Tuesday, April 29, 2008

NineTy-Nine Point Fiiive (A Re-post)

A re-post of DLSU's Niko Batallones' blog entry about Campus 99.5.
Fifteen months in the making, he says.
Very extensive piecing-together research. Impressive.
Not bad for a "jilted girlfriend.."
Read on.

NineTy-Nine Point Fiiive..

30 April 2008

Jimmy Jam takes position for his afternoon shift.

I quickly turned the radio on at half past five in the morning on Easter Sunday. Most radio stations were warming up their transmitters, after the customary Lenten break, and the music was sounding very familiar. Online, the forums were abuzz with eager listeners, waiting for word on what the station will sound like when the day finally kicks in.

Then the prayer kicks in. For the past four years or so, I have always heard that prayer during start-up, and every morning, at around five minutes before six, before Joe Schmoe or (eventually) Da Kid would take the console. This time, though, it came fifteen minutes earlier, and we were waiting for other voices to come on air.

After an ad break - which removed doubts from listeners that it is, indeed, a different station - a really tacky dance track came up, ruining the alternative-leaning tracks that were played in the warm-up process. Even before the song could kick in, though, they interrupted it.

“That’s it,” one voice said. “I think I’ve had enough.”

“Yeah,” the other replied. “I think I’m getting nightmares. I feel like waking up from one.”

“Happy easter, everybody.” That was the first voice - John Hendrix.

“Happy easter, everybody!” That was the second, more excited voice - Jimmy Jam.

Cue to stinger: “the number one hit music station in Metro Manila.” Just like before, actually, only a little tweaked, to prevent possible copyright infringement. Kjwan’s Daliri comes in, and after another song, and the top of the hour sting, it was Sting’s Brand New Day. They have come back.

The return of Campus Radio, or at least its spirit and personality - formerly at 97.1 MHz, before GMA controversially flipped it to Barangay LS - to take the place of struggling TRPI station Hit FM was a much-awaited event, at least among radio circles and listeners who were disenfranchised by its close. It is more complicated that the name change - initially 99.5 Campus FM, lately it seems that they will be called Campus 99.5, after the logo was shown to the public for the first time - but rather, it’s a story of two stations seemingly bound together by fate, and a pretty extraordinary ending, at least for me.

Trying to make a mark

Neil presents lunchtime request show You Pick The Hit.

“They’ve killed RT!”

It was during a visit to the studios of 103.5 Max FM - that impulsive visit, as Jaiin and I would call it - that got me exposed to the idea of 99.5 Hit FM rebranding itself. Up to now I can still remember how Kelly said it. She was an RT listener during her younger years, and eventually inspired her entry to the radio industry, citing RT jock Jeremiah Junior as an influence. Also, for four months, she was at Hit FM, drafted in from sister station Magic 89.9.

That was a full month before the flip happened, and by then, Jaiin and I had mixed reactions. I was surprised, but not entirely so - the station, despite having popular shows such as The Homerun and, later, Brewrats with Strangebrew stars Tado, Angel Rivero and Ramon Bautista, was still struggling with profits. Jaiin was probably affected, as she was one of the self-styled Homerunners - a group of people that loved the show, and eventually became friends with the hosts, Winner and Lellie.

The entry of Hit FM to the market was an equally controversial one, at least for listeners who grew up listening - and falling in love, to put it loosely - with 99.5 RT for the past thirty years. The station which was known for breaking American chart hits in Manila before anybody else in its heyday was already a shadow of its former self months before it signed off for the last time. The veterans have left - the last ones being Joe Schmoe, who left at the end of 2005 to migrate to Canada, and Jeremiah Junior, who last presented the late night slot playing songs from RT’s golden era for 24K Friday. Thus, some actually welcomed the rebrand as some sort of measure to more accurately reflect the station’s programming - a Top 40 station like its sister station. In fact, some observe that it has started to go that way since TRPI bought RT from its former owners, the Tuasons, in 1996.

