Monday, November 15, 2010

The Death Knells Of Philippine Radio

.:The Death Knells For Philippine Radio:.

In a span of three months, three different radio stations glaringly reformatted, each successive reformat conspicuously tolling the bells of the slow and agonizing death of Philippine radio. I’ve been trying to find the words to say as all of this happened right before my very eyes, but I’d be lying if I said this had the same emotional impact on me as opposed to when Campus 99.5 was unceremoniously killed over two years ago.

Then again, maybe it’s not that I’m no longer emotionally affected by these drastic changes to our airwaves, or even the obvious fact that I was, with the exception of one station out of the three, never an avid listener of any of these stations at any point in my life, regardless of what incarnation they took. It may very well be that I’m slowly becoming desensitized to the systematic demise of radio as a medium, and the only reason it still stays strong as a medium is that it’s easier to listen to a radio than to watch a television while riding a jeepney. Technology has been kicking radio’s behind for the past decade or two, and internet is being touted at this point (And no longer video.) as truly killing the radio star.

Three months. That’s all it approximately took to turn the radio industry on its head, although one must admit that the seeds were planted for a long time in two out of the three cases, so it wasn’t all that surprising when things panned out the way they did this year. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that the landscape of radio has never looked bleaker, at least to the fans of the old school who don’t mind a bit of the new school, but certainly mind an obvious dominance of only one particular radio format on the airwaves – the masa format, to be exact.

Is Philippine radio dead? Heavens, no. The radio medium is arguably stronger than ever - in terms of lifespan. These reformats ensure that the radio industry will continue to be around. However, it’s safe to say that radio as we knew it is not alive but undead, for in its place is a zombie that would continue to exist, but not quite live on. Perhaps it would achieve more monetary success, even, but for the longest time, radio didn’t have to compromise much of its integrity in order for it to become successful, and now, it almost necessarily has to.

Or maybe I’m just looking at this with rose-colored glasses. After all, isn’t payola now considered a thing of the past, thus meaning radio, as a whole, is far more reputable now than it used to be? Not really, because payola existed in a time where radio was powerful enough to command payola. Now, it just isn’t the case: why would a record label need to pay any radio station for airplay at all? Clearly, radio has fallen at the mercy of nearly everyone else, and has only print and a lack of internet penetration to thank that it’s not dead last in the media landscape.

Through the eyes of a fan of the radio medium, here are the three stories that have changed the face of Philippine radio in ways nobody could have imagined just a year ago.

From Joey 92.3 to XFM to U92 to 92.3 News FM: Hatid Sa Inyo Ng Radyo 5!

Gone, but not... who were you again?

First, the least objectionable shake-up, in my opinion; although at the same time, the most dramatic one among the three reformats.

92.3 as a frequency was, for the longest time, known as one of the least talk-oriented radio stations in the metro. With very light and easy tracks that never fail to calm people down as they listen to it in the middle of traffic, 92.3, and its most popular incarnation, Joey, certainly went against the grain of the 90’s boom towards eloquent talk radio. It was normally compared to other stations like 96.3 WRK and 94.7 WLL, and at some point, 97.9 Home Radio. All four stations had similar philosophies, while at the same time, playing enough recognizable and current songs to not completely fall into being an outright jazz or classical station.

When Joey became XFM in 2007, it was quite a departure from its old easy-listening format, as it became a haven for electronica, house, lounge, and indie music. This was far from the mainstream adult contemporary ways of most radio stations in the upper economic strata markets, and as such, had its own cult following, most of whom were thoroughly hooked enough to not notice that within a year’s time, XFM went back to its old Joey format, just emphasizing more jazz tunes than before. Overall, this stealthy change confused most casual listeners who didn’t have a clue what made 92.3 work for all those years. With the clear lack of direction and reception in a niche it wanted to dominate yet nobody in the advertising world really cared if it did, the X gave way to the U.

