Oh, the drama to end the year. The stuff of “Desperate Housewives of Wherever,” it’s all happening right here in D.C. But nobody seems to have noticed.
Not D.C. politics, nor our not-quite sports teams. I am talking about Cumulus radio station WRQX, better known as 107.3.
The second-largest radio group in the U.S. (454 owned and operated stations reaching 245 million listeners with more than 8,200 affiliated stations), Cumulus has been buffeted for at least the last two years. Would such turbulence within the Murdoch empire go unnoticed? But such is radio, a medium declared dead more than 50 years ago that continues, like James Bond, to refuse its fate.
The saga began in the spring of 2013. At that point, the station was anchored by morning DJ Jack Diamond, né Harvey Fischer. For 24 years, he had enlivened his audience’s mornings bantering with various sidekicks, the last two being Jimmy Alexander and Erica Hilary.
Then, one morning, they were gone. No warning, no graceful hand-off. One of the brothers who founded and controlled Cumulus was quoted at the time as saying that the audience had spoken through declining ratings. Other reports had it that Diamond was offered a healthy bonus to transition to his former sidekick Bert Weiss, but wanted none of it. Nice things were quoted, but Diamond was unceremoniously replaced by Weiss’s syndicated show out of Atlanta.
And then, a year later, just as suddenly, Bert and his crew were gone too. Management reportedly decided they needed a more local host. In stepped afternoon DJ Marco to handle duties until a new cast appeared: Sarah, Ty and Mel — two former sidekicks from the rival 99.5 Kane show: Sarah Fraser and Melanie Glazener, joined by Ty Bentli who moved down from New York.
Promising a new kind of show, the three found a unique voice. And while the morning callers suggested they were getting traction, the all-important ratings apparently never reached management’s threshold for success.
Last month, the revolving door spun again. The new crew was gone and Jack, the man who stormed out in a huff, is back. Diamond commented that you can indeed go home (a fact proven by numerous college graduates). But it was not just Jack. The station also reversed the change in name and format that started the whole ruckus, moving back to a Hot AC (hot adult contemporary) mix from the Contemporary Hits Radio format (the subtle differences in music programming escape us) and reverting to Mix 107.3. Just like that, forward to the past.
Sarah, Ty and Mel handled the clear disappointment of their midnight execution with the stoicism of people who know better than to burn bridges in the very small radio world. Ousted Sarah Fraser penned the well-worn euphemism of “the station is moving in another direction.” It was announced that she would move to a noon slot to go with an all-Christmas music lineup.
But head to the Mix 107.3 website (as of deadline), and there’s no Fraser. In fact, there are no names other than Jack Diamond. The Christmas music never appeared either.
Slate cleaned. High drama in Radioland.
But that was just the surface waves. Underwater, there has been just as much turmoil. It is hard to get an accurate count, but it seems that RQX had four program directors since Diamond strode out the door, the last ejection being that of Jan Jeffries, the person who engineered Diamond’s return. Current program director Louie Diaz paused when asked to remember whether he had actually begun at the Jennifer Street studio before Diamond’s reappearance.
Even bigger, after a failed venture and declining stock, RQX’s owner, Cumulus, pushed aside the founding brothers and brought in a magazine turn-around artist.
So, can you ever truly go home? The time between Diamond’s departure and return has seen perhaps more changes in the media landscape than his entire previous two-decade reign. Facebook today is a premium content distributor. Podcasts are hot and audience time-shifting is the norm rather than an anomaly. But people still commute, so there may yet be an audience for Diamond.
Diaz says the format reversion was driven by the realization that while a younger audience was tuning in to the new format, the older Mix audience wasn’t sticking around. The numbers just weren’t working, he explains, and it was time for the station to get back to what worked before (ignoring the ostensible reason Diamond was ousted). According to Diaz, it is a new Jack Diamond, with a far livelier program that includes new segments and increased listener interaction and engagement. (We don’t recall an issue with Diamond’s audience engagement.)
Diamond did not reply either to emails or attempts to reach him by phone. He has no small mountain to climb. The current ratings put the station at half the listenership of main rival Hot 99.5.
Diamond says you can go home. Cumulus has bet that he is right. Stay tuned, and we’ll all get to find out.
Amos Gelb is director of the Washington Media Institute.