A first listen to the then-new station will make one realize that it is seriously attempting to swipe listeners from other pop stations, and even from its sister Magic. The morning show, named Sam vs Sam, saw the radio debut of Korean television host Sam Oh, paired with RT regular Sam YG. Late nights saw Ron, formerly of K-Lite - which also reformatted at the same time to Heart 103.5 - attempt to be a shock jock with The Factory, which didn’t really impress the older listeners.

Its playlist, though, leaned more towards alternative than Magic’s bias towards hip-hop and dance. Initially, also, it played much more older songs - something I found pleasantly surprising.

This, however, wasn’t really a successful formula for them - one quarter’s audience ratings saw them tied for dead last in the NCR! Thus, sometime in the middle of the year, a seeming jerk reaction led to a wave of programming changes to the station. New shows were rolled out - a new morning show, after Sam YG moved to Magic, and for two weeks, a new afternoon show with Kelly and Tin, a former Magic student DJ. (They were later moved to midmornings.) Later, Old School Wednesday - a day dedicated to playing 90s hits - was discontinued to be replaced by the similar Number 1 Hit Weekend on Saturdays, and the return of 24K Friday - a realization that for some listeners, Hit FM is still 99.5 RT, and that perhaps is the only reason it’s in their radio’s presets. That would last for only six weeks, however - it was quickly scratched, to be replaced by Number 1 Hit Weekend’s move to Fridays.

Hit FM, however, somewhat happened at the right time. Six weeks after it launched, GMA reformatted its Manila FM station and made it similar to its provincial FM stations, targeted at a more mass audience. This move was seen as being inspired by its high ratings in television - or, perhaps, an attempt to replicate that on radio. The aim was simple: put the station on top of the ratings.

All but one of the Campus Radio jocks were kept, however, but were asked to change their identities in order to relate more with the new audience. Spiels were done in Filipino, and jokes were being cracked in each, to ill effect - it sounded forced, and the jocks sounded similarly forced. Nevertheless the station rose from sixth to fourth in audience ratings.

Some Campus Radio listeners, left adrift by the sudden flip, started listening to Hit FM. It seemed like the perfect fit - it somehow had a similar, although more limited, playlist. It wasn’t as tight, but the upside was in the entertainment, provided at this time by the likes of The Hit Morning Crew, hosted by Sonny B and Magic import Bennii, Mornings with Kelly and Tin, and The Homerun. It even had started to attract a following, especially the latter two, and more so with the entry of Brewrats, which attracted a rabid fan base that demographically was different from the rest of the station.

Still, though, it wasn’t enough.

Itchy feet?

Kelly hosts one of her last shows on Hit FM.

Perhaps the Hit FM flip was, in the wider picture, a victim of terrible timing. Older listeners to the frequency still called it RT, and were still reminiscing the station’s heyday. Elsewhere on the dial, Mo Twister was still raking in audiences to the station - perhaps his popularity during Hit FM’s first sign-on made it a more low-key affair than expected. 2007 was, even, a year of station rebrands, tweaks and whatnot, with stations filling the void of past ones: Jam 88.3 adapting the K-Lite demographic in March, and in June, Heart flipping (again) to contemporary pop station 103.5 Max FM, managed by former Magic DJ Sgt. Pepper, and including imports from both Magic and Hit, particularly the perenially successful King DJ Logan initially doing late nights.

Hit FM may have found itself a place in the radio dial, with listeners and fans tuning in and liking what they hear, but advertising money wasn’t flowing in. At the latter parts of the year, you can hear the same ads rotating, as compared to Magic sometimes having nine-minute ad breaks in peak times.

But events elsewhere, ironically, somewhat sealed the fate of the station. In January of this year, RGMA fired all but two of the Barangay LS jocks - including most veterans like Johnny Baby (John Hendrix), Atong Bomb (Jimmy Jam) and BossSirAmo (Triggerman) - in an aim to refresh the station’s sound and align it further with provincial programming.

Nothing else is known about what happened in the three months between the terminations and the Hit FM flip. All that the public was told, via the forums, was that the Triggerman facilitated the entry of the Campus Radio jocks to the TRPI fold, and all done away from the public. However, the DJs seem to have noticed and started leaving one by one.

