MAKING AIRWAVES; THE SALE OF WRNR -- RADIO FREE BALTIMORE TO ITS SMALL, NON-MAINSTREAM AUDIENCE -- CRANKS UP FEARS OF A FORMAT CHANGE.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Radio renegade WRNR has been sold. Now its fans want to know: Has it sold out?

Most radio plays to the masses, giving people what expensive surveys and Billboard magazine say they want to hear. Not so WRNR-FM (103.1), where eclecticism and the element of surprise are the rules, not the exceptions. Deejays at the Annapolis station play pretty much what they want to play; playlists put together by the program director are suggestions, not requirements. Modern rock, mainstream rock, adult top-40, adult contemporary, oldies: None of the convenient labels applies to WRNR.

John Mayall, Marianne Faithfull, XTC, Brian Eno, Fats Domino. Calling WRNR's playlist "eclectic" is understating the case, which is exactly why many people are so devoted to it -- and why they hope the station's new owners will keep their mitts off the format (or lack thereof).

They may not have anything to worry about. The new guys in town promise to stay the course, sticking with the no-format format that WRNR's soon-to-be-former owner, Jake Einstein, pioneered at WHFS until selling that station in 1988. In 1995, he bought WRNR and started over again.

"They need to stay format-less. They need to let their deejays have the freedom to play everything," says Karen deCamp, a WRNR listener who lives in Roland Park and teaches sixth grade in Howard County. "I consider myself an incredibly well-rounded musical person, because I've been listening to them for years."

The deal

Earlier this month, Einstein, the beloved 79-year-old father figure to Maryland's progressive music scene, sold the station, saying it was time to bring in younger blood (and also finish a running dispute with his partners, who didn't always share his philosophy). Once the deal is finalized, within the next two months or so, the station will belong to Empire Broadcasting, a group whose leadership includes Steve Kingston, program director at K-ROCK in New York City.

For $2.4 million, Einstein sold Empire two of his three stations: WRNR and R&B-oriented; WYRE-AM (810). He retains WNAV-AM (1430), where he has altered the format (from easy-listening, or what Einstein calls "tired businessman's music) to concentrate on singer-songwriters (everyone from James Taylor and Kris Kristofferson to Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello, with the occasional Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra thrown in).

Sure, there's a station here in town for every format -- country, oldies, progressive, modern rock, rap and hip-hop. And all of them (depending on how specific your taste is) play good music.

The problem is, they play the same good music. Does a day go by without "Unchained Melody" being played on WQSR? Without Pearl Jam thundering from WWMX? What's the chance of hearing an obscure Rolling Stones cut on WIYY?

Unless you listen to WRNR, when's the last time you heard a cut from a band you'd never heard of -- one whose discs probably aren't available at the local music store?

"The other stations," says Einstein, "they're playing the same thing, brainwash radio. They play it constantly, they wear it out."

That's what makes WRNR so valuable to its fans. Nowhere else, within the same half-hour, will you hear Neil Young's "Powderfinger," John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth," Big Head Todd's "Heart of Wilderness" and the Church's "Under the Milky Way." No other station bridges the musical genres and generations, jumping from '20s blues to '90s techno, from Woodie Guthrie to Phish.

"The people who play the music are people who really know music," says Andrea Camp, a senior fellow for a Boston think tank who lives in Catonsville. "They're not just playing blindly from playlists."

Even more telling, the next song on WRNR could just as likely be from a local band struggling to find a label, rather than some platinum-selling juggernaut.

"They're really strong supporters of the local music scene," says Susie Mudd, publisher of Music Monthly, a chronicle of Maryland music. She singles out the ubiquitous Damian Einstein, once a fixture at WHFS and now at WRNR, for special praise. "You could turn on that station anytime, and within five or six songs, you'd hear something local."

Deanna Bogart, Laughing Colors and Once Hush are just three of the local acts that get airplay on WRNR, she says. WIYY and WHFS play their share of such music, but to nowhere near the degree WRNR does.

"They talked about the music, they talked about who the bands were, they talked about where they were playing, they talked about the clubs that were hosting the bands," Mudd explains. "That's the thing this area needs, [radio stations] that really care."

Venting angst

The news of their beloved's sale sent a jolt through WRNR's small but passionate listenership, which felt doubly threatened: One, the listeners remembered when Einstein sold WHFS and how that station became way too mainstream for their tastes; and two, K-Rock is the home of Howard Stern, an association that left them crossing themselves at the very thought.

"When the story first ran in The Sun, I was deluged with calls during the morning program," says Phil Harrell, the station's program director and morning deejay. "I had to talk a couple people down off the ledge."

Some of that angst was apparent on the station's Web site (http: //www.wrnr.com) last week.

