Radio has become a sterile creative enterprise, guided by playlist consultants who view music as a business at the basest level. Ironically, radio could never have reached this nadir without ’60s and ’70s free-form FM and college radio, which fostered adventurous programming, encouraged DJ individuality and attracted listeners and advertisers in droves, ultimately commercializing the medium to an extent that profit motive replaced passion.
With mainstream radio’s repetitive fare, the Internet has become a wild west of streaming content, an encouraging development. But where is the radio of old, the terrestrial signal that beams wildly varied programming into our cars, homes and computers?
Funny you should ask. North of Cincinnati, in the basement of a nondescript Liberty Township home, Bill Spry and an unlikely cast are making radio the old-fashioned way: with an insatiable passion for music and, just as importantly, the people who listen to it. Spry calls it Class X Radio. One blogger called it “possibly the best Rock station ever.” Perhaps slightly hyperbolic, but, honestly, where else can you hear Michael Franks’ Pop/Jazz novelty classic “Popsicle Toes” and the psychosonic hallucination of The Doors’ “The End” back to back?
“This is the most diverse music collection, as far as Rock, that I’ve heard,” says Class X Promotions Director/air personality Denny Herbers. “That’s what draws people in. They’ll hear the classics, they’ll bring back memories, but the next thing will be, ‘Where did that come from? I’ve never heard that before.’ ”
Spry originally envisioned a Christian Rock station in 1997 but subsequently steered his efforts toward changing FCC rules regarding low-power licensing, a campaign that succeeded in 2000. By then, Spry had filed for the one remaining FM frequency — 88.9 — that allowed up to 5,000 watts to serve Cincinnati’s West Side and the northern suburbs. Unfortunately, three simultaneous applications were pending on that frequency.
By spring of 2006, the last company had dropped its application and Spry received a construction permit for 88.9 FM (the previous fall, he’d signed his first affiliate, WRHX 107.9 in Northern Kentucky). He assembled WMWX in eight days and signed on in August with the defining Class X format: deep cut Classic Rock (Led Zeppelin, Journey, AC/DC, Jethro Tull, Queen, etc.) mixed with new melodic Rock (Praying Mantis, Swampdawamp, 7th Heaven, Ramos Hugo) and new releases by established artists (Kip Winger, Ian Hunter, Jimi Jamison, a ha, Burton Cummings).
“The whole idea was to create a format that just wasn’t out there anymore, to offer a sound programmed by locals,” Spry says. “As a non-commercial station, we don’t cater to advertisers, we cater to our listeners — the way it should be.”
The station’s 5,000-watt signal reaches a potential 1.8 million listeners from Cincinnati’s West Side to West Chester and beyond. Ironically, the signal begins to bend at Sharonville, so the station weakens the closer you get to the broadcast site. The real reach comes from the Internet: Class X’s stream has local and global listeners as far flung as England and Germany.
“We have tons of folks out in California that say, ‘We tune you in because there’s nothing in L.A. that comes close,’ ” Herbers says. “The most unique one was a guy calling from an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. He was streaming us, but he’d call in to make requests.”
For the moment, Class X Radio — listed on iTunes and in the Top 10 Classic Rock stations on Windows Media — leans toward community radio station status. The station’s low power status means they can accept underwriting but not actual advertising, and the air staff is all volunteer, running the gamut from pro-sounding voices to amateurs with a passion for the music but little radio polish (which is, in fact, a perfect return to free-form FM radio). Beyond the station’s avowed Album Oriented Rock format, it offers niche programming spotlighting Prog Rock, Blues, Retro Rock, Classic Top 40 and The Beatles, among others (the full grid and staff is available at www.classicxradio.com).
“It’s passion that’s driving everybody,” Spry says. “It’s exploded in the past year.”
One of Class X Radio’s most recognizable voices belongs to Cynthia Dye Wimmers, whose local music showcase, Kindred Sanction, was a staple of WAIF programming for 22 years before she moved the show to Class X in 2008.
“Bill welcomed Kindred Sanction with open arms,” Wimmers says. “I just want to play Rock & Roll, and it’s fun. I like playing the local music. All I wanted to do from the beginning was to give everybody a chance to be heard.”
Local music gets marginal play on most local stations (WNKU being the notable exception), but Wimmers features only local and regional artists on Kindred Sanction (8-10 p.m. Tuesdays), going the extra mile by frequently having local artists in the studio for impromptu chats (local icon Maurice Mattei joins Wimmers on the show Oct. 27).
“It’s fun to be taken seriously doing this,” says Wimmers, who’s always looking for new local and regional material (e-mail her at [email protected] for mailing instructions). “It feels like you get more respect. I love it here. Everybody is like family.”
Although their reach is small by corporate yardsticks, Class X’s staff has a passion for music and Spry has ambitious plans for his three-year-old station, which he cagily keeps under wraps with a wait-and-see smile. They accept donations, which are small because, as Spry notes, people are unaccustomed to paying for a Rock station.
“We’re still growing and trying to figure it all out,” he says. “But we listen to everybody and that’s why people are so connected to us, because we care. When they call to request a song, it’s not, ‘We’ll try to get that on,’ it’s on in five minutes. That’s how we keep that connection to listeners. That’s all I ever preach to our staff: Forget about what you want, listen to your listeners.”
CLASS X RADIO can be heard on 88.9 FM and online at classxradio.com.