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UNEASY LISTENING THE COMMON COUNCIL LENDS A EAR TO LOCAL RADIO -- AND DOESN'T MUCH LIKE WHAT IT HEARS

City Hall has turned on, and tuned out, Buffalo radio.

The Common Council has just issued a scathing report about the city's radio stations and their lack of support for local and new music. The report states: "Local radio has failed us, sold us down the river, betrayed its essential mission of expanding our aural world."

The report, about 60 pages long, is called "The State of Buffalo Radio." It was released this week by the Common Council's Radio Access Committee.

Never before has local government provided such a detailed examination of a community's musical radio programming. The report provides concrete documentation of the sad state of Buffalo radio.

"There is an impoverishment of the airwaves in Buffalo," said Council Member David A. Franczyk, sponsor of the study. "The music on Buffalo radio is so sanitized, it's below banality."

Should government poke its ears into radio's business?

"I believe so, because radio isn't trivial to a community," Franczyk said. "Radio can enhance Buffalo's cultural and economic base.

"There are so many local bands who don't get exposure in this city. That hurts everyone -- the musicians, the music fans and the clubs. If people could hear local music it might create a market for it. Look what's happening in Toronto."

The Canadian government mandates that at least 30 percent of the music played on Canadian stations must be by Canadian artists. It's called the "Canadian content" law, and it has been a boon to Canada's music industry. Ironically, CFNY-FM, a Toronto station, has become the most listened-to commercial outlet for Buffalo alternative-music fans.

Such acts as Blue Rodeo, Lowest of the Low, Moxy Fruvous, Sarah McLachlan and many others have gained acceptance in Canada and the United States. Canadian acts regularly play Buffalo because the audience here listens to them on CFNY. Sadly, while Toronto bands prosper here, local bands struggle for gigs.

"The content law is beneficial because it gives you what every band needs: a chance for exposure," said Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo. "I mean, if you leave it up to the radio guys, they're going to turn to consultants, research and accountants, who only care about ratings and money."

The law may be fine for Canada, but Franczyk says it can't work in the States: "We don't want government running radio."

Acts with local roots have made a national impact in the past few years. Billy Sheehan with Mr. Big, Joe Public and Green Jelly all have had hit records.

None of those records, however, broke onto the airwaves in Buffalo.

"That's what's so sad," Sheehan said during a recent visit home. "Local radio has to open things up to give more local acts a chance. But it never seems to happen in Buffalo."

The Radio Access Committee was formed two years ago, spurred by a Buffalo News article detailing the plight of local radio. The eight-member committee -- made up of volunteers from the Buffalo music scene -- monitored 11 local stations for an 18-day period last year, from Oct. 18 to Nov. 4. The stations were monitored between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m., and the committee members listened to 997 songs.

Remarkably, just 11 of those 997 were local songs. Ten of the local songs were heard on WBNY-FM, the tiny, 100-watt, non-commercial Buffalo State College station. The only other local number, a gospel song, was played on WUFO-AM.

"That's an incredible statistic, and it shows that radio here just can't get any worse when it comes to supporting local music," said Kim Gipp, a member of the committee. "It gives you a hopeless feeling."

Buffalo radio's blind spot was not limited to local music.

"Beyond virtually ignoring local music, committee members were shocked by the degree to which the commercial stations cut Buffalonians off from nationally available music," the report states.

The report states that of the Top 20 songs listed in Billboard's national "Top 40 Airplay," only eight were heard during the monitoring period. The record was worse when it came to album rock, for the young and alternative audience. An "astounding 16 of the Top 20 album rock tracks were not played on Buffalo radio," the report states.

Committee members were assigned to listen to individual stations. Among the comments:

WGRF-FM (97 Rock), by Richard Peters: "Goofy, brainless morning small talk. I can't believe people actually listen to it. Their music consists of songs you might have heard since 1965. . . . Not that the music matters, (because the disc jockeys) are there to anesthetize you with the past and with verbiage of no consequence. . . . The station's programming s----."

John Hager, 97 Rock's program director, defended his station to the committee, stating: "97 Rock is an album-oriented rock station that focuses its appeal on the 25-to-44 male demographic. The mature nature of this audience dictates a generous mix of classic rock 'n' roll.

"97 Rock utilizes extensive local research systems in an effort to ascertain the target audience's actual musical preference."

The station, like most in Buffalo, puts local music in the Sunday night ratings ghetto. Hager told the committee: "It seems clear that 97 Rock's contributions to the development of local talent have been tremendously undervalued."

WUFX-FM, Buffalo's other commercial rock station, was monitored by James Folan: "Much of the song list is comprised of what may be called safe, in that the majority of listeners would recognize the artist. In heavy rotation were Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen, Rush and Aerosmith. If you listen to the station long enough you see a pattern of playing the same song over and over again.

