Everyone loves the Little Train Who Could – but sometimes thinkIcan thinkIcan isn’t enough; sometimes, the wolves are howling around the tracks and the bridge gets blown and everyone on board, even the Caboose, just has to hold on to their asses and hope the whole damn thing will somehow make it across the canyon.
Such was the situation facing CD102.5, formerly CD101.1, just a few years ago. Since 1990, the Little Station That Could had been operating out of their Brewery District studio downtown, carving out a winning niche with their cutting-edge musical taste and eclectic cult of personality, led by beloved DJ and program director John “Andyman” Davis.
At the turn of their second decade in business, however, things looked a lot more dismal: the station was slumping in the ratings, and with speculators bearing down on their physical and celestial property, they hunkered down for the most harrowing era of their already unlikely existence.
(614) embedded itself with the station for a busy 60-hour stretch last month to examine the inner workings of a small business with a truly “alternative” mode of operation.
Now, the story of a radio family who almost lost everything; but had no choice but to keep it altogether…
Tuesday, 10:02 a.m.
Now Playing: “Little Black Submarines,” The Black Keys
Randy Malloy, I will come to learn, is rarely frazzled, but often impatient.
We’re late, gotta go, he says, bounding out of his office, past the gallons of Jameson atop his filing cabinets, and upstairs to his expectant team.
He takes his seat at the table, and I take mine in the corner, beneath a shelf containing retro turntables, radios, and an old squeezebox, as well as framed Big Room photos of The Wallflowers and The Verve Pipe, bands from what often seem to be the crest of the station’s “classic” alternative wave.
Seated at the table are Rachel Bilchak, a newer addition to the staff, who manages the Big Room space; Lesley Edwards, the station’s general sales manager, veteran employee Amy Diefenbach, whose primary duties include web and IT functions, marketing manager Kara Jones, and Lesley James, CD102.5’s most popular on-air talent, who doubles as program director.
It’s a far cry from the male-dominated early days of the station, where Malloy – a former mailroom employee – John “Andyman” Davis, and a laundry list of airjocks roamed the halls of their downtown studio; today, it’s hard not to recognize the modern dynamic between Malloy and his female employees, who are eager to tease him at a moment’s notice, the same way a well-meaning old dad is chided by his five daughters.
“It’s only Tuesday, and I already hate you all,” he says, peering over his eyeglasses with faux steel.
For all intents and purposes, this Tuesday department head meeting is CD102.5’s Monday, the launchpad each work week for a massive machine, one that’s constantly churning off-air to keep the brand in as many ears and in front of as many eyes as possible. With a huge first weekend in June on the horizon (Columbus Arts Festival, Park Street Fest, Atlas Genius at the Newport, Passion Pit at the LC on Friday, a sold-out Postal Service show on Saturday), the meeting is thick with cross-promotional strategy, and requests for on-premises appearances from the station’s DJs and “Scene Team.”
All is relatively standard, though, until one of them mentions Summerfest, the station’s enormously successful $5 concert that often sells out within days of being announced.
“Shhhhhhh…someone’s listening,” James says, squelching any talk of her beloved event, while simultaneously tapping my foot with her hand. This is the way James, or LJ as she is referred to at CD102.5, operates. Dressed as though she could be a DJ, tour manager, drummer, or promoter, she’s attractive, personable, and confident, and the excited gleam in her eye manifests itself often in friendly winks, an almost reflexive tick that sends the message, “Just playing…kinda.”
It’s also easy to see why she’s so protective of what I come to realize is one of her most passionate projects at the station; tapping a band and negotiating with them to come play a $5 bill in Columbus – often right before they punch their ticket to the big-time – is one of her specialties. Grammy winners The Killers headlined the first one nearly a decade ago, and the Black Keys topped the bill in 2005; last year, Of Monsters and Men, after their song “Little Talks” became a local smash, didn’t even get top billing – and six months later were on stage as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live.