U92 was MTV Philippines’s answer to RX, Magic, Mellow, RT, and I guess at the time, MAX. The station, an affiliate of MTV Philippines (Which was also reputedly at its death knells as well, much thanks to Myx.), was composed of arguably the most star-studded lineup of radio personalities this side of the world. While we’ve had DJ’s who became celebrities for one reason or another, U92 hired mostly celebrities to become DJ’s, thus ending up with people like The Brewrats, Pia Magalona, and KC Montero. They also did a number on the programming of at least WAVE, JAM, and RT, since these three stations lost the following jocks when U92 hustled to snap them up: Eri Neeman, Jimmy Muna, Rye, and Mike Potenciano from Wave; Patti from Jam; and Joshua Z, Tado, Angel, and Ramon from RT. There were even rumors that Mo Twister was almost swiped by U92 if Mo didn’t have the foresight to inform Magic of the attempt to pirate him, giving them a chance to make him an offer he can’t refuse to stay on in Radio Partners’ flagship station.

With star power and veteran know-how combined in the new radio station, it seemed like only a matter of time before U92 would start giving Magic and RX a run for their money, being the top two radio stations in their target market. Alack and alas, this never came to pass, and massive overhead costs for a very star-studded on-air lineup were but the tip of the iceberg that sank U92 just exactly 364 days after it set sail.

What replaced it was clearly an angling made to wrestle for media dominance, as exerted by the new powers that be from the Kapatid network, who aggressively snapped up a lot of news personnel from both Channel 2 and 7 in an effort to establish itself as a legitimate threat to the ratings game. As TV5 already had an FM radio station in 106.7, most famous during the time it was known as KOOL 106, the station that was once known as MRS, then Joey, then XFM, then U92, became 92.3 News FM: the first AM radio format to air on the FM band.

With one of my good friends, Michelle Orosa, as one of the personalities in the new station, I actually don’t find the new format objectionable at all, nor do I think it’s a waste of a good radio station, since 92.3’s current format is something that has never been done before and has a lot of potential. Neither would I miss the U92 format, since Magic, RT, RX, and Mellow all still exist to give me more of the same. It's novel in that you have standard AM fare on the FM dial, although the overlap between this and 558 RMN News is a bit telltale, what with key personalities like Raffy Tulfo still performing their duties on that network, last time I checked.

Of course, what I do feel bad about are the people who lost their jobs when U92 folded up, since a lot of them were people I have worked with or happen to be friends with. I honestly don’t have much of an opinion about U92 when it finally kicked the bucket, but I’m sure it couldn’t have been pleasant to know that not only are you out of a job, but if you came from RT, WAVE, or JAM, you probably can’t make your way back there. Neither would you expect to find yourself in Magic or MAX, either. Especially not MAX, since it became...

From 103.5 K-Lite to Heart FM to 103 ½ Max FM to 103.5 WOW FM: Lahveeet!

It *was* the right kind of Lite. Then they found their Heart. And it was screwed up to the MAX. Oh, WOW.

If TV5 was going to experiment with a never-before tried format on the FM band, by golly, the Radio Partners (Current owners of JAM 88.3, WAVE 891, Magic 89.9, 99.5 RT, and WOW 103.5.) were going to experiment with a format they never tried before.

Prior to the current Mr.Fu-centric incarnation of 103.5, many listeners fondly remembered 103.5 as K-Lite, that amazing little radio station that can. It was cutting edge, contemporary, and innovative all at the same time. Arguably the pioneer of modern Philippine talk radio, K-Lite was the brainchild of several radio legends who came together to see a dream come true from the moment of its inception in 1995. I’m not fully aware when the Radio Partners ended up acquiring K-Lite, but I know for a fact that this radio station was, without a doubt, influential to the upper market on so many levels. Only Magic, RX, and RT would have a chance to argue this claim, in my book.

With such a powerful lineup of jocks such as Joe Schmoe and Dick Reese, with these living legends manning the booth, brilliant ideas left and right, what could have possibly gone wrong? I don’t really know, since not only was I not really a huge listener of the station, but my timelines are skewed when it comes to the rise and fall of K-Lite (Although a good friend, Ren Aguila, recently told me what he believes to be the reason, but it's quite a long story, and this post is already long enough as is.). Despite that,the beginning of the end for the frequency itself obviously came the minute they decided to do a drastic reformat that saw K-Lite rechristened as 103.5 Heart FM.

