July 20-26, 2006
How WXPN created a monster from the remains of Y100
Illustration By: Ryan Casey
Every few minutes one or two more arrive. Guys with backward ball caps, Pumas and several grades of goatees. They cross their arms, they slouch. They talk about their fantasy baseball teams and which show they just saw. They mull, spilling from the living room to the landing to the dining room with the Jim Houser paintings. They're mostly in their 20s, though an older guy named Ramon chats about what a head case Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch is with a bald guy in glasses who resembles the French philosopher Michel Foucault.
The dudes (and three ladies) have been summoned here for an announcement, one they sort of already know is coming. McGuinn, the tall, lanky "fearless leader" of this band of misfits — who'd bounded down the stairs a few minutes earlier to order pizza — stands on the landing a few steps above and calls this meeting to order.
"It's amazing what a team we've got here," says McGuinn, pausing to count heads, "and how many guys."
Some nervous laughter comes from the gathered jocks; they name the station's other three ladies (there are six in all) who are absent for one reason or another.
"I don't know if it was Shakespeare or The Who that said, 'The king is dead, long live the king,'" says McGuinn, pausing. "Well, Y100rocks.com is dead, long live Y100rocks.com."
The last time we checked in with McGuinn at his house, over a year ago, it was known as "The Bunker," and Y100 had just died, the victim of a format flip by its corporate owner. A ragtag bunch of recently canned employees of that loved, reviled, recently extinct modern rock station were waging a battle to keep the format alive in Philadelphia, broadcasting over the Internet as Y100rocks.com from McGuinn's den via a patchwork of cables and microphones and computers and hastily set up mixers.
They proved that people will listen to "alternative rock" on the radio, even if radio means logging on, listening over an unstable Internet connection and getting bumped off by said connection from time to time. That stars will stop by to do interviews on an Internet station (Napoleon Dynamite's Efren Ramirez paid his second visit to the station earlier this month). That many of those listeners will become volunteer DJs to make it all happen. They even proved that "alternative rock" radio, freed from the testing, playlists and money-obsessed devices of corporate ownership, doesn't have to suck. Many of the former employees who made that push have since moved on — Christine "Electra" Pawlak and Alan Dean to Chicago's Q101 and WLUP respectively, press and promotions point person Liz Romaine to a marketing job with Five Below, and a guy known simply as Zack to a production job with KYW. A DJ, despite rumors to the contrary, has got to eat. But McGuinn, Josh Landow and Joey Odorisio — all one-time Y100 employees — had soldiered on. They turned Y100rocks.com into a self-sustaining entity, one that even made enough money for Landow to pay his rent.
Also in attendance tonight are a guy with a beard and well-tamed shoulder-length hair who looks like maybe he was once a hardcore hippie, and the aforementioned Foucault-looking fella. These are Roger LaMay and Bruce Warren, general manager and program director, respectively, for the University of Pennsylvania's listener-supported WXPN.
McGuinn introduces them and the trio explains the situation: Y100rocks.com will cease to exist ... at least as a name. What won't cease is the station itself. In an unprecedented maneuver, the newly appointed "Y-Rock" is joining the "WXPN family." For the folks at Y100rocks.com, that means getting actual studio space and equipment at WXPN's digs, being able to host unlimited listeners (they currently operate with a cap), and — save for cleaning up their language and adhering to the rules of public radio — not having to change what or how they play at all. In other words, the scrappy little station is going legit.
Oh, and in addition, McGuinn will get his own show on which to spin alt rock three nights a week (Wed. through Fri.) on WXPN's airwaves, meaning that for the first time since February of 2005, modern rock will be back on the air in Philly, if only for 10 hours a week.
The jocks, many of whom were playing songs over Y100rocks.com's broadband simply because they asked if they could, seem somewhat stunned. They had an idea this was coming, but the details hadn't been explained. Some start asking questions, mostly of the "Will I still be able to?" variety. While some pertain to music selection, many are questions about procedure. The promo guy wants to know if he'll still be allowed to do promos. The guy who does the electronic show wants to know if he'll still be able to write reviews for the Web site. The dudes have a stake in this. Is there still a place for them?
What to call this joining of forces has been problematic from the jump, and the way McGuinn and LaMay dance around the terminology is telling of this fact. Is it a buy? Is it a merger? Is there even a word for it?
"We're hooking up with Y100," jokes LaMay.
"Wait, are we friends with or without benefits?" retorts McGuinn playfully.
While it's still not entirely clear, everyone seems to get it. They're not getting dumped.
"We're in complete admiration of what this group has done to keep Y100 alive," says LaMay in a tone that's part reassuring and part wooing. "This scraggly group has kept this alive without any support. We wouldn't be here if it weren't a good product. We don't want Y-Rock to sound more like XPN, and we don't want XPN to sound more like Y-Rock."
But just what will this unholy marriage between the remains of a commercial modern rock station and a member-supported adult alternative station sound like?
