Is it the beginning of the end for Premium Radio 92/1FM? The small, independent station-which has made a noble effort at competing with 91X despite microscopic signal strength (580 watts)-has begun massive cutbacks.
On Sept. 20, popular DJ Anya Marina was let go. Last Friday, owner Art Astor fired Program Director Michael Halloran.
“I'm out the door. I'm gonna open a motel,” Halloran said, refusing further comment.
Halloran has an almost mythological lore as one of the last remaining industry professionals who is vociferous in his fight against Clear Channel's dominance of San Diego radio. After years at 91X during its heyday, he left to form the much-loved, independent station, 92.5FM. The station was squeezed off the dial by Clear Channel, forcing Halloran to recede from radio, working at MP3.com. In May of 2000, however, he was hired by Astor to turn classical station 92.1FM into an alternative station to rival Clear Channel-owned 91X.
Halloran's reputation centered around one simple fact: in the day of test-marketed radio, he took gut-level risks.
“We're just downsizing, and it's a basic matter of economics,” Astor said from Astor Broadcasting's Anaheim headquarters. “Halloran did a good job but the format didn't produce a revenue. Advertising media got hit hard in the last year, and the timing of the format change wasn't good. [Halloran is] a good guy, but he's also an expensive guy.”
Astor asserts that he would've happily kept Halloran on board if the economy had been better. But with sales flagging, he approached the program director about adopting a more “conservative format.”
“But you're asking a sculptor to... chop blocks of wood,” Astor said. “He's got his own artistic vision.
“[Premium Radio] is not heavy retail-oriented and that's one of the problems. It's a nifty format, but unless you're on the top 10 in active or alternative rock in your market, you gotta be more things to more people. I wanted to go in the direction of the old MIXX in Orange County, which is a combination of alternative with a hot [adult contemporary] slant.
“Halloran carved a nice niche. But if there's a 49-year-old car dealer, they're going, ‘What the hell is that?'”
Astor says that with Halloran gone, he intends to “modify a little. But you don't just jump from that into soft rock. We're going to let the dust settle.”
Industry professionals have long debated whether Halloran is an outdated idealist in a world where radio is big business, not a revolution-or if he's the savior of alternative radio as we know it. He undoubtedly brought a rebellious old-school programming approach to Premium Radio. He introduced innovative specialty shows, including a four-hour local program (“Go Loco”) and “Radio Swami,” a two-hour program of underground music hosted by Rocket from the Crypt frontman John Reis.
Also, in the days of pre-recorded, automated DJs, 92/1 was alone in keeping a totally live person on the dial. Two weeks ago, however, the station announced that it was adopting the less expensive method of automation.
“Late at night and mornings we're going to be voice tracking, which is not [out of the ordinary] nowadays,” Astor said. “It's a sign of the times....”
“[Being totally live] was cutting edge in a sea of prerecorded, sterile, predictable automated radio,” said Marina, who is proud that 92/1 achieved what it did with only “magnets and bumper stickers.”
“I think we did a really good job and made a good run,” she said. “[Mike's] an amazing programmer and he's a renegade. And a lot of times a renegade doesn't have a really long run because they take so many risks. We made radio exciting for a ton of hungry listeners. We got that feedback. We changed the face of radio for a long time.
“I don't know how [92/1] could go on without the expertise and the knowledge and the spine Halloran brought to it. You can't accuse Halloran of being a pussy. He'll take risks and burn bridges if he has to.
“I guess all good things have to come to an end,” she concluded. “I know Halloran will rise again like the phoenix from the ashes. He just always does and it's exciting to watch.”
In Halloran's place, Rick Savage (DJ and co-host of “Go Loco”) has assumed the duties of program director, even though he hasn't been officially anointed with the title.
As for Marina, she's working on her own demo tape with Unwritten Law vocalist Scott Russo. No word yet on whether she'll hold her CD-release party in the lounge of Halloran's new motel.