And the meeting for the capital city’s only independently-owned radio station isn’t all music. There are plenty of independently important items on the back of the agenda, like the recent theft of their lawnmower, someone breaking into Bilzak’s car, and a “giant mother raccoon” on the roof who Malloy has determined to be “really f*cking pissed.”
There’s barely any time to immediately address those problems, since on this day, 26 new interns – yes, 26 – will start filtering in, starting the first, second, or third leg of a pretty interesting rock-n-roll summer camp. The meeting ends with the announcement that one former intern who had taken on a larger, part-time marketing role with the station would be leaving for another full-time job.
The machine doesn’t stop to pause too long before Jones briefs the group on her replacement plan.
“We’ll be ready,” Malloy says. “It’s not like we’re not prepared.”
Tuesday, 12:13 p.m.
Now Playing:“Breezeblocks,” Alt-J
By Tuesday, Malloy feels the way most do on a Friday. He’s at work – not unlike most of his staff – for least part of seven days a week, maxing out at around 100 on the real burners. Even on slower, event-light weekends, he comes in Sundays, at least to get his e-mails back down to zero before the week starts. “Clocking out” doesn’t really happen for the general manager-turned owner; he’ll head home for a few hours to spend time with the family, but then he’s back in his office nightly, sometimes working until 1 in the morning. Tonight, he’ll attend an event welcoming new GCAC President Tom Katzenmeyer, and tomorrow he and some of the staff will be at the Governor’s Luncheon, while a police report waits on his desk about the gray Dodge Caravan that snipped his lawnmower away with a pair of bolt cutters.
Malloy has owned the station for three years now, after worked his way up to the top of the ranks, repeating the same schedule for two decades. When I ask him how he can keep it up, he nearly scoffs, as if it had never occurred to him that 100-hour weeks at a barely profitable job could be considered madness.
“You mean the radio station?” he chortles. “Sure…I’ve been doing it for 20 years.”
This is Malloy’s style; he’ll describe the station’s Herculean demands without exxageration, but the moment you question it, he shrugs it off as “fun.” He carries the independent torch proudly, even if over the course of our interview he uses major brand names often as touchstones for CD102.5’s culture.
“We’re like Avis, We try harder….because we have to. There’s always someone that’ll try to swoop in and take the listeners, or take the advertisers – just be there instead of us because they’re cheaperfastersmarter.
“So, we have to constantly reevaluate how and what we’re doing. It’s all we have.
“We’re an intangible. We don’t sell something that has a physical presence…we really don’t. We’re a passion – that’s it.”
Tuesday, 1:03 p.m.
Now Playing: “All of Me,” Tanlines
CD102.5 peddles that passion religiously to its listeners, but it’s their inherent culture that drives the workforce. (The words “cult” and “family” are used often and interchangeably throughout these interviews). It seems to consume just about everyone in the figurative Alternative Station uniform, and like Malloy, the divide between relax and rock is a nebulous one. Jones, the station’s marketing manager, tells me that she spent her recent three-day vacation following band J. Roddy Walston & the Business around the Midwest; it’s a consistent theme at CD102.5 – even when you’re off, you’re on.
Antonio Arrelano matriculated through the same intern program as Jones, and is now the assistant marketing manager, a title that doesn’t immediately indicate one of his key roles, which is driving the station’s ice cream truck, locally famous for its ubiquitous presence and internally infamous for its maintenance issues. They call the truck “Dolly” (Jones nicknamed it that because “she’s top-heavy”) and Arrelano is her dutiful captain.
“Sometimes, I’ll be in the truck, scooping ice cream, and I’ll just start laughing,” he says…laughing. “I’m like, ‘This is my job!’”
Today, he’s steered the ship to Whitehall, where they’ve been contracted to entertain a PNC Bank employee appreciation day. Today’s event is a first-day training session for two new interns (he gleefully makes both of them serve Cookies and Cream with a Cookie Monster impression).
