citybeat (2007-48)

Radio WavesHastie Natural Area

City Beat

As WFIV axes its popular program director, will the station stay committed to its â“Adult Alternativeâ” format?

The radio station formerly known as Farragutâ’s Independent Voice has jettisoned its program director as well as its nickname this month, although station manager Brian Tatum assures that its Adult Alternative format and its status as one the areaâ’s last bastions of free-thinking independent radio will stay in place.

â“There will be no format change, and any rumors to the contrary are false,â” Tatum says. â“What we will have is a wider variety of rock artists on our playlist. Youâ’ll hear more Incubus, more Snow Patrol, more Silverchair.â”

Former program director Todd Ethridge of 105.3-WFIV was relieved of his duties the morning of Nov. 6. Coinciding with Ethridgeâ’s departure, the stationâ’s on-air tagline is changing from â“Farragutâ’s Independent Voiceâ” to â“Quality Rock, Real Variety.â”

Former WFIV programming consultant Benny Smith, now general manager at 90.3-WUTK, says Ethridgeâ’s firing was probably ill-considered, given the level of experience he has in local music and radio.

â“Itâ’s unfortunate not only because Toddâ’s a great guy, but heâ’s been in radio and bands around here for a long time,â” Smith says. â“He knows the market. I think itâ’s not a good sign that youâ’re taking control out of the hands of people whoâ’ve been involved with the market for years.â”

According to Tatum, Ethridgeâ’s exit was â“just a budgetary thing. Itâ’s something we didnâ’t want to do, but the economic situation being what it is, we had to do it.â”

But though he says the firing was merely budget-related, Tatum admits that â“we arenâ’t where we wanted to be at as a station, and Todd wasnâ’t taking us in that direction.â” He says morning DJ Russell Smith is being trained to eventually take over the program directorâ’s seat.

Ethridge, a popular longtime local radio personality and former local rock musician, says he didnâ’t know he was on the verge of being released, but that he wasnâ’t surprised by the move, either. â“Budget cuts are an old story in radio; this has happened to a whole lot of people in the business,â” he says.

â“A lot of times, the program director is the first person to go when there are shortfalls. Itâ’s a job you relish, but you know your head is on the chopping block. If the ratings arenâ’t great, youâ’re the one who has to answer for it.â”

And of late, WFIV ratings had been in â“a bit of a downswing,â” says Ethridge. â“Thatâ’s kind of normal for the format weâ’re in. Adult Alternative stations usually arenâ’t ratings giants. Itâ’s kind of a niche format. You count on strong demographics rather than giant ratings.â”

According to Ethridge, WFIVâ’s summer â“bookâ” (the record of summertime ratings) fell a half a point from a 1.0 to a .5â"meaning a drop from 1 percent to half a percent of the cityâ’s radio listening audience. â“Iâ’m sure thereâ’s a link between my firing and the downturn,â” he continues. â“The name of the game is to have something marketable and to make money. You want to be good, but you also have to be sellable.â”

WFIV has been recognized as being exceptionally diverse for a commercial radio station. As Smith puts it, â“Todd and WFIV have given people a reason to listen to commercial radio again.â” Besides featuring a number of specialty shows, the station mixed in a healthy dose of local music on its playlist. Ethridge says the total number of songs available for airplay on the WFIV system was around 4,000. By comparison, the playlist for a hits-oriented commercial station might be less than 200.

â“My mission when I started there was to bring back the spirit of â’70s FM radio, where blues and rock and soul coexisted,â” Ethridge says. â“And also to blend in a slice of college radio, DJs who could talk about the music. Iâ’m really, really proud and satisfied with what we did. I feel like it was unique for Knoxville.â”

Tatum says that in addition to adding to the variety of the stationâ’s rock offerings, the next program director will include even more local music in the mix of songs. â“Weâ’re already known for playing local rock, but I want to build the local playlist up even more than we have in the past.â”

Is it possible that WFIVâ’s summer ratings drop is simply an indication that Knoxville is unwilling to support an exceptionally diverse Adult Alternative radio station? Ethridge isnâ’t sure.

â“Radio is a changing game right now,â” he says. â“Everyone has iPods and satellite. People are breaking music on MySpace. So regular broadcast radio isnâ’t the only place to hear new music anymore. Who knows what it will all mean?â”

In the meantime, Ethridge says his days in local radio are probably over, as he sets about building up his own freelance voiceover business.

â“Iâ’ve dabbled in this over the last 10 years, but Iâ’ve never made it a full-time pursuit,â” he says. â“Iâ’ve made some connections now, I have a home studio in my basement, and Iâ’ve gotten some good calls lately. Leaving radio could turn out to be the big kick in the pants I needed.â” â" Mike Gibson

A new non-park for South Knoxville

In the waning twilight of the Ashe administration, the former mayor was buying park land without always having clear plans about how to proceed with it.

One of his purchases, around 2003, was a 75-acre plot off Redbud Drive in South Knoxville, a wooded tract once planned for suburban development during the heady days of the 1982 Worldâ’s Fair, and equipped with sewers, but abandoned after development of the rocky, steep landscape came to seem less feasible.

â“Iâ’m glad he jumped on it,â” says Joe Walsh, director of the cityâ’s Parks and Recreation Department, remarking on the rarity of an undeveloped area that size in the city. Itâ’s hardly two miles southeast of downtown. â“We called it a natural area; the decision not to make it a â‘parkâ’ came back to terrain. Itâ’s certainly not going to be getting any soccer fields.â”

In the years since, it had attracted mainly weeds and four-wheeling rowdies. At one time, the neighbors despaired that anything would happen with the plot. The city did eventually install some barriers to prevent damaging use of the land, as well as some preliminary landscaping and gravel trails.

It has become known as William Hastie Natural Area. Hastie was Americaâ’s first black federal appeals-court judge, ca. 1937, and also for a time governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands. He spent part of his youth in South Knoxville.

Ann Strange, president of the Lake Forest Neighborhood Association, has taken a special interest in the plot. â“Itâ’s mostly woods and steep ridges, good for walking or mountain biking,â” she says. â“It has a cave, and trout lilies in the spring. It has a real diversity of plant life, because it hasnâ’t been messed with for years.â”

Walsh expects it to remain a rugged place, for hiking trails and perhaps off-road bicycling. The greenways people have also expressed an interest in it; itâ’s not far from the Meadâ’s Quarry/Ijams area, which is already well-served by greenways.

One big problem for the prospective park is where to park. The residents of Redbud donâ’t want a parking lot beside their homes; there are hopes that the city can work something out by providing the park access via Old Sevierville Pike, via Margaret.

â“Right now the only way to get to it is to walk. Thatâ’s great for the people who live adjacent to it, but people coming in from West Knoxville are going to have to have a place to put their cars.â” The bill for a parking lot and other improvements may be around $50-60,000; Walsh says heâ’s going to recommend it for the cityâ’s â’08-â’09 budget. â" Jack Neely


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