Originally created 04/27/04

Local DJs take control of air waves by playing 'Homegrown' talent



Tom Petty pulled no punches with the radio industry in his 2002 release The Last DJ.

"There goes the last DJ," he sang. "Who plays what he wants to play/And says what he wants to say, hey hey hey ... /And there goes your freedom of choice/There goes the last human voice/There goes the last DJ."

Apart from low-power college and specialty radio stations, there really aren't many radio stations left with disc jockeys who wield the clout to bump Free Bird from a time slot and replace it with Jailhouse Rock.

There are exceptions, though.

Homegrown, which airs live from 9-10 p.m. Sundays on WCHZ-FM (95.1) is one of them. With Jason Barron and People Who Must guitarist Joe Stevenson as hosts, the show is a throwback to a bygone era. Sitting in the booth at the station's Belair Road studio, the two men pick songs, take requests from listeners and introduce songs by local and regional acts. It's an old-fashioned approach that's as rare as the cassette tape, because the DJ as a cultural figure was long ago eclipsed by the program director.

John Dunbar, a researcher for the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., and a co-author of an October report on radio station consolidation, was pleasantly surprised to hear that a show such as Homegrown could survive at a large station.

WCHZ is owned by Beasley Broadcasting Group Inc., which, along with competitors Clear Channel and Radio One Inc., own 22 of the area's highest-rated and highest-revenue stations.

"It's rare, but the fact that it's at that time of the day makes sense," Mr. Dunbar said. "Program directors are always scrambling for things to program on Sunday night, because it's kind of a dead zone for listeners, and it's not easy to sell advertising."

Mr. Stevenson started as host of the show in the summer of 2000 when it was prerecorded. In 2002, he invited Mr. Barron, a WCHZ DJ who goes by the radio moniker "Freak Boy," to be a co-host on the show live. Mr. Stevenson largely has hung up the guitar for a career in commercial real estate, but he said trying to get airplay for his old band gives him a better perspective on local radio.

"We've got a great local scene here, with bands like Shaun Piazza, Patrick Blanchard, and Turtleneck," he said. "Chuck (Williams) and the powers that be at the station understand there's a need for a local radio program."

Mr. Stevenson estimates three or four new songs are aired in the hour-long show.

"We'll also have Augusta Flashback, which is about old local bands, or Retro Regional, which might have an old R.E.M. song," he said.

"We play everything from Alabama bluegrass to death metal, which is kind of a nice thing to be able to do."

Mr. Barron said he judges listener satisfaction through another quaint technique, listeners' phone calls. Over the years, he has learned how to tell when an effusive caller is really a friend of the band. That includes listeners who don't like what they hear.

Mr. Williams, the music and program director for WCHZ, said Homegrown, which started on the rock station WRXR-FM (96.3) and continued on WCHZ when it debuted in 1998, is an anomaly even within WCHZ.

"They tend to cover a much more wide variety of styles than we will; if it's pop or R&B, and it's local, I'd be fine with that," he said. "The station goes for more of a crunchy sound, but they have more latitude."

A tight relationship with Mr. Stevenson allows him to keep a hands-off approach, but he readily acknowledges that the average listener probably doesn't know or care who picks the songs. Hard-core music fans can now turn to online downloads, for instance.

"The idea was to expose people to what's around here, but what it's morphed into is a forum for local musicians around here," he said. "It's turned into a local music campfire."

A big question, of course, is how profitable the show is. Mr. Williams said it rates well compared with other Sunday evening fare.

"I don't think anyone does gangbusters on Sunday night," he said. "Mostly we'll get advertisers who are directly tied to the music business, like music stores or clubs."

Barry Kaye, the general manager for Clear Channel Augusta, Beasley's main local competitor, praised the show for its focus on local and regional musicians, but dismissed the notion of a personality-driven play list as inherently better.

"In a format like active rock, the profile of the listeners (is) usually young white men who are more likely to take risks and accept something different when they tune into that station," he said. "We don't have that kind of station; and I don't have any intention of returning to the days when a DJ plays music they want to hear for their own egocentric reasons."

Mr. Kaye said programming decisions at the Clear Channel "cluster" are locally driven but are backed up by the resources of the worlds' largest radio company. Local program directors are the new gatekeepers, and with that research at their disposal, Mr. Kaye said radio is better for it.

"In the 21st century, the task of picking music has been removed from the DJs' plate; they're now responsible with being an on-air personality who connects with the audience," he said. "We're trying to give the listeners what they want."

It's a notion that Mr. Stevenson, who said he pays little attention to the business end of radio, would seem to be in agreement.

"(Homegrown) is just raw radio," he said. "You put music on that people haven't heard of and hope they like it."

Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or patrick.verel@augustachronicle.com.