Near the end of the visit, a young man in a leather jacket and Homage t-shirt approaches the window of the truck like it was Santa’s sleigh.
“Dude, what are you guys doing here? I can’t believe you came here…nothing cool ever comes here!”
He and Arrelano discuss their favorite bands and the shows they’re both excited for – The Postal Service topping the list – and when the fan walks away, ice cream in hand, Arrelano turns to me with the same enthusiastic laugh. “I love it when that happens,” he says.
Soon, we’re on the road back to the station, a ride soundtracked only by the engine’s deafening purr; somewhat ironically, the truck’s radio doesn’t work. Overall, today is a good day for Dolly, who, according to Arrelano breaks down roughly once every other month in the summer. On one occasion last year, the truck was briefly stalled by a flat tire, a nail embedded in its hide; Arrelano strongly urged Malloy to replace it, but it was given a quick fix and shoved back on the road. Weeks later, the same nail in the same tire halted the truck again.
It’s a decent metaphor for the station’s workflow; “problems” crop up often and they are dealt with promptly – although prioritized according to severity.
Just a few years ago, it seemed like CD102.5 couldn’t stop running over nails.
Tuesday, 2:44 p.m.
Now Playing: “Sweater Weather,” The Neighborhood
Although the entire team is “selling” the Alternative Station all day long, the station does have designated salespeople, or account executives. As James settles in for her afternoon shift on-air in the booth behind me, I find two of them, Matt Nessler and Jordan Kuntz, trading notes about buying their first homes.
“What we’re doing is very un-rock and roll – we’re buying houses and settling down. My mother is ecstatic though,” Nessler laughed.
When Nessler was a student at Ohio University, a friend from Westerville told him, “If you’re gonna do radio, come with me to Columbus and listen to CD101; that’s where you’re gonna work.” After graduation, he interviewed with Clear Channel, whose Columbus market manager at the time told him to “go back to school,” because he would never make it. After a stint in Lima selling conservative talk radio – streaming CD101 online all the while (“I had nightmares that the world was gonna end because I spent all day listening to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity – and then I had to go sell it”), he landed finally landed his current gig.
“It was a life goal to work for this radio station,” he said. “Being a part of the fabric of the station…it felt like I made the team.”
He and Kuntz, another former intern, have been with the station for more than five years, and are two of at least three employees betting on the station by purchasing homes. It’s another nod to the cult, or culture, as it were, that long-time employees are putting down roots – made all the more impactful considering each and every employee, including the owner, took a significant paycut just a few years ago.
“We lived through it,” Nessler said. “I mean, it’s common knowledge: we all took a 30-percent cut to keep the radio station open – and we had to sell at 30-percent less commission to keep the doors open. You wanna talk about tough… ‘I’m gonna sell you a solution, and I’m gonna be confident and calm,’ and in my head, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna lose 30 percent of this right off the top. I still have to make my electric bill and my rent.’”
It’s not such a startling admission in the media’s post-Internet economy, but it puts me back on the interrogative, asking in plain terms how to justify such a position.
Nessler blurts out a laugh. “Because we all f*cking love it here.”
Tuesday, 4:20 p.m.
Now Playing: “Lightning Bolt,” Jake Bugg
As Malloy again enters the bullpen, bellowing about a missing CAT5 cable, I slip up to the Big Room just in time to find Leslie Edwards and Bilchak running through the final details for an upcoming wedding that will take place in the space. The bride: Edwards’ best friend and a long-time Clear Channel employee.
Edwards clearly gets a little kick out of the fact that someone from the other side wants to get married in their station.
It’s just more evidence of how pervasive the cult of CD102.5 is within the city.
“The culture that we have here…I know enough to know it’s really different, and it’s really special,” she said.
