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Loyal listener finds a new frequency

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 26, 2001

Iswitched radio stations recently.

Listening habits had been determined previously by the discovery of a station playing a commercial-free hour of rock music coinciding with my daily 35-minute commute between Land O'Lakes and Port Richey. What better way to prepare for work than cruising to the Police, the Doobies, the Stones or Beatles?

But the play list began to change. The station locked up the Animals in favor of the Monkees. And 3 Dog Night barked way too often. Presumably, that is preferable to Snoop Dogg, Dogstar or Night Ranger.

Still, the Monkees and 3 Dog Night are reminders of childhood. Who's the program director, my older sister in her junior high school years?

Maybe the Ohio Express and the 1910 Fruitgum Co. are the next additions to the heavy rotation. (I know I am really dating myself here. But let's face it, you qualify as middle-aged when you own the debut albums of bands that now qualify for admittance to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Coincidentally, the same week the shopping for a new station began, the telephone rang at home with a call from a research firm collecting data on radio listening habits. The company had called several times previously, but had never bothered to interview anyone at our domicile after learning which stations we had listened to that week. We already have our quota for that category, the caller would tell us.

"That's a nice way of saying, "Loser, we don't need you this time,"' volunteered Lou Patrick, a vice president at Edison Media Research in New Jersey, whose firm was not the one on the other end of the phone.

I imagine I am categorized as a loyal listener. Lazy is just as accurate.

There is no channel surfing once the car is in gear, and a broken antenna limits reception. Listening at home does not occur. The search for a radio home consisted of hearing 30 seconds of Bubba the Love Sponge and a snippet from the alternative music station.

Forget it. It was back to an old standby at WTBT-FM 103.5, known as Thunder, a classic rock station sure to be a Davey Jones-free zone. Besides, it has its roots in western Pasco County. Before bumping the wattage and changing the frequency, Thunder made its debut in 1995 as a 6,000-watt station in dark, cramped quarters across Little Road from the West Pasco Government Center.

The switch coincided with the radio researcher asking for help this time. Patrick said stations began using active research over the past two decades as programmers learned that their input from record sales and request lines left as much as 80 percent of the audience silent about the music they were hearing.

Stations now use so-called outcalling to poll groups of 80 to 100 people, perhaps as frequently as every other week, to gauge the tastes of the audience. It's generally reserved for judging new music, not tunes that may have been recorded 35 years ago. Polling interest in rock 'n' roll music produced in the 1960s, '70s and '80s means a station could be testing the variety in its own library or the play list of a competitor, Patrick said.

The researcher played samples from 40 songs. Each was to be given ratings ranging from "never liked," defined as something so foul you'd switch the station, to "favorite," characterized as a song during which you'd turn up the volume and start singing along. The other choices were unfamiliar, tired of it, no opinion, and like it.

This is a coup, I figured, to help a radio station compile its play list. Unfortunately, there wasn't time to add editorial comment after each song other than the previously described categories. Too bad. There was a lot to say. The play list included:

A pair from Led Zeppelin, which I never liked until the last album and then the band broke up.

Three songs from the Doors, also which I never liked except for Francis Ford Coppola's use of The End in the movie Apocalypse Now. I don't care if Jim Morrison's arrest happened in Florida.

Aerosmith's Back in the Saddle. That was the opening number for the first rock concert I ever attended. Certainly a favorite, but lose the Just Push Play soundtrack in the Dodge Ram truck commercials, would ya?

Two each from the Rolling Stones, Beatles and Pink Floyd, all but one judged favorites or likes.

Five songs from Lynyrd Skynyrd. At this point, you could tell the research is for a Florida station. If you've lost count, that's 12.5 percent of the sampled play list dedicated to Southern rock icons of the 1970s that continue to tour even though three original members are dead. These guys even headlined at the Livestock concert in Zephyrhills one year.

The samples indicated the station might want input on 40 songs, but its interest is limited to a little more than a dozen bands. A little variety would be helpful. Try adding Little Feat, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and early J. Geils Band.

Researchers also probably wonder why my radio is tuned to a classic rock station. The reaction to a quarter of their sampled play list?

Never liked it.

-- C.T. Bowen is editor of editorials for the Pasco editions of the Times.

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