The outcry over the demise of legendary Charleston radio station 96 Wave has been loud, passionate, and persistent. As a former 96 Wave personality, I have been bombarded with questions, as have my old radio buddies "The Critic" (Jim Voigt), "Stupid Mike" (Mike Fili), and others who made a name for themselves at Charleston's "rock alternative." For an admittedly unscientific gauge of public sentiment on 96 getting 86ed, check out T. Ballard Lesemann's blog on the subject at music.ccpblogs.com, where as of this writing, 201 responses have been posted, the overwhelmingly majority of which are angry, sad, or just plain confused.
And who can blame them? Since 1985, 96 Wave had been an inextricable part of youth culture in the Lowcountry. For many, the station was the soundtrack to living in this city, even if you didn't always like the music. Like jam bands, Joe Riley, and Byron — 96 Wave has always just been there.
Or as a woman simply known as "Christi" posted on the CP blog: "96 Wave is the station I have listened to since I was old enough to set the dial myself. It just felt like home, it felt 'right.' I have three small children now, and I always just kind of assumed that they too, would be listening to 96 Wave one day."
Given the emotion over the loss of 96 Wave, the heartfelt remembrance for its historical place in our culture and the desire to pass our own experiences along to our children, what Christi and others are lamenting can be described in one word: heritage.
The word has long represented either the polar opposite of "hate" or secret code for racism — depending on your perspective. But now Charleston's sons, daughters, and distant cousins still longing for home and their hometown station, know what heritage truly means.
I remember the intense debates over the Confederate flag that once adorned the South Carolina Statehouse. When defenders of the South's most famous symbol insisted that it was a cherished part of their culture, they were told to "quit living in the past," the "war is over" and a host of other sound bites intended to belittle the majority opinion at that time. Flag defenders didn't want to hear politically correct criticism and didn't care whether the symbol hurt South Carolina's economy or sports recruitment, or even what the rest of the country thought of our state. The Confederate flag was a question of the heart, not political expediency or the bottom line. It had long been here and always should be.
As with the Confederate flag, to listen to the "experts" one might believe that a station like 96 Wave has become archaic, as reflected by the recent, dismal ratings. Apex Vice President Chris Johnson described the new format to The Post and Courier as "adult variety hits" with a "pretty wide-open play list." Johnson claims the move will broaden the appeal of the station. He also told the P&C that advertisers and listeners have reacted positively.
Radio stations are in business to make money. No rational business would make decisions based on the misty-eyed nostalgia of a bunch of local yahoos stuck in the past. Or as the P&C put it, "Despite resonating with rock purists, the Wave has grown weaker."
What the P&C article leaves out is that 96 Wave had undergone a drastic change in format and personalities for some time, beginning with the dismissal of Storm Zbel and Kenny Z and later, innovative program director Dave Rossi. The "rock purists" who had stuck with 96 Wave for years no longer recognized their beloved station, as it traded R.E.M., Will Hoge, and the Drive by Truckers for Nickelback, Korn, and P.O.D. And like Civil War re-enactors whose passion for their subject gives them a more educated view of the Confederacy than its detractors, 96 Wave fanatics have known that "Charleston's Best Rock" has been mediocre at best for some time.
As an admitted reactionary, a sentimental fool, and a native Charlestonian, I stand hand in hand and heart to heart with those who now mourn the late, great 96 Wave. Ratings, economics, and number-crunching have nothing to do with the loss of one's soul. But as T.S. Eliot once said, "There are no lost causes because there are no won causes," and if Robert E. Lee was the central heroic figure of the South's worst defeat, then perhaps the star general of 96 Wave, my good friend the Critic, might one day be hired again to hoist the flag of Charleston's unique radio heritage.