than many of us will make in a decade. In that same year (considered by some connoisseurs the “peak” in DBS’ history) two of the top five national finalists in the Bill-Board Magazine Air Personality of the Year contest for progressive rock stations, Ken Ross and Bob Conroy, represented DBS.
Some felt that the disc jockey most deserving of decoration was Bruce Babski. At the time, Babski was a 19-year old on leave from undergraduate religion studies at Duke. He was a walking index for every record (there were thousands) in the station’s library, and a first-rate artist at putting together inspiring sets of album cuts. Then in 1975, at the height of his skills, certainly on his way to a fine career, Babski quit and returned to school. He said he had found radio too all-consuming.
Bruce Babski departed cheerfully. Others didn’t. Perhaps no single issue has rocked the DBS boat more than its employment practices regarding women, and its women’s programming. Even though two of DBS’ three general managers have been women (Kathy Stanford and Kat MacFarlane), and despite the station’s strong record as a springboard for female talent, DBS has been the target of many barbs from local feminists who feel betrayed by the loss of women’s programming. As a result of the general de-politicization of the station’s programming, the “Women’s Voices” twice-daily editorial feature was dropped in January 1977. The loss of Celeste Wesson about a year earlier was also keenly felt; although Wesson left for greener pastures, there is little doubt that she felt squeezed out. Then this past year the “Women’s Show” on Sundays was dropped, although the program is still hosted by Laurie Wolf, who focusses primarily on music by female artists.
In defense, Bob Conroy, President of WDBS, says that employment practices regarding women have always been more than open (about half the current staff is female), and that the treatment of women’s issues has become more sensible. “It seemed ridiculous to segregate the women’s show and women’s news into separate slots that were easily rejectable by listeners,” he says. “We are playing more women’s music in our general programming, and we have integrated women’s news into our regular news and feature coverage. In fact, women’s issues get better coverage this way. There’s more facts, more hard news, less preaching and less politics.”
Caron Avry feels the “women’s issue” more keenly:
“I have really mixed feelings about all this. On the one hand, having studied women’s radio — stations all over the country — I know that DBS is one of the very few stations that really respects women as professionals, that hires women not just because they’re women, but because they’re good, and doesn’t stick them on only the graveyard (all night) shift. On the other hand, it’s been sad to watch the Women’s Show disintegrate over the past year . . . On balance, though, I want people to know that DBS is a really exceptional station in that women and men are on the same professional footing. Our capabilities are not in question. We don’t have to prove ourselves. It’s just unbelievable. Nearly everywhere else, women still get the shaft. You know, the media is supposed to reflect the community. When women make up 51% of the population and only about 20% of the broadcast professionals, that’s not a reflection.”
For all the difficulties of trying to program a radio station and please everybody at the same time, none of the intangible pressures quite compare with the situation provided by the working environment at DBS. The place is sweat-house-cramped and dumpster-ugly.
Finding WDBS can be a pretty unrewarding exercise. Not only is it hard to find, but there’s little aesthetic reward once you get there. It occupies two narrow floors at one end of the long-since condemned Bivins Building, the oldest and ugliest structure on Duke’s East Campus. From the unpaved parking lot, the place looks like a cross between The Alamo and an abandoned high school. Inside, it’s worse: mountains of papers, records, files, magazines, newspapers, tapes, scrolls of teletype and plain old garbage amidst desks, filing cabinets, equipment racks, shelves and partly-destroyed furniture.
About a dozen people work in a space hardly fit for a third that many. Things are always breaking down. The front door buzzer-latch (like the ones at big-city apartment buildings) hasn’t worked for months, requiring the disc jockey — who is a floor, a hall, two doors and two flights of stairs away — to answer the door personally when the offices are closed. The record library, now too big for the limited shelf space, grows in big piles on the newsroom floor. Finally, to make things especially uncomfortable, Duke completely shuts off the heat for several weeks every midwinter.
Yet for all the adversity, DBS has achieved deserved status as a cultural institution, and holds its own financially. This is no mean achievement. Of all the FM stations DBS’ size in the country, ninety percent lose money. In addition, DBS thrives in a market where competition is extremely difficult. In Durham, radio has historically held a low profile against the other advertising media, especially newspaper. The Raleigh stations have almost always dominated the entire area both in coverage and audience size. In Chapel Hill, WCHL has earned a virtual advertising monopoly together with its sister medium, The Village Advocate. Meanwhile, DBS has a signal that is good in Durham, fair in Chapel Hill and all but overwhelmed in Raleigh. (See box for details on reception problems.) Despite all this, DBS pulls at least half its business from Chapel Hill, competing successfully against CHL; and DBS has waged an important uphill fight to win recognition for radio as a valid advertising medium in Durham.
