City Paper is not for tourists
I’m stuck in gridlock, late for work, spilling coffee all over the newspaper, and some punk yabbering on his cell phone has just cut me off so I’m one car behind my rightful place in the stalled parade of commuters. Up ahead there’s an accidentit’s too jammed to see exactly what’s causing the holdupthey’re probably scraping another bike courier off the pavement, some two-wheeled parasite bulging with the paper droppings of big business. And the traffic ‘copters whir above, but all they can do is tell us what we already know, and now I realize I’m low on gas and all-news radio barks out the time every three minutes on the minute to inform us that our pathetic lives are being frittered away in the CO2 haze and remind us that time is money, and we’re wasting both.
Wired on caffeine with nowhere to go, poisoned with loathing toward the world in general, I’m frantically punching the radio dial, the last resort for every desperate commuter without phone or fax in the front seat. From amongst the jackhammer bombast of rock stations comes the soothing voice of a manor is he a prophet?
Whenever you feel stressed out, just hit your ‘relax’ button, and unwind with usrelaxing radio. Listen, and relax.
The voice is reassuring, paternal, but eerily authoritarian in its coaxing commands, resembling a post-container dispatch from the late Marshall Applewhite, coming in loud and clear from some pirate station out in the galaxy. And yet this messenger is fully aware that I’m still trapped in Washington traffic. In the measured tones of a wise elder, he quietly offers help and guidance for the here and now.
When you live and work in the political center of the world, you quickly learn that life is all about give and take. In fact, at the new WGAY [99.5 FM], give us 25 minutes, and we’ll take away your stress.
Before I have a chance to respond, the voice makes up my mind for me.
Sounds fair to us, too. All relaxing musicall the time.
Ever so delicately, like a cat finding a favorite spot to stretch out and luxuriate in the eternal present, the crooning harmonies of the Fleetwoods fills my car. The song is “Mr. Blue,” the teen trio’s 1959 hit, which is marked by a funereal trumpet. Backed by Gretchen and Barbara, young Gary declares his allegiance to his alter ego “Mr. Blue” in a timeless lament that embraces sadness as fervently as Keats’ “Ode to Melancholy.” I haven’t heard “Mr. Blue” on the radio for years, and I’m transported by a revelation that has nothing to do with nostalgia.
Before I have a chance to brood too long with Mr. Blue, though, a segue deftly shifts the mood to “Fallin’ in Love,” by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds, the ’75 ditty by three refugees from the T-Bones.
Spanning decades and different musical styles but always supremely relaxing, the music is strung together in minisymphonies of more recent farefrom Kenny Rogers to the Stylistics to Dusty Springfieldand I realize this is no oldies station, but something altogether new. Well, not actually new: This is the new old WGAY, the belated return of Washington’s easy-listening institution. In the dark days of the early ’90s, it suddenly disappeared, leaving a black hole in the local airwaves. Now it’s back.
No matter what the tune, the tempos remain constant in their relentless restraint, echoing the life-sustaining beat of the human heart when the body is in full repose. My pulse has indeed dropped to a comfortable rate from my earlier near-panic attack, and the world seems a different place. Outside my window, I watch a sparrow flitting from branch to branch and can’t help wishing that the hyperactive bird could hear this music and quell its anxiety.
Then the voice again, guiding me through my midtraffic transformation, like a jet pilot comforting the passengers during a rough landing:
Your breathing returns to normal, and a feeling of well-being envelops your mind. Welcome to Washington’s stress-free zone.
The songs pour from the car speakers, from well-known warhorses by Neil Diamond and pre-Psychic Friends-era Dionne Warwick to long-forgotten hitsand these chestnuts no less instantly recognizable. During the rare breaks between songs and coded messages, the disc jockey doesn’t blather on about the performers or the year the song was recorded. More clinical psychologist than DJ, she takes me on a tour of this alternative ambient universe, what Brian Eno once dubbed “another green world.” Here in the stress-free zone of pure sound sensations, there are no distractions, only the music, and suddenly the so-called superstars revert to what they really are after all: mere messengers of song.
I soon stop trying to identify the song titles and the year and so forth (that naggingly Washingtonian need-to-know compulsion), and instead I let the music wash over meespecially Dusty’s voice, which veers dangerously close to inspiring arousal rather than relaxation. The music works on me like a sonic massage, finally breaking down my urban tension, but without the cost of some lunch-break back rub. By the time I break free from the traffic jam, I’m swept along by John Denver’s “Calypso,” the yodeling tribute to deep-sea explorer Jacques Cousteau and his courageous crew, and my automobile (or is it simply my uplifted heart?) seems to sail through the streets.
In the days and nights since, the station has been a constant companion. I have become yet another disciple of the new WGAY. Now its mantras are mine: It’s nice to know there’s one place in Washington designed to help you relax.
