Radio Waves

As WFIV axes its popular program director, will the station stay committed to its "Adult Alternative" format?

The radio station formerly known as Farragut'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 area's last bastions of free-thinking independent radio will stay in place.

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

Former program director Todd Ethridge of 105.3-WFIV was relieved of his duties the morning of Nov. 6. Coinciding with Ethridge's departure, the station's on-air tagline is changing from "Farragut's Independent Voice" to "Quality Rock, Real Variety."

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

"It's unfortunate not only because Todd's a great guy, but he's been in radio and bands around here for a long time," Smith says. "He knows the market. I think it's not a good sign that you're taking control out of the hands of people who've been involved with the market for years."

According to Tatum, Ethridge's exit was "just a budgetary thing. It's something we didn't want to do, but the economic situation being what it is, we had to do it."

But though he says the firing was merely budget-related, Tatum admits that "we aren't where we wanted to be at as a station, and Todd wasn't taking us in that direction." He says morning DJ Russell Smith is being trained to eventually take over the program director's seat.

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

"A lot of times, the program director is the first person to go when there are shortfalls. It's a job you relish, but you know your head is on the chopping block. If the ratings aren't great, you're the one who has to answer for it."

And of late, WFIV ratings had been in "a bit of a downswing," says Ethridge. "That's kind of normal for the format we're in. Adult Alternative stations usually aren't ratings giants. It's kind of a niche format. You count on strong demographics rather than giant ratings."

According to Ethridge, WFIV's summer "book" (the record of summertime ratings) fell a half a point from a 1.0 to a .5—meaning a drop from 1 percent to half a percent of the city's radio listening audience. "I'm sure there's a link between my firing and the downturn," he continues. "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."

WFIV has been recognized as being exceptionally diverse for a commercial radio station. As Smith puts it, "Todd and WFIV have given people a reason to listen to commercial radio again." 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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