Now, I will tell you one thing about my former boss, the legen... wait for it... dary Joe D’ Mango, and it’s that this man is one of those whom I respect and admire the most in the radio industry despite never having been an avid listener of his during his heyday. His mental acumen and pulse for the radio industry was unbelievably spot-on, and with the level of success he had with WAVE and subsequently, K-Lite’s spiritual successor, JAM, it was believed that he would work his Mango Magic to make Heart FM become a format to be reckoned with.

And then he touted Heart to become the station that would give Mellow 94.7 a run for its money.

With that, you might see where this reformat may not have been the brightest idea of all time, and perhaps the only knock on sir Joe's eye (Or ear.) for the radio industry. Mellow 94.7 is many things, but it was never a target worth aspiring to. It’s a good radio station, but at no point was it the best in anything. I say this knowing two of my friends, Jaybee and Vince G, currently work there. They are great individuals, no question about it, but I doubt they would tell you that Mellow is the number one station in anything, except for catchiest jingle of all time. Because you are the minstrel, and I’m your guitar. And they don't even use that jingle anymore. =(

When the masa-ish 93.9 DWKC (We are family!) became 939 KCFM, they had RX 93.1 dead in their sights as the kind of station they wanted to overtake. That sort of explains why they pirated Chico and Delamar from RX, to begin with. When KCFM became iFM after failing to unseat RX, it was clearly gunning for 101.1 YES FM, which it still has yet to unseat, let alone unseat current powerhouse 90.7 Love Radio in the masa format. When U92 replaced XFM, it was obviously gunning for Magic and RX. It didn't succeed at that, either. Any massive reformat was meant to do one of two things: to compete with an already established powerhouse in a lucrative market or niche, or to establish a powerhouse in an untapped lucrative market or niche. Heart FM, in gunning for Mellow 94.7, was neither of these.

And so the story went that things got so bad in Heart that Sgt. Pepper, yet another legendary jock, had to be brought in to bring back a semblance of order to the flagging radio station. He came in, allegedly (EDIT: And subsequently, in the comments section, debunked by the Sarge himself.) under one condition: that he would never have to answer to, or even work with, Joe D’ Mango. Don't ask me why: I never had the Heart (Pardon the terrible pun.) to ask sir Joe about it. In that desperate bid, JAM, WAVE, and Heart lost their general manager in Joe D' Mango, who ended up leaving the radio industry ever-so-abruptly, and new station managers came in for each of them, with Sgt. Pepper filling in for the 103.5 frequency. With that, Heart FM, after a mere six months, was turned into 103 ½ MAX FM, where some notable jocks ended up at some point, including Kelly of Kellybites fame, Carl McFly, and of course, King DJ Logan.

Max FM: dancing itself to oblivion...

Over the time of MAX FM’s existence, though, it would become known as a revolving door for jocks, as most of them would go in and out of the station for one reason or another, and that sort of explains why KDL and Marf happen to both be in 99.5 well before WOW FM came along, as is Drei Ball jumping ship to 88.3 around the same time, give or take a year. It was a hotbed of competition: a talented bunch of jocks who wanted to protect their spot in a very cutthroat environment, yet almost always dead last in sales when it came to the five Radio Partner stations. Even an attempt to reformat into a more dance-oriented station failed miserably, as MAX never quite shook off the stigma of just being another “Magic clone.”

Whereas 99.5 RT, after a foray into Campus 99.5 then an aggressive retrobranding as the Rhythm of the City, still struggles with the stigma of being a "Magic clone" a bit, MAX, perhaps unwisely, appeared to wallow in the similarities. After all, when Sarge took his classic Magic ideas like Tunog Kalye to MAX, it certainly didn’t strike most listeners as a return to form, but rather (And mistakenly, I might add, since most of these ideas were originally from the Sarge, to begin with.) a blatant rip-off of 89.9.

Was it any surprise then, that it was only a matter of time before this Old Yeller would be put out of its misery back in the barn?

Dahil diyan, close na tayo!