The office she shares with Diefenbach, or Amy D – who has been at the station nearly as long as Malloy – holds a combined 28 years of experience – all with CD102.5. Which means they’ve each seen the station weather some fairly turbulent times.
“We just keep on truckin’,’” Diefenbach said. “And when you think about where the rest of the world has headed, it’s really pretty damn amazing we’ve stuck around as long as we have…and we’re actually thriving.”
They exchange an agreed glance, as if to say, ‘Yeah, things right now are pretty damn okay.’
Especially compared to 2010.
There was really only one major thing on the CD102.5 docket for that year; August 21st would mark the station’s 20th year in business for one of the nation’s most improbable music entities. In all likelihood, the staff would have gathered for one helluva party, closed up their tabs, and then showed up the next day to do it for another year.
Instead, they lost their place on the dial, their building, and the undisputed soul of their organization.
On July 1st, they announced the move to 102.5, after a classical station obtained the lease on their frequency. That alone was enough to threaten the station’s sacred identity, and the time was ticking in their beloved studio. The Worley Building had been purchased by a developer and in nine months, they were out and Shadowbox (and eventually World of Beer) was in.
Nineteen days later, Andyman died tragically while on vacation with his family, at just 42.
Malloy isn’t usually one to reach for the panic button, but looking back, there was plenty of reason to.
“We were reeling,” Randy says. “We were just trying to figure out what the hell we were going to do…”
DAY 2 // Wednesday, 10:09 a.m.
Now Playing: “Blue Orchid,” The White Stripes
I breeze by Fran, the station’s receptionist/sales & marketing coordinator, who also teaches piano on the side (CD102.5 is all-music, down to the Chucks), hoping to start off the day by catching James in one of the rare moments she’s not in motion; instead I’m greeted by a closed office door, behind which she’s likely zeroing in on Summerfest acts.
Instead, I float back to Malloy’s office, where he’s hunched over a stack of freshly-cut checks. In a matter of minutes, he’ll sign away a colossal pile of money – roughly $37,000 – an amount that leaves the station about twice a month.
This is the responsibility he wanted back in 2010 when he asked former owner and station founder Roger Vaughn to give him a shot at minding the store.
He shows me a check for around $7,000 – the amount needed just to acquire the station’s ratings – and laughs. He laughs a lot, especially when it comes to money – not because he doesn’t take it seriously, but because he and his team are hardly in it for the cash. He admits, with no sheepishness, that the station rarely turns a profit.
“Seriously, we laugh about it. Once a year, we have an annual meeting. The first question we ask is, ‘Alright, is everybody still having fun?’ Then, ‘Okay, let’s keep doing it,’” he says. “We spend so much of our lives working, so you better damn well like the people you’re working with and what you’re doing – or why the hell are you doing it?”
Wednesday, 1:21 p.m.
Now Playing: “You Kill Me,” Paper Route
On days like this, the fun is readily accessible. I’m in the passenger seat of James’ blue Ford Focus, playing assistant/navigator to the great Program Director, with two-fifths of the U.K. band Foals in the backseat as we pilot from the Newport Music Hall to the Columbus Square Bowling Palace. By the end of the night – still on that nebulous clock – she’ll stomp her feet, and scream herself hoarse, clapping and cheering like someone who won the Rock and Roll Radio Lottery.
That’s because she kinda did.
For now, in the car, we’re talking about our favorite artists of all-time (hers Oasis, Depeche Mode, and Joy Division and mine, The Band, Otis Redding, and Hank Williams); her first concert (‘Never forget it. R.E.M. at Polaris, ’95. Luscious Jackson opened”); and the first record she owned (Hungry Eyes by Eric Carmen).
“And you know what?” she says, as the guest DJ’s weather report plays on her car radio. “I’m not afraid to admit it, I grew up loving New Kids on the Block!” She turns down the radio and belts out, delightfully off-key:
“STEP BY STEP!! OOOH BAY-BAAAYYY…”
Eight years ago, James entered the CD102.5 family by essentially pulling a Rudy – a radio walk-on – her endless enthusiasm for music and natural radio voice enough to land a dream gig for a girl with just a single playlist and a resume full of serving jobs. Andyman wasn’t even interested in the latter.
