There were several advantages for listeners, the most important of which was the almost unprecedented opportunity to turn on the radio and hear an engaging tune rather than a shrill commercial, a demented DJ or the Barenaked Ladies. Also, programmers had to dig deep into discographies, playing selections that seldom turn up on the commercial dial.
True, the simple phrase "Welcome to Aerosmith 97!" could spook a listener into switching off the station indefinitely, if not smashing the radio to smithereens. But then the next day, U2 or Van Halen would lure the boogie-blues intolerant out of hiding, and all would be forgiven.
On Monday, February 10, commuters who heard Hootie and the Blowfish or Third Eye Blind on the station might have gone on orange alert, fearing that an entire 24 hours devoted to such tripe might be the clearest sign yet of an impending apocalypse. Alas, this bland brigade only announced the arrival of what is now officially 97.3 the Planet, a station that focuses on the worst aspects of '90s music while ignoring its revolutionary content (grunge and hip-hop), much as '70s-centered radio lauds vacant arena-rock bombast while overlooking punk and disco.
That transition seems tragic for several reasons, not the least of which is the failure to devote a day to the Who, the Doors or Jimi Hendrix. A full-size serving of Pink Floyd would've been worth the thousands of dollars it would have cost the city in lost productivity, and days devoted to Yes or Genesis would be easiest of all -- ten or so songs by those artists could combine to fill a 72-hour span. College and community radio aside, listeners have given up on being treated to today's cutting-edge sounds; couldn't we at least hear what was considered progressive 25 years ago?
Instead, Planet rockers get a series of unlamented trivia-answer obscurities. Rumor has it that KU has tried to transform KJHK 90.7 into FRAT FM, with Dave Matthews and his jammy ilk in heavy rotation. But the Planet has beaten the college station to the punchless.
There are still a few reasons to listen. For one thing, the station remains free of commercials as well as devoid of blabbermouth radio personalities. For another, a few decent artists (Coldplay, R.E.M., Tom Petty) rank among the station's core artists. Finally, and most important, the station's actually in good hands.
Chad Boeger, general manager of Union Broadcasting, has overseen two all-stars on the AM side, WHB 810 and talk station KCTE 1510. In addition to offering charismatic, often controversial chatterboxes, these stations have a palpable presence and embrace interaction. As someone who gives frothing fans a forum, Boeger appreciates the value of feedback; when he says it's welcomed and considered, he's one of the few leaders on the FM dial who can be trusted.
"[WHB] was so successful because of the community involvement," Boeger says. "That's what we want to do with the Planet. We want to be everywhere."
For now, though, the Planet is nowhere. It's unstaffed except for Boeger and a general sales manager, who hope to fill fourteen positions. Eventually, there will be ads and DJs. In the meantime, listeners are making their wishes known by calling the station's feedback line and leaving messages about the station's programming. Already, they've had an impact -- U2's status as one of 97.3's most-played bands stems in part from the enthusiastic response it received on its all-Bono-and-company day.
Because it started its one-band-at-a-time experiment before settling on a final format, the station attracted and later repulsed loyal fans of groups that will never again cross its airwaves. Now its initial champions have changed the channel, and 97.3 is left with a format that seems strikingly similar to the one KRBZ 96.5 used several years ago, before it went "alternative" by adding some rap and hip garage rock. But with Boeger in charge, there's still hope for this Planet.