The financial success is linked to the station’s cultural influence. As one of the few remaining stations that “break” new records, or that play records that aren’t hits, DBS is loved by record stores and record companies. There are success stories here too. Back in 1974, when Phoebe Snow’s album first appeared, with near-absent support by Shelter Records, DBS played the record simply for its artistic value. Suddenly, the album was in demand. The Record Bar, the largest record-selling chain in the country (home-grown too, started in Chapel Hill) sensed the market pressure and began to sell the record. Shelter Records noted this and began to promote. Bigger stations like WQDR started airing selections off the album. Phoebe Snow was a hit. Recently, DBS began to play the new David Grisman Quintet album. People started trying to buy the album. After awhile, it appeared on the sales shelves, and now it moves pretty briskly. David Grisman is starting to take off nationally.
“No doubt about it,” Bob Conroy says. “This station sells records.”
And it sells a lot of other stuff too. Although DBS has never been a ratings champ (though it has done very respectably lately), the audience size and loyalty shows where it counts — in good business for the advertisers. Several years ago, when Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” premiered simultaneously in Durham and Raleigh, DBS put more people in the Durham Theater than WKIX, a hugely successful top-forty station, did in Raleigh. Those were the only two media used. Only a couple of months ago, the Lakewood Party Store had to sell its wine stock to raise enough cash to cover damages caused by a milk truck that slammed into the building. Two days’ worth of advertising on DBS brought an avalanche of customers, including a large caravan of cars and vans from Hillsborough. And in Chapel Hill, the Danziger chain of stores and restaurants credits DBS with providing large increases in business.
Success extends to print as well. The once-miniscule monthly DBS program guide was converted, in January 1975, to a monthly Guide to area events. It was another move that characterized independence from Duke, financial self-sufficiency and a shift of focus away from politics to cultural involvement with the surrounding community. Original plans called for the Guide to become more than self-supporting within a year. It was, and still is. Now the Guide is a major local publication, with high-quality editorial content and a circulation of 12,000.
Of particular interest, now that DBS is being sold, is the gradual estrangement of WDBS from Duke, and the concurrent move from student to professional control.
When the station began, it was simply a continuation of the highly political “WDBS” that had been aired at Duke since 1951. That station was a campus-limited student effort. The FM station which is now WDBS was purchased from WSRC, the black-format daytime-only AM station in town, for a mere $60,000. When it went on the air on May 17, 1971, it became a bigger voice for an already-functioning radical student broadcast operation.
Everything was fun and “free form.” The staff was all volunteer and overhead was low. Just about anybody who felt like it could be on the air. People had fun and argued. One day, the station would be on the air all night and the next, it would be off at ten. It was brilliant and terrible and everything in between — but always interesting.
The better staff people became more and more permanent, especially those, like Bob Conroy and Ken Ross, who had professional broadcasting backgrounds and a long-term stake in the station. They were good people doing real work and they needed to get paid. So the station started paying people.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam war was winding down. The sixties had graduated. The seventies were here. The creative musical energies of the sixties were maturing and diversifying. Music wasn’t as interesting as politics, maybe; but it was sure a lot easier to listen to.
So the listeners, more and more of them, related to the music. And DBS had to sell more advertising to support the staff. This was hard to do with the “Duke student station” image hanging around, especially in Durham, where most businesses were pretty unimpressed by local radio in general.
So DBS puts efforts into Chapel Hill, where they had a lot of listeners (some thought more than in Durham) and where the local businesses were a lot more willing to advertise on the radio, thanks mostly to the ceaselessly professional salesmanship of WCHL.
Then, in 1974 came the big official break with Duke students. The student government association, ASDU, withdrew its annual $15,000 support funds for the station. This support was supposed to cover debts to Duke and to the former owners. Now DBS was forced to amortize even larger debts as well as to pay a growing staff. So the professionalism increased, and increased some more. Professional salespeople were hired. Volunteers departed or turned pro. The station developed a more consistent “sound” and a less strident political stance. The former “live at the . . . ” series has evolved into much mire comprehensive coverage of musical events, like the immensely successful three day bicentennial North Carolina Folklife Festival, where DBS set up an entire makeshift studio and covered the goings-on at three different locations. It was a first-rate job that Bob Conroy calls “the best thing we ever did.” In the same vein, last February, DBS broadcast the Durham Black and Blues Festival live from St. Joseph’s performance center, again to a very positive audience response.
One of the most ambitious cultural involvement projects in DBS history will happen in April, when the station presents an entire weekend of “homegrown” music. Musicians will perform live, on tape and on record. For most it will be their first exposure through the airwaves.
Politics hasn’t disappeared from DBS; it has evolved from an attitude to a new kind of commitment. Bob Conroy explains:
“The issue right now is lifestyle, and lifestyle is tied to energy. Alternative energy is the key thing as we enter the ’80’s. Radio should have a primary role in the changing ways we use energy. Not far away are the transistorized radio station, the solar-powered radio. There is already a wind-powered FM station out in Colorado. This is why we have increased our news and public affairs coverage. Let’s face it, Watergate was good entertainment, but it wasn’t critical. Energy is critical. It’s especially important for radio to deal effectively with the energy issue.”
History, however, is full of noble intentions that have been squashed by the wheels of politics or commerce or war or whatever. In broadcast history, one of the biggest wheels is the one that rolls when a new owner takes over a radio station. No doubt people are already beginning to worry. As I write this, the news of the impending transfer to Village Broadcasting Company is less than a day old. By the time this issue of The Sun hits the stands, many teeth will be gnashing earnestly under brows furrowed by dark foreboding.