"The station runs a Sunday night local show and promotes local music with a show every Wednesday or Thursday. They also have Robbie of the Goo Goo Dolls on Sunday night playing whatever he wants."

Bob Richards, program director of WUFX, started a major innovation with a Sunday night show called "Buffalo Lix," featuring live performances by local bands. Richards told the committee that this show "set a national precedent."

"We do not discriminate (bringing bands on the show) on the basis of format," Richards added. "The only criteria are that the band is local and the lyrical content is consistent with our policies. Hopefully, this gives you some idea of our commitment to local music. A show of this magnitude is indeed expensive."

Other comments from the study on local stations:

WBLK-FM: "The only time WBLK seems to show interest in a local group is when they have already become well-known. Only then are they invited to the studio for an interview."

WBUF-FM: "They should be commended for their variety, but where are the home-grown sounds?"

WKSE-FM: "Popular, Top 20, R & B with a little -- no, a lot -- of Meat Loaf thrown in. Predictable, safe . . . the epitome of dollar-focused radio. WKSE is a shining example of what Buffalo radio has become: embarrassing."

WMJQ-FM: "Nothing worth noting. (Part of) a programming web of classic rock, easy listening and tested winners from braver cities."

WNUC-FM: "Their entire motive is the profit motive. Nothing clever, interesting, creative or inventive. Canned like peas and carrots, bland and totally lacking in taste."

WUFO-AM: "A refreshing change of pace. Gospel, blues, contemporary R & B . . . "

WYRK-FM: "Appealing. Country music has definitely progressed for the better. Only complaint is no local music being played. What a shame."

Ken Johnson of WYRK, one of the most successful program directors in Buffalo, says: "I think it's great that the Common Council is interested in radio, but they have to realize that radio is a business and has to operate as a business.

"In radio, our product is music. We have to play the music that appeals to the widest possible audience so advertisers will buy air time. That's how we make our money and that's how we stay in business."

Local music airplay would not be a panacea for area bands, Johnson asserted. "In country music, the focus of this business is in Nashville. If you want to make it big and get your record played on stations across the country, you have to go to Nashville.

"The reality in Buffalo is there are no major recording companies and no major music publishing companies. I don't know if getting a local record played on Buffalo radio would make any difference. If you get it played here, who's going to hear it? The major players in country music are in Nashville, New York or L.A."

Johnson defends stations such as 97 Rock from critics, saying: "The only thing that they're guilty of is being what they have to be in order to survive in this radio market."

The argument about economic realities has long been a radio defense.

"They always say that. It's ridiculous," said Richard Jezewski, a member of the committee. "The reality of Buffalo radio is that it's still stuck in the dark ages."

The Radio Access Committee honored two stations for excellence in programming: WBNY-FM and WBFO-FM, both non-commercial stations.

On Tuesday in the Common Council chambers, representatives from both stations received the first Stan Szelest Awards, named in honor of the late Buffalo keyboard player.

"WBNY consistently puts out raw, unusual and fresh sounds in spite of a weak signal," the committee stated. "If only the commercial stations in Buffalo had half the gumption of this mighty midget."

The committee honored WBFO for setting "a great example of how local music can be integrated in a jazz format. . . . Local connections are proudly noted on air, and DJs solicit and announce news of upcoming gigs of interest to local jazz fans. Commercial program directors could learn a lot from WBFO's format."

The committee's report made the following recommendations for local radio:

"Local stations need to do a better job of clearly announcing songs and artists. This is especially true when local artists are featured, because listeners aren't likely to get too many chances to identify local songs. It is next to impossible to go out and buy a record if one can't identify it."

"Promote local gigs. It would take little effort for stations to maintain local club dates and announce them regularly."

"Put one local song in regular rotation. For a station not playing local music, a way to get started is to pick one of the many local releases available and play it in regular rotation throughout the week."

Those suggestions may never come to pass, but the committee believes Buffalo radio has to change. "We didn't do this report to hurt local radio. We hope we can help it," Franczyk said.

Rick Falkowski, who founded the Buffalo Music Awards, the area's most prestigious popular-music honors, is a committee member who wrote a history of Buffalo music in the report.

"Radio can shape the taste of the people," Falkowski wrote. "Radio helped make Buffalo a great entertainment city in the past and can do so again. However, the stations must be innovative and not program their music based only on advertising dollars and ratings.

"Everyone must work together for the future of entertainment, or the history of music in Buffalo will be just that -- history."

Falkowski knows what he's writing about. This year, for the first time in history, the Buffalo Music Awards were sponsored by a Canadian radio station. No station in Buffalo was interested.

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