On 31 December 2007, Mornings with Kelly and Tin ended, with Kelly announcing her departure from the station. Two weeks before, she told me that she’d be retiring from the industry, after being in it for almost fifteen years. Almost at the same time, Sonny B vanished from the morning show, to attend to personal matters; Tin was drafted in immediately to captain the show.

The rumors of a Hit FM flip started flying, however, when news broke that Tracy, who at the time was hosting the lunchtime request show You Pick the Hit with Migz (known on air as “Migz with a Z”), was moving to Jam 88.3. This was early in March; somebody mentioned that the pending reformat was the reason. It was funny, on my part, that after keeping quiet for two weeks - as Kelly specifically asked us to do - I was the one who confirmed the news. (After three weeks, Kelly moved to Max FM and started her late night show, Kellybites Nights. Tracy took over Jam’s lunchtime slot, Hang-out High.)

Later I was chatting with Tin, who by then had already announced her (sudden, by her accounts) departure from Hit FM. “Not true,” she said upon realizing that some were thinking that TRPI were shuffling DJs from their five radio stations around. “None of us were told to leave. [No one forced Tracy to] leave Hit. Same with me. Same with Kelly.”

Despite her being excited about her move back to Magic, she had concerns, too. “I’m worried about Hit too,” she said earlier. “I have no idea [about] what’s going to happen. I was set to leave way before the rumors started circulating, so when people started talking about the takeover I felt bad.”

The Campus Radio jocks, at this point, have announced on PinoyExchange that Campus Radio is, indeed, coming back. The public was teased with the idea of having jocks like the Triggerman coming back, and being in the own element after eleven months in their masa personalities. Somewhere, someone speculated that the timing was uncanny - with Hit FM reformatting and Campus Radio returning, perhaps it’s the latter that will replace the former? Their mouths were shut.

The final sign-off

A week before the Lenten sign-off, however, it was becoming imminent that Hit FM was in its last days. Tin and Tracy have left, and daytime saw four-hour shifts, with former early morning and later afternoon DJ Slyde heading the morning show. Lellie was left alone to host The Homerun’s last week. Some weekend shows, like Migz’ Big Night Out and Joshua’s The 24K Experience - a show that rectified the cancellation of 24K Friday - hinted at a change happening on Easter Sunday. It was later announced that Sam Oh would leave the station, and indeed, she wasn’t around during the last days.

Online, John Hendrix - the main spokesperson with regards to how the Campus Radio comeback was going at the time - announced that the return would be on Easter Sunday. The picture was becoming more and more complete. Jimmy Jam summed it all up perfectly in a blog entry: “Slowly, but surely, they’re piecing the puzzle together, the open secret revealing itself in sheddings that shock as more layers to the story are outlayed, further thickening the already intricate plot.”

Avid listeners marked 19 March - Holy Wednesday - as a must-listen day, as it was expected that the remaining DJs would bid goodbye. Not everybody has, it seems - nothing from Slyde or Neil. Migz was out that day, and already ended his last show the day before with “see you next time” rather than “see you tomorrow.” The Homerun, however, saw Winner coming by to host the last show. The Homerunners were surprised to see that, as he wasn’t around for the last two weeks or so. Even more surprising, he was calling himself as Da Kid.

“I don’t know if I went [to] the right place,” Jaiin texted me that night. “Somehow it feels right and… out of place at the same time.”

Being one of the so-called “hardcore Homerunners” - a group of listeners that really stayed throughout the show - she felt she had to be at the Hit FM studios to watch the very last show unfold. She was texting me all these updated about what’s happening inside, as I was reduced to tuning in through the radio in my mobile phone. “The atmosphere has been tense here since [17.00],” she said. “Campus jocks everywhere earlier.”

Another Homerunner, Jalein, told me later that Winner did seem tense. “Pinagpapawisan siya kahit malamig sa booth,” she said. “Labas-pasok siya. Nagme-meeting ata sa conference room.

The show’s 8-Ball segment was dedicated to playing the songs that got the most votes through the countdown’s history. In between, they were receiving thank-you and miss-you messages on the text line, one of which came from me - at one point a Homerun listener until I gave up on pop music again. Winner would later announce that Lellie would be leaving the station, too, after working seven years, most of which as a newscaster for RT. As the Homerunners proceeded to have dinner with Lellie, the Brewrats came on board, and with them, their own bunch of followers. (Lellie would later show up at Magic 89.9, working with CJ and Sarah on the newly-relaunched The Carpool.)

