When people complain about how most radio stations today seem to play the same small selection of songs over and over, they aren’t just being biased against pop music. Commercialized radio stations play, almost exclusively, songs from computer-generated playlists rather than curated sets by DJs. At any given time, the average commercialized station has roughly 50 songs in their library that they rotate through during a day, without any deviation, with each song getting played close to ten times. At what point did this become the norm for popular radio? When congress passed the Telecom Act in 1996, they unwittingly placed radio straight into the clutches of the corporate machine. By dropping all regulations on the entire radio industry, Congress intended to allow for greater competition, but instead, the bill had the opposite effect. Five years after the bill was passed, Clear Channel (now iHeartRadio) and Viacom owned 42 percent of all radio stations. Today, iHeartRadio owns 850 channels nationwide. Radio is still a very popular medium of communication, but with the abrupt rise of radio conglomerations, where is the room for everyone else?
Located in Baltimore, WTMD is a noncommercial station that falls under the umbrella of “Triple A” radio, meaning they air music in the category of “Adult Album Alternative.” While there are three huge commercial pop stations that dominate Baltimore’s airwaves, no other station around is quite like WTMD. When asked to go into detail about what he puts on the air, WTMD mid-day host Sam Gallant described the music he selects from as “everything starting with The Beatles and beyond, but with a focus on more current rock radio.” At the beginning of each week, Sam will prepare his whole week’s playlist, pushings songs “at most, if the band is local and deserves attention, twice a day.” Evening host Galler will spend his morning scouring the web for up-and-coming bands in the alternative scene, giving airtime to whoever catches his eye.
WTMD is the only radio station in Baltimore to support not only up and coming local bands, but international bands as well. To put it into perspective, Baltimore’s commercial rock radio counterpart to WTMD, 98 Rock, has consistently kept Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird in their daily rotation. On the first Thursday of every month, WTMD puts on a free live concert in a park in downtown Baltimore. The lineup features artists they have heavily played in the past. In July, Current Swell, a rising roots-rock outfit from western Canada, made the trip to Baltimore because, as they talked about on stage, they couldn’t thank WTMD enough for playing their music while they were just starting out. The shows have seen enormous success in the past few years, with headliner The Revivalists attracting a crowd of nearly 16,000 in July of 2016. By building up relationships with these bands, WTMD has been able to bring their featured bands back every few years, as not only have the bands grown significantly in popularity, but the shows have as well. WTMD’s slogan is that they provide “music for music people.” When talking about what this means, host Sam Gallant divides his station’s listeners into two camps, the passive and active listener. For the passive listener, WTMD can serve as “their algorithm, their Pandora station.” With a current library of songs that is nearly 10 times as vast as the closest Baltimore station, WTMD is able to keep their content fresh and their listeners happy. Separating themselves from the rest of Baltimore’s radio scene, WTMD is also able to appeal to the active listener, one who not only will get enjoyment from their playlist, but will “hear a song or artist and think ‘wow I want to seek them out,’” Sam describes. Overall, both camps are made up of people who are “not afraid to step out of their comfort zone [musically].”
WTMD has been very fortunate in being able to keep their programming consistent, as they receive most of their financial support in the form of subsidies from a local university. To cover the rest of their expenses, they rely on their passionate listener base to donate during their biannual drives. Unfortunately, they don’t always receive all the necessary funding. WTMD survives because of their passionate staff who put overwhelming effort and time into keeping the station running. Today, unfortunately, this is the reality for radio. Only established independent radio stations have been able to survive because of their already existing fan base; it is next to impossible for an independent station to start from the ground up. Nationwide, roughly two dozen stations exist that are similar in format to WTMD, noncommercial Triple A radio. In an effort to “keep the independent music scene alive” in Baltimore, Sam Gallant makes sure to remind his listeners at the end of his show each day to patronize their local music shops, as well as to attend shows at the Ottobar, the only local venue to focus on supporting the “local indie” scene.