Will DBS become a WCHL-FM? Will a platoon of sky-blue professionals from Chapel Hill move in and take over, turning our wierd wonder into another sick but ordinary radio station?
I doubt it. For several reasons:
- The folks at CHL know how strong DBS is in the university community, especially with that segment of the community that never listens to CHL.
- DBS has an excellent sales record, especially considering the circumstances. It has been the only station to compete effectively in Chapel Hill against CHL.
- Village Broadcasting people share DBS’ disregard for ratings figures. And even in the ratings, DBS looks like a very complimentary competitor for CHL. It even beats CHL in a number of categories.
- Village Broadcasting Company is one of the few broadcast outfits in the country that not only have a committment to community involvement, but that make it work. They also know that the kind of gee-whiz promotion that works for a station like CHL won’t float with an audience like DBS has.
- The first rule in taking over a situation is Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing. DBS is quite a successful radio station, in every respect but appearances. Chances are that the biggest changes will be in the facilities, and the fewest changes will be in programming.
- Village Broadcasting operates a DBS-like FM station, in Lexington, Kentucky. It started several years ago as a robot and gradually became “live.” It is programmed, in part, by ex-DBS people.
The improved facilities should make DBS and even better station. Nearly everyone involved has agreed, for years, that the main thing standing between DBS and Great Radio hasn’t been money — it’s been equipment. For example, all those fabulous live broadcasts were in monophonic sound, because DBS lacked stereo capability for remote broadcasts. Some studio production equipment is left over from the early fifties. The new stuff will be liberating. Or so I assume.
Of course, the pessimists may be right. It could all go to hell in an outbasket.
I just hope, along with thousands of other people who consider DBS a close friend, that several months from now, we can look at DBS history and see the first seven years instead of the only seven years.
LAST MINUTE DEVELOPMENTS
The plot thickens.
Last week, when the WDBS Board of Directors finally decided to sell WDBS to Village Broadcast Company, the folks over at WCHL began to celebrate. Champagne bottles were opened. Months of waiting and wondering were over. The competition with another bidder for the WDBS license had gone down to the wire and Village had won. Now they could relax like a team in the locker room after a close game.
The party ended abruptly when another team walked in and demanded the trophy.
Another bidder? No, nothing that simple. The claimant this time is Carolina Radio of Durham, owners of WSRC and former owners of WSRC-FM, which is now WDBS. Seems they had an agreement made seven years ago that gave them first option if the WDBS Board ever decided to sell the license. By the terms of this agreement, all Carolina Radio has to do is meet any other accepted bid, and WDBS goes back to the Carolina Radio fold. Now that’s what they want to do.
The agreement’s existence is no surprise. Carolina Radio’s decision is. Nobody ever expected Carolina Radio, which was happy to sell the channel for $60,000 before, to buy it back for some multiple of that amount. But that’s what Jim Mayes says. Mayes is a partner in Carolina Radio and General Manager of WSRC. Their decision isn’t firm yet, but they say it will be on or before April 7th, which is a week away as I write this.
If Carolina Radio attempts to exercise that option, Village Broadcasting is ready to fight.
Everybody back out on the court. We’re in overtime. In the strange world of broadcast property sales competition, the equivalent of overtime is the “hearing.” Hearings are inevitable if these two want to contest each other’s claim. Hearings may be inevitable anyway, because any serious complaint, by anybody off the street, about the sale of a broadcast property will usually result in a hearing.
So we may have some dull news to look forward to. A lot of it. Hearings often go on for years.
So why does Carolina Radio suddenly want their old FM channel back?
One possibility is investment. They could hold on to DBS, as is, for several years and then “broker” the station for a profit. This is a likely possibility. The market value of broadcast properties is going up fast, especially for FM stations.
Another is competition. WCHL is about as competitive as radio stations get. The station all but owns ad expenditures in Chapel Hill. To have that talent for making money operating in the Durham market directly could be frightening for any Durham broadcaster. In fact, there is some speculation that some of the money behind a Carolina Radio buy of DBS might come from parties interested in keeping Jim Heavner, part-owner of Village Broadcasting Company, out of Durham. That’s unlikely, in my opinion, but that rumor says something about the power of Heavner’s reputation.
A third possibility is especially discouraging. Carolina Radio may simply want WSRC-FM or something like it back on the air. That would mean the end of WDBS, for sure.
Meanwhile, with the likelihood of hearings facing everyone, Duke and the WDBS Board may have some second thoughts about selling. After all, nothing (to my knowledge anyway) has been signed. And Duke is hardly losing its shirt by holding on to DBS. Aside from the $200,000-or-so debt to Duke, DBS looks quite solvent.
In fact, there are many people, myself included, who think Duke is nuts to dump the station. A university with a reputation for isolation from the community around it can hardly afford to chuck one of its best PR tools. Duke would even be smart to forget the debt (they certainly aren’t missing the money), in effect legitimize their ownership of the station, and make the capital improvements which the station sorely needs.