On the “conference” at Kelly’s Multiply site, for her show on Max FM, the conversation was about Hit FM, too. It also had a following - the so-called Kellybiters, with me leading them at one point, and still one of them until now - but that day they were also tuned in to the last 8-Ball countdown. I wasn’t around that time, instead preferring to listen to the station’s final hurrah. One of the biters started asking about the absence of the rest of us. “Prolly listening to something else,” Kelly chuckled.

“I also feel bad for them,” Kelly later told me through a phone call that night. “They’ll be losing their jobs, di ba? I hope that doesn’t happen. I wish them all the best.”

I woke up at twenty minutes before midnight, still tuned in to Brewrats, which was already in their batian portion. The self-patterned Brewsters were packed inside the studio, greeting each other, as if nothing was to happen. However, this group were very vocal with the news of the Hit FM reformat, fearing that their favorite show would go off the air with it. This moment, though, was really living up to its being Hit FM’s last hurrah; the closing moments were simply celebratory.

“We are the Brewrats!” everybody in the studio exclaimed. Cue to the show’s theme song, which made it to the 8-Ball countdown at one point.

After the sign-off message - which was there since 99.5 RT’s days - and the national anthem, that was it.

“Hallelujah, the good Lord has risen…”

“…and in 32 minutes, so shall Campus Radio.” Jimmy Jam posted that on his blog on Easter Sunday, as I woke up and proceeded to the computer to check the forums. Anticipation is indeed high, and listeners and “radio afficionados” were eager to know how it will come out.

It was Campus Classic Weekend - a direct descendant of Campus Radio’s Retro Jam, only extended to both Saturdays and Sundays, and four songs in, it’s already catering to the old listeners and being freakishly familiar at the same time: for instance, their particular fondness towards the Itchyworms’ Love Team, the last song to top the last Top 20 at 12 countdown, and is still a station recurrent.

Online, the Campus FM thread that I set up had already reached two pages within less than an hour. Their newly-created Yahoo! Messenger account was presumably full of responses, too. I eventually got through.

“I’m following the launch,” I typed in. “Yes, I’m the ‘jilted girlfriend’ on PEx.”

“Hey jilted GF, happy easter,” Jimmy Jam typed in. “You now have a new nick!”

The day continued with what seems to be a grand hurrah for the resurrected Campus Radio personalities, trying to get used to the different console and playout system that Hit FM utilized in its run. Those that made the move - John Hendrix, Jimmy Jam, Joe Spinner, Jaybee and Braggy - had shifts throughout the entire day. The only Hit FM holdover to board that day was Neil, who usually hosted Sunday Sessions for RT and Hot - but it wasn’t there. Even more surprising, he introduced him as a nameless DJ. “I’m… what’s my name again?” he went. “Anyway…”

The Hit FM DJs have been apparently asked to change their on air monickers. “Soon,” Neil answered. “I don’t know [when we will have new names] din.” He even disclosed that Sunday Sessions was in threat of being cancelled outright. “Dapat Sunday pa rin!” he said.

Campus FM sought to actually differentiate itself from Hit FM - and, consequently, from 99.5 RT itself. The first most obvious element would be how they pronounce the frequency. “Long has it been the RT tradition to roll their ’99’s’ in a slang-ish manner, for loss of a better term,” Jimmy Jam said in the forums. Thus, their “99″ instead becomes “ninety-nine,” with the stress on the letter T. What seems to be awkwardness from the DJs is apparently deliberate. Signs around the studio at unit 906-B of Paragon even stress this point.

As mentioned earlier, the Hit FM DJs have also adopted new names. Neil became “Boy Toy,” Slyde became “Mister E,” Migz became “Zack Attack,” and Joshua - who is back on doing weeknights - is now “Big Z.” Ron has been given pinch-hitting duties as “Jagger.”

