The resilience of PH FM radio

HISTORY. Fans convey sympathy for the 'devil,' NU107.

Photo courtesy of NU107's Facebook

MANILA, Philippines – There was a time when the world stopped as a song played on the radio.

The song plays for a good 3 minutes and the listener is enraptured, taken by surprise. Everything fades away - to paraphrase a Buddy Holly ditty - from the crackling static noise on the airwaves to the cacophony of voices around you.

To any other listener, it may be nothing more than ambient sound, just another song blaring from the stereo. But to anyone attuned to the immediate surroundings - to life itself - radio can be a stark reminder of the good, the bad, the funny, the bittersweet.

There is an enthralling, almost serendipitous joy that comes upon hearing a song at an unexpected moment. We wax nostalgic over the times when a song leaves us spellbound, because not too long ago, radio had that power.

Despite its share of flighty entertainment (its zesty dramas and gossip commentary), it is AM radio that captures the grim, hard reality of current events, FM radio is more fun and frivolous, an aural canvas of youthful consumerism and popular culture. It was both at the backdrop and forefront of the changing times, putting together the soundtrack of a nation finding its identity amid socio-political upheavals.

During the mid-80s, pop and Top 40 music station 99.5 RT catapulted musical duo Seona Dancing – a virtual unknown in their native Britain – before the bards of adolescent heartbreak through their one-hit wonder “More to Lose.” The synthesizer-laden, heavily programmed drumming in the song was characteristic of that decade’s style, and thistled to the exploration of niche programming on FM radio.

Niche programming

The year was 1987 and New Wave was the genre du jour. Synthesizers and syncopated beats were in full swing, with acts such as Seona Dancing, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, and Spandau Ballet enjoying mainstream success.

 “Back then, radio was either pop, mellow, or dance,” said Cris Hermosisima, business development head of music production company MCA Universal Philippines. “There was a clamor for change in everything. We could feel that the kids back then wanted something different in the way they listen to radio, and in how their music is served to them. They wanted something new.”

A radio station called WXB 102, although powered at a measly 1 kilowatt, gained a cult following during the mid-‘80s because of its dedicated New Wave programming. It helped launched the career of Pinoy rock act The Dawn, one of the most influential local bands at that time and even today. WXB was touted to be the change FM radio needed most at that time.

The Eighties were also a politically charged era in the Philippines, capturing the spirit of the Sixties even amid the materialism of the actual decade elsewhere around the world. This was the decade of Ninoy Aquino’s assassination and massive funeral march, of a nation’s spirited confetti-awakening in the posh streets of Makati where some of the top FM stations held office - of Lean Alejandro’s eloquent activism, the Escalante Massacre, the assassination of Evelio Javier, the political transformation and rise of Cory Aquino, the People Power Revolution.

In June of 1987, as part of the Aquino administration’s efforts to sequester the assets seized by the Marcos dictatorship during its heyday, WXB 102 suddenly went off the air, as it was operating in a Marcos-controlled studio.

New kid on the block

But it didn't take long for another station to come out and address the needs of the New Wave-loving lot. 5 months later, an obscure station went on air, playing a continuous stream of music from the 107.5 callsign, with neither DJs nor ad spots.

Days after going on air, the new station introduced itself as DWNU 107, “The Home of New Rock.” Its phone would ring non-stop for 3 hours on end, with calls ranging from song requests to impassioned raves.

“I was part of the team [that] basically set it up and supervised the construction and wiring of the station,” Cris said.

Before MCA Universal, Cris was NU 107’s station manager until its final run in 2010.

Cris is a jolly, portly gentleman with a raucous laughter. He is proud of NU 107’s legacy and still quite wistful over the glory days of rock radio. He has been in the music industry for the past 3 decades. Having spent 17 of those years in NU107, he saw how it grew, carved a niche in the music industry, establishing itself as a formidable resource for everything rock and roll.

PIONEER. Hermosisima was NU 107u2019s steadfast station manager.

Screenshot from Youtube

“NU 107 was sort of a catalyst [in the radio scene],” he said. “We were brave enough to go niche programming, [to] get out of radio’s comfort zones, and introduce a whole new programming mix in terms of music and of how the jocks deliver the music on air.”

NU 107 launched the careers of some of the biggest names we now know in OPM. The station boasted of an extensive rock library, from the much-treasured New Wave hits to buck-thrashing rap metal.

As with RJ-AM in the Seventies, the music aficionados on NU’s employ were intelligent, articulate rock scholars - including ex-The Dawn guitarist Francis Reyes and bassist Myrene Academia, currently of Sandwich.

Cris was also a DJ back then, with the moniker Cris Cruise.

As he remembers, the pinnacle of NU 107’s success came in the form of the Rock Awards, which honored rock bands for their contribution to OPM. It started in 1994, the height of the grunge era, when the Rock Awards catapulted bands like Alamid and Afterimage into the mainstream.

