Nestled between stations in Oxnard-Ventura, Calif., and Boise, Idaho sits Lansing, the 120th-largest radio market in the United States, where familiarity rules the airwaves.
If local stations are playing it, local listeners can already sing it.
"The Lansing market is not cutting-edge," said Dave Johnson, market manager of Rubber City Radio Group in Lansing. "We're so parochial and heavy blue-collar, no matter what the format, they want familiarity. In Mid-Michigan, new is not necessarily good. "
Edgy, it's not.
Listeners were shocked last fall when they turned their dials to WWDX (92.1-FM), looking for rock from The Edge, only to hear Kelly Clarkson and Madonna had replaced Pearl Jam and Seven Mary Three.
The alternative-style station was the casualty of a shifting radio culture in Lansing and markets all over the United States, where companies are struggling to pin down an audience advertisers will buy, a music selection listeners enjoy and technology to keep the businesses growing.
It's not an easy task with a burgeoning number of iPod owners and KaZaA addicts mixing their own playlists, especially in a town where about 40,000 potential listeners rarely live at the same address for more than a year.
Some stations, such as WVIC (94.1-FM), are increasing reliance on prerecorded on-air personalities, a money-saving method. Campus-based WDBM (88.9-FM), or The Impact, will likely switch to a digital transmitter this summer, keeping up with technology.
Indeed, Lansing's radio waves are changing.
As a medium market, Lansing's top stations, WITL (100.7-FM), WJIM (97.5-FM) and WMMQ (94.9-FM) play country, oldies and classic rock - all genres known for memorable tunes and loyal listeners. The stations are owned by Citadel Broadcasting Corporation, a broadcaster with several locks in Mid-Michigan.
While those genres hold tightly to listeners, other stations are dashing to test and update their playlists for a finicky crowd of General Motors Corp. employees, college drinking buddies and office workers looking for something to keep them awake without offending the boss. Arbitron, a radio-broadcast rating service, reports local listeners are most likely to be young middle-class families, small-town executives, empty-nesters, blue-collar families, aging couples, rural families and farmers.
Stations such as The Edge, which covered only three counties, can't compete against larger stations with overlapping music and reluctant advertisers. The signal's new sound, WKMY (92.1-FM), focuses on often-ignored young female audiences using adult contemporary songs from the 1980s, 1990s and today's VH1-type selection.
Much of The Edge's music now plays at another Rubber City-owned station, WJXQ (106.1-FM), which is looking toward a younger audience and newer music that will differentiate it from other local stations, such as WMMQ (94.9-FM) and WHZZ (101.7-FM).
"When we've got a 23-year-old listening because he loves Godsmack, he doesn't want to rock to 'More Than A Feeling' next," said Bob Olson, Q106 program director. "We have to be broad in our approach. The older guy wants the '90s, the young guy wants the 2000s."
Being just a little different is how local stations survive.
Urban competes with pop.
Classic rock competes with active rock.
Adult contemporary competes with hot adult contemporary.
"Radio is based on the assumption if you liked one style of music, that's all you listened to," said Gary Reid, a specialist in MSU's Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media department. "The Internet has proven that's not the case. People have much wider tastes than the radio has given them."
Reid, who has worked as the general manager of The Impact since its inception 15 years ago, said young people turn to the Internet for new music. But less tech-savvy listeners turn the radio dial for comfort tunes, good for singing in the car.
"It takes a very insightful, aggressive and innovative radio station to program to a young-adult age group," Reid said. "I don't think a week has gone by that we haven't struggled with that part."
The Impact, which relies on support from student taxes instead of advertising dollars, fills its lineup with recommendations from record labels, as well as specialty shows that feature Americana-style country, jazz, hip-hop and local music. A group of the station's nearly 100 employees debate music selections, while features such as "Sit or Spin" and this week's new addition, "High Noon," let listeners pick.
Bands such as Junior Senior and The Von Bondies had Impact play before they hit Spin magazine. Shows featuring world music invite audiences many commercial stations can't afford to attract.
"The niche we fill is playing what everybody else won't play," said station manager Ed Glazer, a telecommunication, information studies and media graduate student. "We're the grout that fills in the holes - and when you don't have grout, that's when you get mold.
"If nothing else, we get the bands' girlfriends calling in to request songs."
While The Impact can't compete with local stations giving away concert tickets in Australia, remodeled kitchens and new cars, it draws students, who rarely are picked up in Arbitron radio-rating surveys.
"At commercial stations, you'll hear that Jack White beat up the lead singer of The Von Bondies, but you'll never hear The Von Bondies," Glazer said. "Even among the varieties at big companies, nobody does anything different."
Many listeners are quick to blame generic radio on signal-domination corporations such as Clear Channel, which doesn't own any Lansing-based stations. But Reid said while corporations tend to be less creative, they'll often eliminate feuding formats in one market and bring in new types of music, satisfying unquenched demographics.
Ownership changes can be tough in markets such as Lansing's, though, where there are major corporations, like Citadel, smaller companies, such as MacDonald Broadcasting and public stations like The Impact and WKAR (90.5-FM).
At WQHH (96.5-FM), the Lansing-area's only urban-format station, the broadening of hip-hop and R&B helped save the independent station from larger radio groups that can attract advertisers more easily. While the station plays The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur to satisfy old-school fans, they rely on OutKast, Kanye West and Usher to bring in crossover listeners.
"We can only go as far as the music will take us," said Jay Hicks, a communication junior who hosts the station's weekday 6-10 p.m. show. "It's the same family atmosphere it has always been, but the music has changed. Lansing's very diverse, but the music is for black, white, green, blue, everybody now."
Here's a list of local commercial FM stations and their Arbitron rankings. Average Quarter-Hour share is the percentage of people listening to a particular station out of the total amount listening to the radio at a given time.
Winter '04 AQH rating
||Mid Michigan FM