The short life and sudden death of alternative radio station 93X

Ian Graham tried to chart a course for ‘a better alternative,’ only to have station execs pull the plug five weeks into the experiment amid a dust-up with WWCD that appears destined for the courts.
Ian Graham
Ian GrahamCourtesy Ian Graham

The night that WWCD went off the air, a crowd packed Big Room Bar in the Brewery District to send what was possibly Ohio’s last independent terrestrial radio station off with a bang. 

The first floor of the venue had the feel of a lively Irish wake, with WWCD president Randy Malloy alternating between serving drinks from behind the bar and posing for photos with revelers, who watched the CD92.9 DJs completing their final over-the-airwaves broadcasts on a screen set up in the front of the room. In the downstairs studio, longtime DJ Tom Butler manned the booth, spinning songs such as the Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died,” which he offered in tribute to John Andrew “Andyman” Davis, Mase Brazelle and “all the fallen 92.9 soldiers” who had passed on.

But as the clock neared midnight on Feb. 1, the vibe in the downstairs studio grew more funereal. A handful of employees slumped on the floor in tears, unsure of the alternative station’s future as it pivoted from the airwaves to a digital stream. In the booth, Malloy wiped away tears of his own as he thanked the audience for their decades of support before queuing up one final song: Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” which in that moment resonated with a joyful defiance that has long been a part of the station’s DNA, and which has given many in the local community a belief that Malloy will at some point lead his ragtag crew back onto the radio dial.

When Freddie Mercury and Co. played their final notes, WWCD went off the air, replaced by 93X, a new alternative station created and launched by signal owners Delmar Communications.

In the weeks prior to its debut, battle lines around 93X had already been drawn, with proponents of WWCD casting the new station, and in particular program director Ian Graham, as the villains in what was then a still-unfolding drama. 

The WWCD situation began to unravel behind the scenes in September when Delmar notified Malloy of its intent to increase the rent on his lease for the 92.9 signal. Rather than continuing to lease at this higher rate, Malloy attempted to purchase the signal, agreeing in principle with Delmar on a $1.4 million sales price and a 10-year payment plan. But the parties couldn’t agree on terms, with steep fees for late payments that would result in default after 10 days becoming a sticking point in emails, a majority of which have since become public. In early January, the situation imploded, with Malloy announcing that WWCD would go off the air at the end of the month, leading to an outpouring of public support for station (even Sen. Sherrod Brown chimed in), along with an equal wave of hostility directed toward Delmar and its small staff.

A degree of this ire was likely unavoidable – Malloy and WWCD have a decades-long history of championing the Columbus music scene and have raised more than $1 million for children’s charities with their yearly Andyman-a-Thon. But Graham and his bosses at Delmar didn’t do themselves any favors in introducing 93X, failing to deliver a cohesive message upon launch and making careless missteps, such as saddling the station with the early tagline “a better alternative,” a descriptor that in most cases wouldn’t raise an eyebrow but came to be viewed in this instance as a direct shot at WWCD and its legacy. 

Graham added further fuel to this fire with a comment he posted to his since-deactivated Facebook page in the immediate aftermath of the announcement that WWCD would be going off the air. “Let me be perfectly clear, it has always been my destiny to run this radio station,” he wrote.

“It was said in jest. It was dramatic. And I kind of regret saying it,” Graham said in late March from his North Clintonville record shop, The Needle Exchange. “People interpreted that comment as though it was this predetermined thing, and this radio station was meant to be taken over, and that’s just silly. And it was just as silly for me to say that.”

Graham attributed the comment, in part, to an angrier, more openly antagonistic side of his personality that he has attempted to quell in more recent years, telling Matter News in September of the conscious efforts he had been making to try and embrace “all of the wonderful things I have in my life.” 

“And that [‘destiny’ comment] was definitely that old attitude of mine rearing its ugly head, because it’s not an exercise for me, and that bit will always be part of me in some small way,” said Graham, who added that the stress of the situation and the flood of negative comments began to impact his physical and mental health.

With the benefit of distance, Graham now says he and his bosses at Delmar, including vice president and general manager Mark Litton and president Brent Casagrande, were initially caught flat-footed when Malloy went public in early January. There was no public relations person in place to deliver a singular message to the community, and each of the three appeared to be on a different page in terms of what that next step might be for the existing 92.9 signal. Casagrande, for one, initially shared a statement in which he expressed a desire “to continue the legacy of WWCD,” leading to a response from Malloy in which he claimed Delmar had no legal right “to portray themselves as a continuation of the brand that we spent 30+ years building.”

“To have somebody coordinate what was being said about things publicly would have been helpful, for sure,” said Graham, who added that he never wanted to slip into “a WWCD skin suit,” as he termed it, preferring to try and build a station that could stand on its own reputation.

This is how Graham approached the task when he said Casagrande and Litton first came to him with a work order around November, asking him to build out a playlist for a prospective alternative station that Graham described as “a contingency plan” should the pair’s negotiations with Malloy unravel. 

Gradually, Graham amassed a playlist of nearly 1,600 songs, envisioning 93X not as an alternative music station but rather as “an alternative to what you normally hear on the radio,” he said. The playlist drew heavily from labels and artists that rarely receive attention from terrestrial stations, including Cincinnati-based Feel It Records, home to the likes of Vacation, the Follies and Sweeping Promises, among others. Graham also paid careful attention to the Columbus music scene both past and present, slotting three local songs every hour from an expansive array of artists, a number of whom had rarely if ever received hometown radio play, including Blucone, Kali Dreamer and Cherimondis.

