Sunday, November 30, 2014

96 X'ed

Some time ago, I linked to the website, a site that chronicles the moments when radio stations swap from one format to another. The first thing you'll notice if you poke around is that a lot of the same formats get used in a lot of markets, no thank you very much Clear Channel. (A fair amount of the time, stations will swap around this time of year, airing exclusively Christmas music to mask the change. A station will be one format going into the season and another format coming back out of it.)

But almost always, a station signing off will in fact become the birth of a new station at the same frequency. It's almost unheard-of for a radio station to actually straight-up go off the air, where one moment you hear music or talking and the next you hear only static.

But it has happened. shows one- and only one- instance of a straight shutdown, when Top 40 station 96X in Miami, call sign WMJX, shut down in 1981. The FCC had pulled its license. (This paper from Justin Levine of Indiana University shows only one other, KIKX in Tuscon, which staged a kidnapping of DJ Arthur Gropen in 1974, causing listeners to call the cops, causing the cops to call the station, causing the station to insist the kidnapping was real, causing the FCC to also yank their license in 1981. That shutdown is not in's database.) In 1975, 96X was borne out of a format change, or really I should say an ownership change. Bartell Broadcasting was out, handing off to Charter Broadcasting. Bartell, also doing top-40, had used the call sign WMYQ; Charter went through a couple others, plus a brief switch to disco, before returning to top-40. But in inheriting the station, Charter also inherited the station's legal troubles with the FCC.

WMYQ, you see, had done some very stupid morning-DJ things in the 70's, prior to the handoff to Charter, as I link you to a message from Stuart Elliott, the DJ tasked with pulling the plug. As Elliott explained back in 2005, there were two things the FCC mainly took into account, though the Indiana paper notes that they considered nine contests over a two-year period. The first of the big two was a prank, for which the FCC would eventually use KIKX as precedent to act, in which morning DJ Greg Austin was said to be broadcasting from out at sea and then 'disappeared', causing all manner of law enforcement to launch a huge search party to find him. The news anchor was instructed to keep the disappearance story going to promote a 'Find Greg Austin Contest'. He turned up in a Howard Johnson just down the road from the radio station.

Second was a contest in which the station claimed to be giving away "a warehouse full of 10 speed bicycles". The station would give out clues on the air saying where the bikes were hidden, you'd go find one, call the station, they'd give you a combination to unlock the bike, and if it unlocks it's yours. The thing the FCC honed in on was that here, 'a warehouse full' wound up being defined as 'a half dozen to a dozen'. Elliott didn't say the exact number, but it sure was not a warehouse. These days he'd be thinking more like a storage locker, which wasn't nearly as much of a thing in the early 80's, but in any case, 'warehouse' still means a certain rather large thing.

The Indiana University paper points out another contest from 1973 called 'Magnum One', in which listeners were led to believe they were winning part of a company with "valuable assets". It was actually a shell corporation. The FCC had already warned the station over this one.

An additional sample incident, which is unclear if the FCC noted in its hearings, was recalled in 2012 by B. Eric Rhoads. In 1975, the station was in a ratings war during sweeps with rival Y-100, and the instructions from programmer Jerry Clifton were, "We're neck-and-neck with Y100 and we can win this, but it's going to require extra creativity from you guys. Pull out all the stops. No holds barred. Just don't lose the license." Rhoads went on the air that night and claimed he'd been fired. The rest of the staff "reacted" to the firing. The next morning, Rhoads "broke in" to the studio and "took over" the station and said he'd play a novelty song called 'Eat A Fish' until he got his job back... which led to some very real cops showing up not long afterward, holding him at gunpoint, and dragging him off to a squad car outside. After some explanation to the cops, the mayor of Miami Beach forced the station GM, Carl Gomo, to issue one apology every half hour on the station for the next two weeks. (Y-100 beat 96X in sweeps that year.)

96X would spend a few years defending itself to the FCC, ultimately unsuccessfully. The decision was made final in January 1981, with the station having to be off the air by April. The change in ownership counted for nothing. Charter had taken over with full knowledge of what might end up happening, and knowing that Bartell getting out of Dodge while there was still a Dodge to get out of didn't do anything to change the equation. And given that the license was gone and extremely unlikely to be put back on appeal, they didn't see much point in prolonging the station's demise.

The shutdown can be heard here. Elliott was unable to hold it together as he hit the switch. The calmer-sounding message from station manager Bob Allen was prerecorded. The station would eventually come back on the air, but it wouldn't be until 1985. It's currently WPOW, a dance music station.

Going down like it did, 96X has acquired a tribute website, playing the kinds of music 96X used to play.