“Honey, I don’t need a resume,” he told James. “Just come to the music meeting.”
From there it only took a month. He and Malloy had seen enough.
“I’ll never forget – I walked in the next week, and he said, ‘I’m gonna give you a shot; I’m gonna train you to be on air.’ I said, ‘Seriously?’ I lucked out, man,” James recalled, with one of another her winks. “I came in at the right time.”
She has the same endless reserve of genuine charm that her mentor had, which was what made the station and its listeners – and a large part of the city – mourn so hard when he passed away.
His presence at the station is incredibly palpable; his name pops up frequently in conversation, whether in stories about he and Randy’s legendary brotherly spats, his heart, his generosity, his faith, his vision…his love of music. A shrine of fan-made Andy memorabilia is permanently displayed along the West wall of the station, and just about every employee has a favorite memento of him near their desk. An (empty) bottle of his favorite booze is buried in the drywall.
“There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think about him,” said James quietly. “I’m just thankful I got to know him… and that he took a shot on me.”
On the July Sunday Andy died, Malloy threw on a suit and tie, and went down to the office to start making calls. We still have to function, he thought, and five days later they threw a massive memorial concert in his name. With barely enough time to grieve, Malloy turned to James the next day and initiated what he called a “one-year job application”: she would become the new CD102.5 program director.
“I looked right at her, and said, ‘It’s your job to lose,’” he said. “I didn’t have to look anywhere else.”
Wednesday, 10:32 p.m.
Now Playing: “Inhaler,” Foals
We’re at the Newport, and James is bobbing her head feverishly, filming the band from CD102.5’s private box, dancing and smiling like the recently graduated music fanatic that passed her resume to Andyman almost a decade ago.
“RANDY, THIS IS THE SHIT!” she yells to Malloy across the aisle, who along with the rest of the staff is enjoying the spoils of the station’s efforts. He’s proud about Foals doubling their 400-some presale tickets, sure that CD102.5’s backing of the new single “My Number” has got plenty to do with it.
“THIS is our job,” he yells, huddling his surfer-maned head closer to mine. “To bring new listeners and new fans to these bands. THIS is what we do. THIS is marketing. THIS is advertising. THIS is real.”
To the casual observer, it’s your typical show at The Newport, but CD102.5’s imprint is unmistakable. I head out to have a smoke with Nessler, and on our way outside, I notice DJs Tom Butler and Kyle Hofmeister chatting up a listener by the bar, and even a few of the interns I had seen stream through the door over the last few days. It’s unclear whether they’re here for work or play, but then again it always is.
Many of the employees I speak to say the shows are when it all becomes real, when their efforts all make sense. I tend to agree; those expensive ratings don’t seem to matter as much as a sold-out weeknight show for an overseas band that isn’t getting burn on any other local station.
But, this isn’t just a perk, said Nessler; this is an integral part of the brand, a true indicator that the people behind CD102.5 are really behind what they do.
“To have the people at the station this dedicated to the cause…we actually believe in the product. And it makes selling it that much more rewarding.”
I grab a beer and head back upstairs, where James and the crew are in full swoon; this time, she turns to me: “THIS IS MY FAVORITE SONG, TRAVIS!” She grips the table in front of her and screams.
Seeing the night headed into a phase that will severely affect my ability to function the next day, I finish my beer and slip out the front door.
That night, as I fall asleep, I can swear I hear a song on my TV by The Vaccines, who the station brought to the Newport just three months earlier.
Day 2.5 // Thursday, 12:11 p.m.