“I was encouraged that the new radio station appeared to be leaning so heavily into the local scene, because we don’t have that many platforms in the city that do that,” said Jason Smith, founder of Bertha Hill, a music management company that represents the likes of Blucone, Ebri Yahloe and Trek Manifest, among others. “I’ve tried to be careful about what I say, because I don’t want to get pulled into that firing squad of being anti-WWCD. I’m discouraged to see us lose any platform. But that platform, from my standpoint, was helpful to a very specific segment of the Columbus music scene.”

As one means of quieting the outside noise, Graham, who deactivated his social media accounts amid the earliest wave of WWCD backlash, threw himself into the work of creating a station that could perhaps in time reverse the public tide. He continued to build out the station's wide-ranging playlist, and he started hosting a three-hour morning show dubbed “The Morning After,” which incorporated in-studio guests and lively person-on-the-street-style interviews recorded on his cell phone.

“The premise was the morning after the show or the morning after whatever you did last night,” said Graham, who started to shake loose some of more hermetic tendencies he developed post-Covid, expanding his concert-going beyond just seeing his friends’ bands in an effort to make the station’s programming more reflective of the Columbus music scene as a whole. He also started to hatch plans for a series of specialty programs dedicated to a wide swath of sounds, including one focused on hardcore, another on hip-hop, and even one on bar bands.

Listeners were beginning to take notice, too. In a brief postscript on the whole WWCD-93X affair, Pat Leonard of Radio 614 lamented the loss of 93X on the radio dial, praising Graham’s inventiveness and both his dedication to the local music scene and to the craft of radio in general. But even those public posts I saw on Facebook that lauded the comparatively experimental direction taken by 93X were offered up with a degree of restraint, so as to not be interpreted as a slight against WWCD.

“It was almost like even the artists who were getting their music played on the new station had to be careful not to be too excited about it, because there could be a backlash,” Smith said. “But of course they were excited about it, because for many of them it was their first time being played on the radio, period.”

But part of the issue with taking a more experimental approach is that many of the people who still listen to terrestrial radio do so specifically because it provides a sense of comfort, of stability. These listeners know that if they tune in for an hour, they will hear these specific types of songs by these specific types of artists, along with weather and traffic updates read by a DJ who has been on-air long enough that they’ve come to be viewed as more of a trusted friend.

“Absolutely. And that’s been used as a sales tactic in radio for 20 years, at least, that it’s a place of comfort and it’s a place of nostalgia, like, everybody who tunes in to classic rock stations, they tune in because it brings them back to high school,” said Graham, who hoped to disrupt this idea, to a degree. 

As a result, even those who posted favorably about 93X also called attention to its occasionally more challenging existence. “One thing 93X’s short run certainly convinced me of is [that] listening to 5 local lo-fi 3-chord songs with inaudible vocals in a row is just as boring as listening to 5 Eagles songs in a row,” one local joked on Facebook. And Jason Smith said he struggled to see how such an experimental approach could find an audience within a platform rarely designed to challenge. “I was eager to see where it could have grown,” he said, “but at the same time I kept thinking, ‘How long can this last?’”

The answer, it turns out, is about five weeks. With circumstances combining to prevent 93X from ever finding its footing, the station went off the air on March 8, pivoting abruptly to an oldies format. “Selling [93X] was never in the cards, because there were so many people with preconceived notions as to what was happening with that signal that people were automatically going to hate it just to hate it,” Graham said. “I could have played their favorite song over and over again, and they still weren’t going to like it.”

Some of these more hardcore WWCD acolytes, a number of whom are represented in a private Facebook group now dubbed “WWCD Radio Supporter Alliance,” also targeted advertisers, boosting those merchants who continued to support WWCD and expressing their displeasure to those who chose to place spots with 93X. (Graham said 93X also had to contend with a handful of fake Facebook pages; the station never created or operated an official page on the site.)

“And that kind of leads into how [93X] ended so quickly, and Mark [Litton] will tell you the same thing, but the well was pre-poisoned, and they were not at all confident there would be anybody left to advertise on the new station,” said Graham, who was told about the oldies pivot roughly an hour before it took place, though he long suspected a format change could be looming. “But when I got the news, I exhaled, and I was immediately 50 percent less stressed. ... And, yeah, I was disappointed, but it was almost more relief. I'm super fucking blessed to have good people in my life, and my store, and a little job in an industry that I love so much.” (Graham remains employed by Delmar, largely doing voice tracking.)

Reached via Facebook about an interview, Litton declined comment, following with a message in which he said Delmar intended to pursue legal action related to the collapse of 93X. “The lawsuits will reveal why we dropped the format due to the interference of certain parties in our ability to conduct business and liable [sic] and slander that took place against our personnel and company in various social media platforms,” he wrote.

Regardless of how this legal wrangling eventually plays out, the biggest loser in all of this remains the city’s music scene, which in the past two months has now lost a pair of alternative radio stations, both of which made significant efforts to champion the local scene. 

“I think it’s possible to have a conversation and look at this from the perspective of the music ecosystem in Columbus,” said Smith, who lamented everything from the city’s shrinking number of concert venues to the loss of alt-weeklies such as Columbus Alive and The Other Paper. “We have such a large, rich music scene in the city … but there’s just not a lot of platforms left to really showcase these folks. … I know that some people closer to this situation made a decision to choose sides, but I’m disappointed to see either radio station go. And now that we’ve gone through all of this, all we have is an oldies station, and no platform for local artists. … Overall, for me, it speaks to this crumbling foundation, where we have all of these things falling by the wayside and there doesn’t seem to be any help coming.”

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