"Maybe the format could be syndicated as a specialty show or put on satellite on one of the multi-channel systems -- or on the AM station?? Anything!!" wrote Scott McLeary of Cherry Hill, N.J., who listens during trips to his sister's house.

"If the new owners change the format, everyone (listeners/owners/community) loses," wrote Peter B. Flynn of Crofton.

Lisa Adams of Baltimore put it bluntly: "I'd hate to see the format change, because it couldn't be any better than this."

All along, WRNR's listeners have had to live with the knowledge that they're a minority. The station has never been what you'd call a ratings grabber. For one thing, its signal doesn't reach far beyond Towson to the north, Beltsville to the west, Easton to the east and Upper Marlboro to the south. In the latest Baltimore-area Arbitrons, the station earned a .7 share among listeners 12 and older, which translates to roughly 2,800 listeners in an average quarter hour. By comparison, top-rated WBAL-AM (1090) earned an 8.5 share, about 32,200 listeners. WPGC-FM (95.5) and WJFK-AM (1300), which tied for 15th, had a 1.6 share, about 6,000 listeners.

The fear goes something like this: Surely, new owners will want to make the station more profitable. Which means attracting more listeners. Which means toeing closer to the line.

For their part, the new owners are trying to say the right things.

"We see absolutely no changes whatsoever, formatically," Don Cavaleri, president of Empire Broadcasting Systems, assures the wary from his Panama City, Fla., offices. "We feel we're serving a very viable audience."

Noting the station's weak, 6,000-watt signal -- compared with WQSR's 50,000 watts, for example -- Cavaleri says the trick is to serve the local audience (that is, the Annapolis area) and offer a format that makes it worthwhile to fight the static and tune in. Reception in Baltimore can be iffy, and picking WRNR up in Washington is nearly impossible.

It would be hard to make that signal much stronger; doing so could interfere with stations in Culpeper, Va., and Middletown, Del., that broadcast on the same 103.1 frequency.

'Nice bunch of guys'

Jake Einstein takes the new owners at their word. Both Kingston and Cavaleri have ties to the Baltimore-Washington area; Kingston was once a deejay on WYRE, while Cavaleri was a general sales manager at WPGC. "I think they're gonna keep [the format] where it is," Einstein says. "They've got a nice bunch of guys there."

Of course, it's not unheard of for owners to break their promises; didn't Bob Irsay pledge never to move the Colts? Still, judging by their own criteria, it sounds as if the folks at Empire have a winner in WRNR. Witness Joe Smith, vice president for finance at Good Samaritan Hospital, who installed a signal enhancer at his Timonium house so he could pick up the station clearly.

"The deejays are so genuine," says Smith, who believes their love of the music is almost as important as the songs they play.

"They just play a great variety of music," he says. "I don't like turning on the radio and hearing the same songs that I've heard before."

And if the format changes and WRNR goes -- shudder -- mainstream?

"I could very well just listen to jazz all the time," says Smith, "jazz and classical."

Even more important: Never underestimate Jake Einstein, who likes the freewheeling format he's pioneered at WHFS and WRNR and wouldn't be above trying it a third time.

"If they abandon the format," he explains as if the answer should be obvious, "I'll move into it."

45 Minutes of Morning Rock Programming

WRNR-FM (103.1), progressive free-form, just sold by Jake Einstein:

"Cadillac Daddy," The Barnburners

"Church Street Blues," Norman Blake

"Straight As the Crow Flies," Kim Richey

"Wheels," Leo Kottke

"Blues Man," Stephen Stills

"Paying the Fiddler," Jupiter Coyote

"Two Can Do It Too," Amazing Rhythm Aces

"Willin'," Little Feat

"With the People," Drivin' N' Cryin'

"There's Gotta Be a Change," Jonny Lang

"Next Time You See Me," Matt Kelly Band

"Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man," The Rolling Stones

"Flatfoot Sam," Sloleak

WHFS-FM (99.1), modern rock, once Jake Einstein's progressive station:

"Walking On the Moon," The Police

"The New Pollution," Beck

"Daughter," Pearl Jam

"The Impression That I Get," The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

"Creep," Radiohead

"Freshmen," Verve Pipe

"Whip It," Devo

"Shame On You," Indigo Girls

"Eye," Smashing Pumpkins

"So Much to Say," Dave Matthews Band

WWMX-FM (106.5), Baltimore's top-rated rock station:

"A Long December," Counting Crows

"Walking In Memphis," Marc Cohn

"Everyday Is a Winding Road," Sheryl Crow

"In Your Eyes," Peter Gabriel

"Like the Way I Do," Melissa Etheridge

"Friday, I'm In Love," The Cure

"You Learn (acoustic)," Alanis Morissette

"Roll to Me," Del Amitre

"Heart of Glass," Blondie

"Name," Goo Goo Dolls

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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