Rock radio listeners in the Washington DC area noticed when CBS's classic-rock FM station WARW mixed recent songs in with the oldies and started calling itself "The Globe." It's not just a moniker, it's a marketing strategy. CBS is going to power the station with slightly more expensive wind-generated power. In The Washington Post business section Monday, reporter Frank Ahrens says radio always tries to capitalize on the "cultural trends of the moment," and that Al Gore-style eco-panic is firmly in the "mainstream" now:
The WARW format switch also demonstrates how environmentalism has moved to the political center. Thirty years ago, it was considered fringe. Even five years ago, it would have been highly unlikely for a mainstream commercial radio station to align itself with concerns over global warming -- too crunchy for most listeners. Now, WARW thinks such branding might increase its ratings, as environmentalism -- like recycling -- carries a positive and widely popular connotation. Even Wal-Mart buys wind power.
CBS Radio is telling its other stations about WARW's green experiment, said Karen L. Mateo, a spokeswoman for the chain, and already several have asked about taking green steps of their own...WARW (94.7 FM) is taking several steps to go green, the station manager says, steps that parent company CBS is touting to some of the chain's 146 other stations nationwide.
WARW will pay a premium for electricity that Pepco [Potomac Electric Power Co.] guarantees is wind-generated, rather than produced by a coal-fired plant. The station plans to build a performance studio at its Silver Spring headquarters at least partly out of green material, such as recycled flooring. And WARW's gasoline-burning cars are being replaced by hybrid vehicles.
Ahrens also reported that the CBS radio station is not so political that it will refuse commercial buys from corporations whose environmental records have been criticized as less than Greenpeace-friendly. Ahrens once again advised the reader that the new trend is firmly in the mainstream, not on the fringy left:
Commercial stations also cannot afford to take radical political positions. As their revenue comes from ratings-generated advertising, they must appeal to as many listeners as possible or dominate in specific demographic categories.
FM stations became the voice of the counterculture in the late '60s only because AM stations were the big moneymakers and FM stations were an afterthought. Owners were happy to let the station hippie play entire albums and ramble on, as long as he didn't cost the station its license. Once FM stations started making money, they became more conservative.
Likewise, Cumulus Media's country radio stations took what appeared to be a strong political stand against the Dixie Chicks in 2003, after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized President Bush and the war in Iraq. But in truth it was an easy call for Cumulus, and one that made business sense. At the time, the United States had just launched the war, Bush's ratings were high and the Cumulus stations were flooded with anti-Chicks calls from country listeners, a fairly patriotic demographic.
But the Chicks have long been back on Cumulus -- which is why 94.7 the Globe will not be Granola Radio.
In my samplings of the station so far, I haven't noticed overt political campaigning. It seems more like corporate positioning than Air-America-with-a-soundtrack aspirations. But there is still time for evolution.