The first few days of Campus FM obviously showed its attempts to get up. There were miscues with the newscasters in the other booth (they’re still Cristina - or Nana, her actual nickname - and Dada), mistakes with the console, and even a few on-air bloopers. “Force of habit,” John Hendrix said on his first shift, explaining him saying 97.1 on the air. Behind the scenes, things were more tense: probably surprised at the takeover, and scared for their jobs, resistance from the former Hit Squad and the Campus Radio jocks emerged. John Hendrix, however, was happy that it was over, and eventually the jocks worked together perfectly fine.

Sixty people in line

Something seems to be wrong with the PC holding the music in Joe Spinner's shift...

I finally dropped by the station on 7 April, trying my luck for the fifth batch of Campus Aircheck - its student DJ program, which it has taken pride of. There were around sixty who auditioned that say, according to the list Jaybee was holding - I was surprised that Jaiin was there, even - and twenty more on the phone lines, according to Joe Spinner, who boarded while I was waiting for my turn.

Looking around, it seemed that Campus FM has indeed started to run back to what it missed after RGMA’s flip. It’s been so long, and indeed the musical landscape has changed, with songs being “owned” by other radio stations. Support for local acts somewhat waned, even, with Campus Radio’s demise on its former frequency. But it seems ready to get back up there, and while more shows are yet to be launched - the latest was Revenge of the 80s, two one-hour shows on Sundays - they’re still keeping the radio enthusiasts and their listeners excited.

Maybe one can say it has successfully molded both factors of the new station. Two former Hit FM jocks are at primetime: aside from Big Z, Zack Attack’s doing midmornings after Braggy left to work in Singapore. And, after furor over the initial decision to muck around with Brewrats‘ time slot and format - and an envelope full of letters which, as Jalein described it, had terrible grammar - they’re back in their old slot, and their old antics, too. Perhaps all but the batian portion, as the station has a no greeting policy clearly posted on the studio’s walls. That probably explains why the station still doesn’t have a text line, relying instead on the two phone lines and Yahoo! Messenger for requests.

One funny thing with the auditions was the topic they decided to ask aspiring student DJs about: their transition. After fifteen months of following these events, it felt weird that it all boiled down to roughly ten minutes with John Hendrix at Campus FM’s production booth, discussing all that’s happened to them, and what happened afterwards. Then again, as he himself said, “it feels good to be back.”

With Campus FM’s launch, there are even hopes that it would be better than the old Campus Radio - obviously my objections to their programming was no secret. Right now, the adage of keeping spiels short is being reinforced in the station, although there’s still a case of imaging overkill. “Don’t talk until it makes sense to broadcast positivity,” the white board says. And Joshua - the proud RT jock who actually got into radio after listening to WLS-FM, at least before it became Campus Radio - is hopeful that the station will bring radio programming out of a rut. “For the first time in a long time, it actually has a chance to rise above all the mediocrity being passed off as entertainment, which has plagued the FM band for too long a while,” he said. “And it’s an opportunity for a very popular radio brand to regain its former glory.”

As for Barangay LS, if only to mention that, the latest ratings show them slipping from fourth to sixth place.

At this point, you tune in to Campus FM and don’t think about whether you’re listening to Hit FM or Campus Radio, despite the signs of it being so still around. (The motto, in fact - the number one hit music station in Metro Manila - is a nod to both, and elicited a response from Magic’s Joey, wondering in jest about they’re being already in number one immediately after launch.) A success, it seems, of their plans. It perhaps feels a bit weird when Triggerman - currently their station manager - has finally come on board, after much clamor from the public, with the first weekly countdown starting earlier than expected, and ending later than intended. He was very open about his experiences, even citing the old station by frequency - and said that the shift was an audition. “I’ve been jobless for three months,” he said. “I’m kinda rusty.”

It feels weird because I still have the urge to call it RT. Call it force of habit.

This entry was fifteen months in the making - different blog entries changing concepts and being procrastinated on until it becomes what you see now. Many thanks to the DJs I have talked to, in one way or another, throughout those months: Joe Spinner, Jimmy Jam, John Hendrix, Joshua, Kelly, Lellie, Neil and Tin. Many thanks also to fellow biters Jaiin Bitalac and Jalein Sanchez.


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