"We had spoken about this, about doing something along these lines over a year ago," McGuinn explains the next day in a conference room at WXPN's University City facility. "It just didn't seem to make sense at the time."
"And we seriously considered getting involved in some way with Y100," LaMay concurs, "but we concluded that we weren't ready to do it, that we had too much going on. It was interesting, but we sort of put it aside."
WXPN had moved into its new facility a few months before, was looking to change its distribution with National Public Radio and was in the process of moving its annual music festival across the river to Camden. It had a lot on its plate. The timing was bad.
Fast-forward one year. Y100rocks.com's model was working; it had moved out of the den and into a space of its own on Passyunk Avenue. WXPN was in the middle of another large project, the launch of its music-on-demand site, XPoNential Music, which promised podcasts, downloads and multiple streaming stations. One day this spring, McGuinn, who'd begun teaching at Drexel, bumped into LaMay at a lunch spot called Picnic.
"That day I'd had a meeting with Bruce [about XPoNential] and said, we'll do a blog of the day — we can get this, we can get that," recalls LaMay. "I walked up to get lunch at Picnic and ran into Jim and had those usual 'how's it going blah blah blah blah,' and it hit me almost immediately about how what we had talked about before would fit so beautifully into the XPoNential Music site. All of a sudden what seemed like a lot of obstacles didn't seem like obstacles at all."
In what he calls his "D'oh moment," LaMay realized that the Y100rocks.com stream seemed a perfect addition to WXPN's new music site.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
"I remember that day. You were sitting outside, and I ordered my lunch inside and then I sat down [to talk with you]," says McGuinn as if recalling a tryst. "They came out and were like, 'We thought you left. Are you the guy who ordered the chicken sandwich? It's been sitting here waiting for you for the last 20 minutes.'"
McGuinn has always been aware of the two masters he served as program director for a corporate radio station: the listeners and the bottom line. He's always been pretty candid about how corporate radio tied his hands and forced him to play a lot of crap he'd have rather not. With Y100rocks.com, McGuinn and company proudly expelled the Nicklebacks, Stainds and Breaking Benjamins from their playlist. And while they still play some arena rock staples like Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tool, they've added bands like The New Pornographers, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, B.C. Camplight, Hail Social and Jenny Lewis, artists corporate rock radio won't touch with someone else's stick. McGuinn had been burned in radio before. He was leery of shacking up with just anyone.
"This was the hooking up, the marriage, this was the embrace—" says McGuinn.
"The denouement," LaMay interjects.
"—that really made sense on all levels," continues McGuinn. "Especially on an aesthetic level, because even when it was Y100 the FM station, we always kind of looked up to XPN. The way they treated their audience is the way we wanted to treat our audience."
Landow, McGuinn and Bruce Warren are trying to hammer out the finer points of the set-break outro. It's been decided that the official name of the beast they've created is Y-Rock on XPN. Yet as they're discovering, radio people are hardwired to say, "You just heard [band name] on [station]" and the extra "on" is tripping them up.
"I guess opening [a break] with a station ID is more important than closing with it," says Landow.
"But DJs are kind of hardwired to hit it on the exit," says McGuinn.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
"Let's let it simmer in our brains for a day," says Warren.
"The concept was a go a lot sooner than the name," says McGuinn.
"The Raconteurs on Y-Rock on XPN," says LaMay, who enters the room in time to catch the end of the discussion. "You'll get used to it."
This is just one of the finer points that needs to be worked out. Of greater importance is how to hijack Y100rocks.com's Mac-based stream to the Windows-based facilities for the month before the station moves in house. Then there's the challenge of incorporating the present Web site. And they'll need to customize the station's new digs. (They're moving into the station's currently empty "Ringo" broadcast studio; the three now in use are John, Paul and George, natch.) In a meeting with WXPN tech guy Jared Styles, Styles runs down a lengthy list of approved equipment — CD players, turntables, microphones, a programmable mixing board, a compressor, custom furniture — that makes Landow and McGuinn blush.
"Should we go with three CD players?" Styles asks.
"Two is probably plenty," says McGuinn sheepishly.
"Let's go with three," says Styles. "We love to spend money here."
Of greatest concern is how the audiences will react. Predictably, there were Chicken Littles on each station's Web forum when the news was leaked to the press before the official announcement. Some WXPN fans' only recollections of modern rock were of the old, corporate-run Y100. And Y100rocks.com fans remember all too well what happened the last time their format didn't control its destiny.
But even before McGuinn and LaMay went on the air to make the deal official, talk on the boards had cooled down a bit as both fan bases adopted a wait-and-see attitude, recognizing perhaps that WXPN is no corporate behemoth, and Y100rocks.com is not Y100.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Still, the message has been managed carefully. In a meeting with WXPN marketing director Kim Winnick, LaMay, McGuinn, Warren and Landow nitpick a prepared list of FAQs (you can find the final version at www.xpn.org/yrock_xpon.php).Is WXPN changing formats?
"No. We're not changing our format. Y-Rock On XPN is a distinct radio service that includes the wide range of alternative music for which Y100Rocks.com has been known."How will Y-Rock be different from Y100rocks.com?