With an attempt at breaking into the masa market dominated by Love Radio and Yes FM (Which are actually sister stations, to begin with!), the Radio Partners turned what was once the pinnacle of thought-provocative adult contemporary radio that became a Mellow clone that became yet another Magic clone into, well, a Love and Yes clone. Do I feel that a great injustice has been done to the once illustrious numbers 103.5? I’ll be honest here and say that Heart and MAX did the job long before WOW came into the scene, and WOW is only the culmination of the metaphorical spit upon K-Lite’s grave. To be fair,though, Mr. Fu, Justin Bibbo, and even Tina Ryan of Magic and RT fame are certainly not lightweights at all, and give this masa station a touch of class that it sorely needs. It’s still not on my speed tuner, though.

It remains to be seen where this new development would take them, because hey, at least, the Radio Partners didn’t go for yet another Magic clone, right? And what's one more masa station? It's not like another institution in radio would finally cave in and end up becoming yet another masa station, right? Wrong.

From NU 107 to 107.5 WIN Radio: Pinag-iisipan Pa Ba Yan?!?

In loving memory...

And now, more egregious than a Christmas concert by 1:43 in Araneta Colliseum, comes Exhibit C: the proof in the pudding. The reason why I’ve heard “Philippine radio is deeeeeaaaadddd!!!” at least five thousand times in the past seven days.

NU 107 was in a league of its own, and rightfully so. Only one other station ever came close to capturing the magic NU had during its 23 years of existence, and that was LA 105. This was also the only time in my life where I was an avid listener of NU, although I was an avid radio listener for this time, period, and NU/LA were among the radio stations I was listening to all the time back then. I couldn’t ever forget that in the same time period, I heard the multiple callers on DM 95.5 and 97.1 DWLS FM sniping at DM’s Hitman and LS’s Triggerman, respectively. But I digress.

It was during this time where I heard Parokya Ni Edgar's "Lutong Bahay", Grin Department's "Magbati Na Kayo", and a band whose name I forget, imploring you to "Drive My BM(X)", while the Eraserheads were going on "Overdrive". Switching from NU to LA was a lot of fun for me, because I really liked these particular songs, and kids today, in the age of Limewire and music not even worth downloading like Callalily, wouldn't have that very low-tech experience of waiting for your favorite song to air, and then setting your radio to record the song while it's playing, all the while praying the DJ doesn't talk too soon and lets the whole song play untarnished from start to finish.

Upon this rock, a station was built, and NU 107 was representative of the kind of cutting-edge music that led to a band renaissance in the mid-90’s that saw Rivermaya, Eraserheads, Parokya ni Edgar, Yano, Siakol, even Grin Department, as just a healthy sample of what it meant to have great music at a point nobody expected there to be any. Of course, there were some indie names that only a few hardcore fans would be able to recognize, but I’m writing for the mainstream here, so I have to drop the recognizable names when I do a roundup.

Nonetheless, the station was held in very high esteem by some of the most fanatical listeners a radio station could possible hope for. With successful events like the annual NU Rock Awards and some of the most influential OPM acts owing their fame and very existence to NU 107’s willingness to play them when no other station would dare to, the station became an institution, and, with the demise of LA 105 for reasons I never quite understood, the only genuine rock station on the airwaves. RJ and UR don’t even come close to what NU stood for, and, for all intents and purposes, are not in the same niche at all. NU became one of a kind, and though some people feel that the deadpan jocks of the radio station had all the emotion of a dead fish, you knew that there was an underlying passion in what they did. In fact, any lack of passion people may have accused them of having was easily debunked on the final week where the jocks of NU said goodbye, more so when the final hour tolled, and almost all of them said their teary goodbyes to a 23-year legacy that could only be marked as phenomenal.

NU was never the top radio station in terms of ratings, but it was the best at what it did, and what it did was to rock out with their something-that-rhymes-with-rock out. It loved the niche, and the niche it cornered loved it back, no matter how many people claimed it “sold out” or watered itself down. That one moment where Diether Ocampo called everyone at an NU event “jologs” still stands out as something that killed people’s interest as quickly as a documentary on XLR8, yet it only emboldened the listeners to uphold the true rock lifestyle, no matter how NU itself may have faltered at being the trailblazer for it at times.