The Rock Awards became an annual congregation for icons like Joey “Pepe” Smith, Joey Ayala, and Freddie Aguilar and bands that would eventually become emblematic of their era - Eraserheads, Rivermaya, and Parokya ni Edgar.

Surveys, ratings

By the new millennium, NU 107 was still enjoying its exalted place in the rock scene. But to Cris it was a sinking enterprise, at the mercy of advertisers who were not too slavish over surveys and ratings and blocktime producers helping keep it afloat.

 “Surveys and station ratings became some sort of a bible, [which] a majority of ad agencies would use to justify their radio placements to their clients,” Cris said. “Hence, no ratings, no placements.”

Nevertheless, Cris and the NU 107 team worked as hard as they could, embracing technology as they soldiered on, with livestreaming serving those who were too far away to access the station’s 25,000 kilowatts reach. During the advent of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, they were quick on the draw, taking in listeners’ requests.

But management, which consisted of a new group by then, had a different plan. Seeing the lucrative efforts of masa stations - radio stations that played novelty songs and had DJs speak in the vernacular - the new venture capitalists decided to let the 107.5 callsign embrace the format.

“We were given enough [notice],” Cris said, to be fair to the new management then. “Niche programming was already out of the question.” Eventually, they had to play the ratings game.

Cris was the last man in the booth that midnight of November 8, 2010, when, after 23 years on the air, NU 107 permanently signed off.

Its swan song was “Ang Huling El Bimbo” by the Eraserheads, which blared on the airwaves amid cheers and tears from rock musicians, current and former DJs, and rock aficionados who flocked over to the studio. Then they played the “Lupang Hinirang,” followed by silence, in the mourning over the end of an era in modern Filipino music.

Here's the historic sign-off:

The business of talk in the digital age

The radio industry has since reassessed its role in response to an evolving audience, and the evolving state of mass communication itself - the full-on integration of radio with elements that are on-ground, on-air, and online.

From a one-way street where the stream of content cascades towards a more passive consumer base, FM radio has morphed into a multimedia counterflow, leading to an audience heavily engaged with the very content they consume.

Radio, a paramount resource during the halcyon days of free music, is a medium that has gone through several changes – from reformatting to shifting the music-banter ratio.

“Music used to be the highlight of FM radio, but talk radio is becoming more and more popular these days,” said Hazel Aguilon, a DJ for pop music station RX 93.1. “DJs have certainly become chattier today.”

Hazel may be regarded as a radio veteran, having been a DJ for the past decade. Fortunate enough to be in a station that has, in her words, “found the formula for being able to change with the times while staying true to its roots,” she has witnessed the constant shifts in the industry.

The ratio of banter to music has turned around, with an evolving, more engaged audience. Before, new songs were always discovered over the radio, propelling the FM band to become a principal musical authority. While radio today is still key to music discovery, there are other platforms that have made it possible for the consumer to experience new music, notably the internet.

Hazel said some listeners tune in for the music, but others do so for the banter. “You really have to find the right balance between the two,” she added. “You also have to take into consideration the bulk of commercials that eats up a lot of your time on air.”

BANTER. DJ Hazel Aguilon talks about today's radio milieu.

Photo from her Facebook

With music storage now made more portable, banter has become a formidable, marketable commodity. Talk sells to the lonely motorist braving the traffic-infested thoroughfares of the metro. From salacious gossip to borderline taboo topics, radio has captivated the public once again despite being in the thick of the iPod era.

“Pre-production has become a must today, if you want to have a successful radio show,” Hazel said. “Being spontaneous is great, but it's always good to plan and have a general sense of what stuff you want to discuss when you go on air.”

Today’s radio DJs now need to up the ante and become lean, mean tweeting machines. They now juggle music lineup with on-air banter and managing their social media accounts simultaneously.

Radio DJs have to be on their feet and be quick on the draw, for today’s crop of listeners has an increasingly shorter attention span. A second of dead air or inane banter can be a dealbreaker.

The resilience of radio

Radio is an auditory mosaic of music and chatter. It is the motorist’s trusty shotgun passenger, the commuter’s cantankerous companion, the eavesdropper’s treasure trove.

It is the herald of what would become anthems of a generation – of songs celebrating good times, comforting youthful angst and love found and lost. Radio eases the drudgery of the day with jolty, chirpy banter.

Radio is a resilient medium, having lived through world wars and technological revolutions. At this point in the narrative of the human race, information has become increasingly visual in nature, yet radio still provides a lively backdrop to our lives. If social media is the town crier of the new millennium, radio - from the monaural AM to stereo FM - is the thumping, backbeat relic that defies the times.

Radio fiercely swims upstream to stay afloat amidst the digital storm, to adapt to an evolving audience, and to embrace the internet as an ally, not as a threat. It might no longer have its former authority as a harbinger of the freshest music, but it has acquired a new power – or rather distinction – as posse for the listener, apart from the frenzy of the maddening crowd online. -

Marga Deona

Marga leads digital and product management for Rappler’s multimedia expansion. Sometimes, she writes about the intersection of technology, culture, and business, as well as the occasional sports and music features.