Now Playing: “Out of My League,” Fitz & the Tantrums
On my last day, James’ office is open this time, and when I walk in, Amy D is laying down, beset by the exact condition I successfully avoided with my quiet exit. She’s mildly groaning on the leather couch in Lesley’s office underneath a poster signed “Thanks for playing great music,” by the Airborne Toxic Event, who in a few minutes will play the station’s Big Room space upstairs.
James, who has the energy of a caffeinated badger, admits gleefully that they were out until 4 a.m. the night before, simultaneously proud that she’s in less dire straits that her co-worker. On Big Room days, the whole place has a bit of a buzz to it, and James is no doubt excited additionally because today is the vaunted music meeting, the same one that was her portal to CD102.5, and which she now runs in the same fashion as her mentor.
Packed into her tiny little office, DJs Butler, Hofmeister, Rachael Gordon, Nate Puderbaugh, and Krista Kae commune with myself, a few OSU students, and an RCA Records rep, who’s brought a new RCA release for screening. Each person in the room rates the song – which gets a minute-and-a-half on the stereo to shine – on a scale of 1 to 10, decimal points allowed. The numbers are aggregated for an overall score, just one of many tools James uses to set programming.
While the crew determines who they think to be the next Of Monsters and Men, or the next Vaccines, I decide to walk up and catch the first song from Airborne Toxic Event’s performance upstairs; coincidentally, it’s the same song that just received a solid rating downstairs in the music meeting. Hofmeister and I agree it sounds a lot better live.
It’s an unusually hot day, something I hear the lead singer mention between songs over the house speakers as I slip back downstairs. “Is it hot in here?” he asks the fans in the Big Room. “It’s hot in here, right?”
Yes it is. And Malloy, ever the caretaker, is already on the case. I almost bump into him as I head back downstairs. He streaks across the main hall in his gray suit and slightly sweaty black t-shirt. “Jesus, I’ve gotta go figure out what’s up with the air conditioning now…”
Thursday, 3:07 p.m.
Now Playing: “Sacrilege,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs
The staff is constantly seeking out new artists, and the playlist is fluid. Precisely what qualifies as “alternative,” I suppose, depends on what it’s being juxtaposed with, but LCD Soundsystem and Audioslave don’t co-exist on any other radio formats in this city that I know of.
And even after spending so much time in their fancy downtown office – the real of birthplace of CD101 – the old Swiss Chalet Party House seems like it’s been home to the station forever, an odd thought, considering many staffers from the station’s golden era – including Andyman – never worked here. It’s a different vibe, and after the wave of rough water in 2010, it was a needed change, said Malloy. The new building was chosen partly as a function of how he wanted the workspace to flow under his ownership, an open layout that automatically brought all the departments closer together. It doesn’t hurt that the building has two working bars, and a few other eerie coincidences that lead Malloy to compare it to their version of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining.
“When we measured the ceilings, they were 102.5 inches tall,” says Malloy, a claim I immediately question. “I’m serious! Get a tape measurer! You’ll be like, ‘How the hell?’
“The building’s always been here waiting for us; it’s been waiting for us to come bring it back to life. So, we said, ‘let’s keep it going…’”
I don’t get to say much of a goodbye to James, who’s already back in the booth for her afternoon shift, kicking off the post-Big Room block with a new track from one of her favorites, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Through the glass, I wave…she winks.
The next day, Randy Malloy was honored as the Columbus recipient of the American Advertising Federation Silver Medal, only the fifth media member to achieve that distinction since 1963; two days later, CNN.com published a sparkling piece about the thriving independent radio stations in the United States, leading with none other than CD102.5. Life on Air, a reality show pilot the station created last year, is currently being shopped to producers.
As for the ratings, WWCD is as popular as they’ve ever been; since October of 2010 (around the time Malloy took ownership of the station), they have jumped from 13th to 6th in the local 18-34 demographic, and from 13th to 3rd in the 25-44 bracket.
As for Summerfest, your guess is as good as mine.
Photos by Chris Casella.