NU truly had a devout fanbase that may lash out at it at times, but never in a million years would have considered turning their back on the station. Even if I haven’t been an avid listener of the radio station for years, I respected the format and the institution that it was in Philippine radio. That’s sort of why I didn’t accept the job offered of me two years ago, when they asked if I was willing to be the “image consultant” of sorts to the home of NU rock. I came from WAVE 89.1, a hip-hop station, and felt I had no business tinkering around with the image of a station that is almost the exact opposite of hip-hop. It didn’t feel right, so I declined it in favour of Campus 99.5, which was a format I was more at home with. Turns out, either choice I had in 2008 wouldn't have carried me through to 2011, since both stations are gone now, although Campus Radio Online lives on.

I guess when the news started to unfurl about NU 107 being sold and eventually reformatted, a lot of people who took the station for granted began to realize they were on the verge of losing something that was big, important, and at this point in Philippine radio – the only one of its kind. The radio station many people have simply dismissed as “selling out” or “watered down” suddenly found a bunch of closet fans, or even bandwagon fans, and naturally, some hardcore fans took exception to that. Let me tell you this much, though: if you’re a station worth bandwagoning on, you’re definitely worth something, no matter how vestigial all those efforts may have been.

That fateful night at Emerald Avenue, home to several radio stations, about five hundred or more people came together to pay their last respects to NU 107. And while I’d be the first to crack jokes about the demise of NU once and for all proving that NU (the university) doesn’t exist at all, there was something surreal about the crowd that came together that night, all singing along non-stop to every symbolic song NU played on its final night.

In my time of being involved in radio, I have never seen a sendoff for a radio station the way NU got. It was heartwarming, if not envy-inducing, considering how many other radio stations just went out with a whimper. NU went out in the proverbial blaze of glory, and what a glorious blaze it truly was. As a great song once said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

Unfortunately, the new beginning? Nothing much to write home about.

The latest incarnation of the 107.5 frequency is known as WIN FM, with the very blatant Love Radio-esque slogan, "Pinag-iisipan pa ba 'yan?" Personally, I don’t actively despise masa stations, and I believe they have a purpose in the radio landscape. Hades, I'm even a fan of Mr. Fu, Chris Tsuper, Nicole Hyala, and Papa Jack! The thing is, there’s a lot of them already running around. You have 90.7, 91.5, 93.9, 97.1, 101.1, 101.9, 102.7, and 103.5. I’m not sure about 95.5 nowadays, but that marks eight radio stations with essentially the exact same format. Now, WIN 107.5 becomes the ninth, while NU 107’s format? It has zero representation in today’s airwaves.

If RX 93.1 decided to go away tomorrow, I would be arguably the saddest person you would ever find: I love RX, I love the people there, and I don't just mean the on-air staff: from sales to traffic to management, I've known them for years, and they know that if for some reason they ever needed me on their team, I would drop most everything I'm doing in a heartbeat to help them any which way I can. Despite all that, I would know that the format lives on in Magic 89.9. Same jocks? No. Same off-air staff? No. Exactly the same playlist? No. Same format? Indubitably.

When NU 107 went off the air the final time and that national anthem played, thus displacing "Ang Huling El Bimbo" from being the station's last song ever, where do you think their loyal listeners would go to now? I'll tell you where: YouTube. Their iPod. Frostwire. Anywhere but the desolate wasteland of Philippine radio, which no longer has a home for rockers, unless they're old enough to appreciate RJ 100, or hipster enough to pretend to like UR 105.9. In fact, the only good thing that could arise from all of this is if UR decided to really fill in the void left by NU, because hey, they're LA 105's spiritual successor, and they have both the on-air staff and the musical chops to pull it off. Then again, we don't have any UR Rock Awards, do we?

That a unique radio station is killed to make way for yet another masa station is a great travesty. That a station that gave rise to some of the best rock acts of the past two generations is now gone, and a ninth radio station churning out bubblegum music and encouraging mentally challenged K-Pop wannabe acts without caring for the long-term results upon the music industry is a grievous mistake that we sadly have no power to correct. NU may have been a niche station, but it was a notable enough niche, and it dominated its niche, competition or no competition. Personally, I believe that if you have the best product in anything, it should already sell itself, but then, I’m not really privy to the sales practices of NU 107, so I couldn’t speak for their efficacy or anything of the sort.

