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Freefall Radio

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 3/7/2001

The forces of cultural homogenization grind ever onward. In recent weeks, City Paper Online's Forum has hosted an extended discussion of Annapolis-based radio station WRNR (103.1 FM), sparked by the comments of one George F. Babbitt of Baltimore, who opined that "WRNR is being raped in the interests of corporate profits." Most of his respondents agree that the self-proclaimed "progressive alternative" is going the way of WHFS (99.1 FM) toward repetitive, predictable, major-label rock.

So what? In answer to that question, I again quote Babbitt: "'RNR, up to the firing of [former DJ] John Hall, was the only radio station on our airwaves without a heavy corporate tone. It was spontaneous. It made you feel like you were part of a community."

What really set WRNR apart from other stations was its blithe disregard for the normal pop-radio practice of playlisting. From the time when WRNR went on the air in 1994 until fairly recently, it was the one station you could count on to play something you'd never heard before and might never hear again. DJs had enormous freedom to play what they liked--rock, blues, zydeco, jazz, folk, whatever--segueing from one song to the next along idiosyncratic but recognizably thematic lines.

Hall, host of the popular and long-running Hall's Bar and Grill program, was fired in December 1999; he's now a freelance radio producer living in Washington, D.C. Concerning the circumstances of his dismissal, Hall is vague, but he insists it had nothing to do with his spontaneous, left-libertarian on-air commentaries (and routine reports on local police speed traps). "I never had any complaints from on high about the content of my show," Hall says. But he does confirm fans' complaint that WRNR is now scripted "with one eye on the trade publications . . . and the other eye on what the program director thinks would be the best way to get at their target audience."

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