Rockin' all over the world - WEQX marks its 25th birthday of being new
MANCHESTER - Three stacks of musical CD's - compact disks - sit on a shelf in Amber Miller's hideaway office on the second floor of radio station WEQX, in a Victorian-style building at the corner of Elm Street and Highland Avenue.
Miller, the music director at the station that features the "best new rock" on area radio dials, listens to a lot of music each week. Some days more than 50 new disks arrive in the mail, or other recordings come to her and her colleague's attention over the Internet.
One stack - the shortest of the three - are the ones that have passed the initial screening and are candidates for putting on the air. In the middle, a slightly higher pile, are the distant maybes, possibly worth a second hearing but probably not. The third and largest stack are the rejects.
The sifting process isn't easy or simple, and because music is well, music, and a subjective taste, there are no hard and fast rules about what works and what doesn't, particularly when you're striving to be out on the cutting edge of what's new in contemporary music.
"It's more about knowing what isn't us, because we're adventurous and we play things that are different," she said. "It's having the know-how to know this isn't us."
Knowing what is and isn't them has been a hallmark of the alternative rock radio station for the past quarter century. It started broadcasting from a transmitter atop Mt. Equinox at 10:27 a.m. on Nov. 14, 1984, aiming to beam the best of the best new music into listener's cars, homes and offices. The 25th anniversary of the station was celebrated over a 5-week period leading up to the anniversary date as the station culled favorite recordings dating back to its earliest days and on up through the present.
Brooks Brown, the station's co-owner, now 62, was working for the Albany N.Y. television station WRGB when he moved to Manchester and was disappointed at the absence of high quality radio. So he decided to start a station of his own, he said.
"I saw a need," he said. "It seems like yesterday."
That vision has proven successful enough to attract numerous offers over the years from larger chains of radio stations who wanted to add EQX to their stables, but Brown has always turned them down, leaving the station one of the very few remaining independent, locally owned radio stations that's a major player in its market - which in their case is Albany, N.Y., the surrounding Capital District and neighboring Vermont and western Massachusetts.
"We've had a lot of offers, but I prefer to find someone who can carry on in the spirit of the station," he said.
And what's the spirit of the station?
"Bringing the best new music and the best programming to our listeners - providing an outlet for independent bands, whether local or national - that's what we do," he said. "Other companies are unwilling to spend the money required to do the research and go the distance for really providing the programming."
Radio and the music industry may have changed a lot over the last quarter-century, but some things remain eternal. One of them is the "brand" of WEQX, said program director Willobee.
"The EQX brand is when you tune in the radio you should be able to tell it's EQX based on the music you're hearing, based on the vibe," he said. "We know what the EQX brand stands for and what it should sound like so when we listen to music we go 'is this something that sounds like an EQX record?' If we decided to start playing Britney Spears tomorrow, that's not the EQX brand."
Willobee started as a disk jockey back in college and has seen the technology of the industry change, and change again. Music that used to come as vinyl albums changed to compact disks, and now is more likely to come as what's known as an mp3 file that can be downloaded off the Internet and played back on a portable iPod listening device. Some in the business saw their arrival as the final death knell of radio, but technological change isn't to be feared if your purpose is to reveal the best of new music, he said.
"We don't ignore the fact that there are other avenues (other than radio) that people have for discovering music and we've sort of embraced that," he said.
Listeners can submit their own favorite recordings from bands they've discovered - social networking Web sites like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube are popular ways new bands gain a following in the digital era - or maybe they are spreading the word about a local band that is barely known outside their home town. Some of those songs get aired on a special show called "Bandwidth" that features these new and largely unknown groups, he said.
It's not easy embracing all the new music that's out there and adapting to changing technology while being true to the now quarter-century legacy the station has built up, but that's a balancing act the station has to do, he said.
"We have a vast library and we stir the pot every hour with a mixture of new music and music from the last 25 years," he said. "People have been listening to the station since it started - for the 25th anniversary we dusted off a lot of the older CD's and put them back on the air."
"The feedback was really good," Amber Miller said. "(They said) it would be great if you did this a little more."
About 50 percent of the playlist is new material, much of it so new it's not yet available to would-be buyers, she said. The rest of it is older music, relatively speaking. The 50/50 split between new and old is much higher from the standpoint of the newer material than most stations offer, she said.
Making up the playlist is a complex formula that all members of the station have input into, and there's never one factor that determines what's in or out. There's a lot of research involved - visits to music blogs and Web sites, being out and hearing groups performing live, trying to find out if the music holds up beyond the hype and publicity churned out by the record company label, she said.
The latest trend she's seeing is music that's less guitar heavy and more electronic and dance-oriented. But there doesn't seem to be any new overhaul of popular music lurking in the wings, like back in the late 1980s with the arrival of so-called "grunge rock" - a style of stripped down heavily distorted guitar-based alternative rock. But who knows?
"The bottom line is a good song is a good song - you know it when you hear it," she said.
The main listener audience is the 25-to-44 year-old demographic slice of the people living within the range of its transmitter on Mt. Equinox, and they want to appeal to both men and women, Willobee said.
Their signal travels out in a more than 100 mile radius from there, and comes in crystal clear over in the Albany-Capital district area. But that's far from the limit of their broadcasting reach. They also broadcast or "stream" over the Internet - you can be on the other side of the world and log onto to weqx.com and hear the same thing as someone driving on the Northway or Route 7. It costs a lot of money to stream over the Web, but it's worth it to reach that audience, and now the station is moving on to the next big thing - streaming audio into cell phones, Willobee said.
A new version of the iPod coming out next year will also have a radio built into it, and listeners will be able to hear them on those portable devices, he said.
Television was the first industry killer, but radio survived and thrived. Then compact disks were the end of the world, followed by Mp3s. Then came satellite radio. None, it turns out, can eliminate a need for people to hear new music, well-presented from somewhere other than their own personal music libraries, he said.
The amalgamation of iPods and radio is just part of a long evolution, he said.
"It's kind of like going backwards," he said. " ipods were supposed to be the death of radio. So what does that tell you? We still have to go someplace else."
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