I’ve said this a million times and I’ll say it again: I love radio. I practically grew up on the medium. I was a frequent contest winner in 93.9 due to my vaunted speed dialing skills. I loved 94.7 and 96.3 because their DJ's spoke so little, I could record songs I requested from them with impunity. I loved 97.1, 106.7, and 95.5 because they had daily countdowns. I loved 105.9 and 107.5 because they were the only station playing Grin Department. I loved 93.1 because Chico and Delamar trained me in Radio 1 and I followed their career from RX to KC then back again (I'm still a loyal Rusher to this very day.). I worked in 89.1. I almost worked for JAM and NU. I worked (For free!) for Campus 99.5. And now, I regularly guest on 99.5 RT on weeknights with the Disenchanted Kingdom. In high school, I was even on an AM radio program called "Anak... Gabay Mo," a CMMA hall of famer that was never once supported by its own radio station (You go, DWXI!) despite espousing good values and positive influence on the youth who listened to us.

That’s exactly why when I had to choose between WAVE and QTV-11 in 2006, I chose WAVE instead of embarking on a TV career, albeit most likely behind the camera. To this day, I figure I’d still have done the exact same thing.

Now you know why it took me this long to write about this. It was difficult to take a long, hard look at the history of these three radio stations then to take a conflicted glance to where they are now. One story was almost inspiring. The other was interesting. The last one was downright depressing. Even a professed non-devout listener to NU 107, such as myself, was affected to the very core by the loss of the station. I could only imagine how the real fans felt, especially when the collective faces of the NU flock were spat on by the smug face of Tim Yap, as he found himself inside the station on NU's farewell night. It wasn't bad enough that he almost ruined the night the Eraserheads came back for a concert for the ages by pretending to be a fan, yet not even knowing the words to "Toyang," but did he have to do more of the same in Emerald Avenue?

November 8 will remain to be a very dark day in Philippine radio. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, this was the day the (rock) music died. And for that, I light a candle in fond, hopeful yearning for better days for Philippine radio. Hindi na kailangan yan pag-isipan pa.

Do not go gentle into that good night...


Berniemack "Habagat" Arellano said...

What more for a major city down south that is 95% novelty--Iloilo City. NU107 and RJ100 were our alternatives from the increasingly "novelty" world of radio. Before, there was 93.1 IC FM of Radio Mindanao, 88.7 Radio One as well. Given the limits due to proximity of Bacolod from Iloilo, we only have I think 10 FM stations--and most of them are novelty. The younger generation just goes underground, Youtube or online radio.

Anonymous said...

Very keen observation but just to clarify things before my friendship with Joe the Mango is tarnished, this line didn't came from me nor was there any condition like this - "He came in, under one condition: that he would never have to answer to, or even work with, Joe D’ Mango."
The word "rip-off" for Tunog Kalye is politically incorrect since the show is registered to me since July 1995, along with POW (Party On Weekends), The Flow and The Final Countdown. But just the same we are all working hard towards what real radio is all about..and it's what we can leave behind to the next generation..our legacy should always be EDUCATION to further our life! Sarge

Kel Fabie said...

@The Sarge: Thank you, sir, for clearing the air on the issue regarding sir Joe. As for the Tunog Kalye bit, I would like to point out that I made mention that the said segment is indeed your brainchild, and as such, calling it a "rip-off" in that sense is a misnomer.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marcelle it's cool, as my friend would say, "this is their time, we just have to roll with the punches" It is inevitable despite others would say it's not right and with purist broadcasters defending their cause. There are other means to be heard and appreciated. Some things will always prevail. Thanks

Joe Schmoe said...

Cool article. K-lite would have been a great station but after a year, Management bought RT and I was asked to go back - same with Dick Rees, and later on: Joshua and Martin Gill.


Kel Fabie said...

@Schmoe: Wow! Thanks for the comment! I've never met you personally, but I've heard KDL gush about you a lot!