If you grew up going to see rock shows at the Pier, Dorton Arena or the old Brewery, then you might remember a radio show called East Coast Live. Host Allan Handelman launched his groundbreaking “rock talk” show on Raleigh’s WQDR-FM in the early ’80s, back when it was the preeminent rock station in the region. The Allan Handelman Show, as it’s called now, carries on a mix of what Handelman calls “rock culture,” with bands playing live in the studio, interviews and discussion of everything from UFOs to the war on drugs to corporate whistleblowers. Frank Zappa, David Letterman, George Carlin and AC/DC have all been regulars over the years. “We’re not talking about the things you hear on AM talk radio,” Handelman says. “We talk about the things that you talk about with your friend when you’re alone.”
The show broadcasts every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. on some two dozen FM rock stations across the country.
But not in Raleigh, not anymore.
After 12 years on WRDU (106.1 FM), Handelman’s show aired on that station for the last time in early May after the station’s program director, Jimmy Tidwell, and Clear Channel Regional Vice President of Programming Jon Robbins decided to cancel it, citing a ratings decline.
But Handelman says he believes the station’s executives canned his show in retaliation for an interview he did last October with Lee Abrams, the creator of programming for XM Satellite radio, which is drawing listeners away from traditional stations.
Handelman says Tidwell told him that the station had been “hit hard” by its competitor, 96 Rock. “As the ratings went down for the station, my ratings went down, too. I said, ‘If it’s a ratings issue, give me three more months, one more ratings period.’ He said, ‘Sure, Allan, I have no problem with that. But it’s up to Jon Robbins.’”
Ratings for WRDU have declined by more than one and a half points in the past year.
A few weeks later, Tidwell called to say the cancellation was final. “I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘For some reason, I think (Robbins) just doesn’t really believe that talk radio or conversation really belongs on a rock station.’”
A few days later, Handelman says he received word from a friend at the station of what he believes is the real reason for the cancellation. “They said, ‘Bottom line, Jon just couldn’t get past the show about satellite radio.’”
It doesn’t make a lot of sense, Handelman says. “At that same period, they were running ads for satellite radio on the air.” Plus, he says, the interview took place in the days after Howard Stern announced his move to satellite, which made national news.
(At this point, I’d like to add that neither Tidwell nor Robbins returned calls for comment. In fact, in the two years I’ve been covering media in the Triangle, no one from Clear Channel has ever returned my calls. Not once. Except for the very nice people at the Alltel Pavilion, which is operated by Clear Channel. But no one from the Raleigh radio office. Don’t they have a PR person over there? Hey Clear Channel–can you hear me now?)
The station’s former program director says he’s “surprised” by the station’s decision. “It’s difficult to get strong ratings on a weekend show,” says Bob Edwards, who was at WRDU from 1996 to 2003, “but Allan’s show always brought really strong ratings to the radio station.” He says the talk format “worked fine. It definitely spoke to the audience of the station, covering anything from pure entertainment to pocketbook politics issues.”
Handelman announced the cancellation in an e-mail newsletter raising the question of whether the show was cancelled over the interview. He included the e-mail addresses for Tidwell and Robbins, asking fans not to be “mean-spirited” or rude if they contact them.
Within days, Handelman says, hundreds of e-mails came in from listeners. “I’m still getting them,” he says. They forwarded him responses from the station to their complaints, in which Tidwell cites “market research and ratings performance” in the decision. “In the final analysis,” Tidwell writes, “a majority of our audience prefers hearing classic rock to spoken word programming.” In another e-mail, Robbins tells a listener that “Many syndicated programs have been eliminated due to our Less is More commercial policy,” referring to a reduction in the number and duration of ads on the air, but Handelman says his show “is 100 percent compliant with Less is More.” Nor does he have any interest in bashing Clear Channel: the show, while independently produced, is syndicated by the Premiere Radio Network, which is owned by Clear Channel.
The interview with Abrams is available on streaming audio at www.live365.com/stations/rocktalk. It’s a terrific interview, a deep conversation about radio’s role in popular culture, and how the past 20 years of market research, consultant worship and consolidation has brought about its decline. Abrams invented the format known as “album-oriented rock,” which replaced the old song-driven Top 40 format with an artist-driven mix of old and new songs. And he invented it in Raleigh, at WQDR, before it went country. Abrams and Handelman both have a lot to say about what went wrong in radio.
Handelman says he was talking about a subject his listeners are already aware of. “I want to be honest and relevant and talk about things they talk about with their friends.”
The show is still on the air in North Carolina. It originates from WRFX 99.7 (“the Fox”) in Charlotte, airs in Greensboro on WXRA 100.3 (“the Buzzard”), and Handelman says he’s had some interest from a station Down East. You can listen to the live audio stream on his Web site ( www.ifitrocks.com/streams.htm ).
But Handelman says he’s sad to say goodbye to Raleigh. “Of all my markets, Raleigh-Durham and Eastern North Carolina I consider the home of the show. That’s where it was born. And to lose that market hurts. I care a lot about those people,” he says. “Some of those listeners go back 25 years listening to my show. When WRDU canceled it, they didn’t know the history. That’s where people let me experiment on Sunday night, doing unconventional radio. It was a very special time, and I owe those people in Eastern North Carolina a lot for the chance and the encouragement.”
Edwards expects the show won’t be off the air in Raleigh for long, however. “Bottom line, it really is about ratings,” he says. “From that standpoint I would expect another station to pick up the show in a relatively quick period of time.” It’s a natural for any rock-based contemporary station, he says–the most obvious one being competitor WBBB 96 Rock.
Raleigh is one of only eight U.S. cities with an organized CopyNight, a monthly meet-up for people who want to get active on issues of copyright law, technology and intellectual property. Founded by David Alpert of Google and Ren Bucholz, activism coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, CopyNight is much like the meet-ups that fueled the Howard Dean campaign–casual social events designed to help people concerned about complex issues to help network, educate each other and stay informed of the latest developments. The first CopyNight was held March 29, on the evening of opening arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearing of MGM vs. Grokster (we’re still waiting on that decision). As the Web site describes it, “We meet over drinks once a month in many cities to discuss new developments and build social ties between artists, engineers, filmmakers, academics, lawyers and many others.” Gatherings are held on the fourth Tuesday of the month.
I decided to check it out. When I arrived a Tavola Rossa, an Italian restaurant near Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, I encountered a humble gathering of three: organizer Steve Burnett, his wife, Merrie Burnett, and their friend Nathan Walls. All three work in technology and are bloggers. Burnett says he read about CopyNight on a blog “and I went, hey, this is a really cool idea. There are a lot of techies in the Triangle. Somebody’s probably interested who hasn’t heard about it yet.” I think he’s right on all counts. Especially the last one. “I haven’t been doing much promotion yet,” Burnett admits.
A young man with a long beard, Burnett plays Chapman Stick and Theremin with a friend in an “ambient, improvisational” band called Phasmatodea. They plan to release a recording through Creative Commons’ Sampling Plus license, a legally valid alternative to the basic “all rights reserved” copyright (creativecommons.org/ licenses/sampling+/1.0). I had fun talking to these guys. Come to the next CopyNight, the last Tuesday in June, and join the conversation. (Check out www.copynight.org.)