"Musically they will be the same. But with the backing of WXPN, the staff and volunteers who program Y-Rock On XPN will have far better production facilities and can stream the service at a much higher quality."Does this mean my [WXPN] membership dollars will support Y100rocks.com?
"Y100Rocks.com will no longer exist as of 7/31. The new service called Y-Rock On XPN will be supported by new business support funding and new members. We anticipate that the service will pay for itself within three years."
And so on. If there seems to be a lot of explaining involved, it's because the model is pretty unique. Terrestrial radio has been streaming for years. But a station acquiring a pre-existing Web outfit seems unprecedented. Even Santa Monica's vanguard public station KCRW, which LaMay cites as inspiration and which boasts a very robust online presence, hasn't done this. Philadelphia, it seems, has something other cities don't.
While the move certainly comes with some calculation — LaMay and Warren both mention the underserved demographic in the wake of Y100's disappearance — and WXPN is big and established, it's refreshing to learn that they do a lot by feel. Bringing on The Geator in January felt right. And so does this.
"It fits in with the broadest definition of our mission, which is to get the music out to people," says Bruce Warren, the man responsible for the station's music mix and credited with the push from primarily singer-songwriter fare to a more adventurous bent.
With The Geator and now Y100, WXPN seems to be cobbling together a powerhouse lineup by picking up the castoffs of mainstream radio. But is there a concern about casting the net too wide? Can a station be too eclectic?
"We think about that every single day, with every new music decision," admits Warren, who feels that his listeners crave ever more diversity. "But we have a very good sense of what the boundaries are. WXPN is definitely about discovery."
Similarly, McGuinn sees Y100rocks.com's listenership as more adventurous than that of the old Y100. When he and LaMay went on WXPN to make the announcement, he explained that Y100 had three main listening groups: those who liked the Preston and Steve show, those who liked the more mainstream fare, and "music junkies." The first two groups had other places to go on the radio dial; the last turned to the Web.
Radio analysts agree. Mike Bacon, senior director of modern rock at Cherry Hill-based radio industry magazine Friday Morning Quarterback, is even more bullish about this move than its principals.
"It's a good partnership between the young and the old. With XPN being more adult alternative programming, picking up McGuinn's programming moves XPN forward," says Bacon. "You have to think of it this way: People that are 18 to 30 years old that miss Y100, who are patrons of Y100 rocks.com, they're going to age into the XPN demographic. So why not? It makes good demographic sense for XPN. These listeners are going to fall into an XPN target demographic eventually."
"But then there was this question of, like, are we going to be giving up ownership of this thing that we built from scratch?" he says. "I'd never been involved in a situation where a bunch of people just started something from scratch. We flapped the wings and it got off the ground a little."
When Y100 flipped last year, McGuinn sounded like a man defeated. He claimed he had no desire to work in corporate radio again. The combination of the teaching gig at Drexel and watching his young charges at Y100rocks.com blossom seems to have invigorated him.
"It helped me get back and appreciate what the whole thing, communicating via radio, is all about," says McGuinn, who says he fielded a lot of offers to go back to radio over the past year. "This XPN thing is really different. It's open-ended, and nobody knows where it's going to go, which is more fun than going to program another commercial modern rock station."
This opportunity, with the freedom to continue unfettered with the same ragtag crew but with new equipment, a new studio and the support of WXPN, seemed a no-brainer. The opportunity to be a regular on-air jock for the first time in 10 years was a bonus. But is anyone making out on this, other than fans of the music and the bands who play it?
"It sounds very impressive to say that they bought us, but there's no shore house in it for me," laughs McGuinn, who was making his living teaching at Drexel and working gratis for Y100rocks.com. McGuinn "owned" Y100rocks.com in as much as all the paperwork was in his name. But WXPN isn't buying their facilities or equipment; they're providing all that stuff new. What McGuinn's getting out of this is a job in radio again, and the freedom to do things more or less his way. "They're hiring [Josh and me]. They're making us employees of WXPN."
The volunteer jocks will remain volunteers, but will receive training and support and have the benefit of working out of a professional radio studio.
"The cool thing for me is that it started from scratch," says McGuinn, "and that the people out in the community joined as members. Now we're being recognized for doing a good job."
So with McGuinn set to go on the air for WXPN on Aug. 30 (Wed. and Thu. from 8-11 p.m. and Fri. 7-11 p.m.) and Y-Rock set to stream on XPoNentialmusic.org on Aug. 1, the only question left is whether this new beast will actually thrive.
"You ask if this is going to be a model, but one thing you have to keep in mind is that there are very, very few places that have a station that has the brand equity and the [listener] confidence as XPN," says LaMay. "And there's almost no place where you'd be able to have a [station like Y100rocks.com] that has that kind of audience and brand equity that's gone off the air and that's built their relationship and their audience.
"It's a pretty unique situation. If it's going to work anywhere, it's going to work here."(email@example.com)