High on the 10th floor of the World Building in downtown Silver Spring, I arrive like some meek convert to the master’s domain. Here are the studios of WGAY, and I pass down the corridor under the framed visages of Neil, Barbra, Kenny, and the rest of the pantheon of easy-listening deities.
Inside the office, general manager Bennett Zier greets me with a warm smileand the soft sounds of WGAY floating discreetly from a small stereo console behind his desk. Marketing director Bob Deutsch sits nearby with the quiet deference of an altar boy in the presence of the bishop.
Zier understands what I’m going through, and he assures me that I’m not alone. Scads of locals have become permanent residents in the stress-free zone encompassed by WGAY’s 50,000-watt coverage. It’s as if a benevolent light is being beamed from an invisible world to anoint those fortunate enough to glean its message.
“It’s a very unique radio station,” says Zier, a balding man resplendent in a sharp suit. “It’s been universally accepted and embraced by the Washington community.”
“The response has been absolutely unbelievable,” echoes sidekick Deutsch.
It’s an old story, they tell me, the heartwarming saga of prodigal returning to the fold through the blessed device of exhaustive market research.
Back in the ’60s, WGAY was a pioneer in the then-new easy-listening field, broadcasting soft all-instrumentals (“Theme From a Summer Place,” etc.). They called it “beautiful music” back then, and its soothing sounds braced many fainthearted Americans reeling from a tumultuous decade. Its trademark, “the easy sound of WGAY,” was the calling card for thousands.
But by the late ’80s the easy-listening revolution had waned, so WGAY instigated its notorious “Operation Vocal,” which brought crooners into the mix. This era lasted until 1995, when the station, renamed WEBR, “Bright 99.5,” turned to contemporary pop to attract a younger audience. The gambit failed miserably.
Recently, the station reclaimed its call letters and its former signature sound, but with even more of an emphasis on relaxing sounds. And the faithful listeners have responded to the siren song of soft hits “from yesterday and today.”
“It was one of the premier radio stations, but then it lost its way,” says Zier. “Now it’s back on top.” (Well, not exactly, though recent ratings reveal that the station is on a steady climb from a recent No. 17 ranking to a coveted spot in the top 10.)
After extensive polling and market exploration, Zier and his team decided that the Washington area had enough stations dishing out high-energy, bouncy oldies for Baby Boomers. “We realized that there was a huge underserved audience,” says Zier. “There was no station that helped people relax in this very stressful place.”
WGAY would provide a meditative sanctuary for workaholic (and playaholic) Washingtonians who need a break from the rigors of running Western civilization. “This is for people who spend their day erasing voice-mail before they hear the whole thing. This is for people that have a microwave kind of life, always running, stuck in a traffic jam, late to pick up the kids, two people in the house who are wage earners. This station is for the fun-loving, full-of-life Washingtonians to relax and hear their favorite music,” says Zier.
The brief lull in Zier’s inspirational soliloquy allows the sounds of Neil Diamond to momentarily transform the sterile office into a mystical place. We listen, our heads bowed in collective rapture, until Deutsch can restrain himself no longer.
“Like this song right nowit’s great!” he gushes. “‘September Morn”there’s nobody from the age of 20 to the age of 70 that doesn’t know this song. It’s cross-generationalit’s universal.”
By programming hundreds of instantly memorable but never rambunctious hits, the station has managed to tap our collective unconscious, the playlist of our waking dreams. The program director has carefully selected the song blocks, called “pods,” to help people get through the day. WGAY is perfect to play softly at home or at the office, says Deutsch. The wallpaper of your mind, it’s a form of hummable therapy.
The station’s DJs aren’t there to entertain, explains Zier. “They’re your hosts. Their goal is to make a pleasant environment and give you the information you need. Our announcers are adults talking to adults.”
Ultimately, the music rules, whether it’s Charlie Rich singing “Behind Closed Doors” or Kenny Rogers doing his best shattered male routine: “Let me hear you whisper softly in my ear.”
“Other soft, or light, radio stations are only trying to create an environment,” says Deutsch. “But we work very hard to make music that people have a passion forthey love this music.”
“All of our research showed us that people are thirsting for this music,” says Zier. Suddenly he starts reeling off the demographics, the market sharesa whole grocery list of numbers.
The MBA lesson proves a bit too much for me. The statistics barrage my senses, and I’m ready to bail. Then there’s help from the radio. Brian Wilson is crooning “Don’t Worry Baby,” and I take comfort in his words. I breathe a sigh of relief
I’m going to make it through another busy
A woman pops into the office to tell Zier he’s got an urgent appointment waiting on him. I take my leave in a giddy rush of thanks, and curse the building’s elevator, which unfortunately doesn’t have WGAY piped in.CP