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Steven Chartrand: The nerve to try something new in radio

Steven Chartrand has earned a couple of titles in his 22-year radio career. Since he became general manager and co-owner of WNVE-FM Rochester’s home of syndicated talk show host Howard Stern and a new format, modern rock crazy is one of them.
“People thought I was crazy when I brought Howard into town, and maybe they think I’m crazy now I’ve brought in modern rock,” he says. “But maybe they don’t understand.”
Chartrand and his partners at WNVE, the former WRQI-FM, undertook extensive research in Rochester to understand the minds of their target audience–18- to 44-year-olds–before deciding to switch the station’s format from classic rock to modern rock, and change the call letters and nickname to WNVE and “the Nerve.”
“What we wanted to do was find a fit with Howard,” he says. “We could have stayed with what we were doing and gotten better at it. But we decided (to change the format) to protect the future of the radio station.”
Rock station WCMF-FM, WMAX-FM with its progressive-rock format and contemporary-hits station WPXY-FM play crossover bands in the modern-rock style, such as Pearl Jam, the Cranberries, Stone Temple Pilots and others, Chartrand says. To compete, those stations are playing even more modern rock since the Nerve’s arrival April 1. But research indicated there was a hole in the market big enough for a modern-rock format to fit in.
“We surveyed the market and found that Rochester was looking for new music, modern music,” he says. “What we came out with, no one is playing a steady diet of.”
The morning after the format switch, the passion level of modern-rock listeners became apparent, Chartrand says. People lined up out the station’s door–many with resumes in hand, others just to help out.
“I’ve been in the business 15 years, and this was the quickest and most passionate response I’ve seen to a change in a radio station,” says Mark Squires, WNVE’s general sales manager.
Chartrand also was surprised to find an audience segment he did not think modern rock attracted in significant numbers: women. The station’s research indicated a modern-rock format would attract a largely male audience, but feedback indicates a more even split.
WRQI’s classic-rock format appealed to 25- to 44-year-olds, of whom approximately 70 percent were male, he says.
Across the country, modern rock is the hottest format, Chartrand and a number of his colleagues say. Stations with modern-rock formats in Philadelphia, Boston and more than 20 of the country’s top markets are doing extremely well.
“It’s huge,” Chartrand says, with emphasis. “This stuff is huge.”
If WNVE plays it right, the format could be big in Rochester, says William Schoening, vice president and general manager of WEDJ-FM in Charlotte, N.C. Schoening was general manager of WPXY and president of the Rochester Radio Broadcasters Association before he took the job last year.
If WNVE builds its playlist around more familiar music, the station will fare better than if it tries to play mostly alternative music unfamiliar to the audience, he says. Schoening’s own station has a modified version of the modern-rock format.
Like listeners, Rochester advertisers have responded quickly and positively, Chartrand says. The first week of the new format probably was the station’s best, in terms of advertising revenues, since he and his partners bought the station in 1985.
One reason is that WNVE’s new format attracts the highly desirable but elusive 18- to 34-year-old Generation X listener, he says. They are on the go, and they have particular tastes. For example, there are only certain television shows like “Seinfeld” and “Friends” that members of this age group will take the time to watch.
“This audience does not want to be hyped,” Chartrand says. “(They say,) “Play the music and shut up.”’
What advertisers find most vexing about these Generation Xers is they have no brand loyalty, he says. Chartrand’s father drove a Chevy until the day he died, but the younger generation does not feel that kind of attachment.
They do, however, have substantial spendable income.
“If I have an extra $100 in my pocket, I have to buy diapers, (pay the) mortgage, car payment,” says Chartrand, a 43-year-old father of two. “These people, if they have $100 in their pockets on Friday, it’s gone by Monday. From an advertiser’s standpoint, those are the people that were hard to get. Until now.”
Switching formats was a great move for Chartrand, says William Cloutier, president and general manager of WBEE-FM, WKLX-FM and WBBF-AM.
“WCMF is a classic-rock station. Steve, no matter what he was doing, was second to them,” he says. “I’m sure his detractors say he gave in. I think it’s purely a business decision.”
The immediate response from listeners was positive but for a few callers who questioned why the station was switching to music they did not like. Upon further questioning, Chartrand found the callers had never listened to modern rock.
“It’s like Chinese food,” he says. “People say they hate it and they’ve never had it.”
The same applies to Howard Stern’s critics, Chartrand says. After he signed a five-year contract in 1993 to broadcast Howard Stern, advertisers and media buyers reacted negatively.
Chartrand feels Stern was targeted by an unfair media.
“When Howard first came on, there was a lot of publicity,” he says. “Some advertisers were saying, “I don’t want to be on that program because I don’t want to offend somebody.’ How can you offend somebody who’s not listening?”
Chartrand also was criticized for trying to compete with the king of Rochester’s morning drive, the homegrown Brother Wease of WCMF.
“The other argument I hear is that (Stern) is not local,” Chartrand says. “I can’t think of what hit TV show on now is produced in Rochester.
“In all fairness, we had to compete with Wease,” he adds, “and we thought we brought in the best guy to do that.”
Bringing Stern into the market probably did not make Chartrand all that popular, Cloutier says. And as long as Stern takes criticism, some of it will rub off on Chartrand.
“Maybe some say Steve Chartrand is bad for radio,” he says. “But anytime there’s an aggressive broadcaster in the market, it’s good for radio.”
The new format, as Chartrand believes, could be good for Stern’s ratings, Cloutier says. Stern is strongest among 18- to 24-year-olds, the same audience for modern rock.
“The station has a chance to recycle Stern listeners into the rest of the day, and listeners from the rest of the day into Stern,” he says.
Stern has yet to show significant gains against Brother Wease, according to Arbitron ratings. But now that the bad publicity surrounding Stern has died down, and the station’s format has changed, more people may admit to listening to the station than did before, Chartrand says.
Arbitron’s methodology does not provide an accurate picture of any market, he says, explaining that it amounts to a vote for a favorite radio station rather than a true picture of listening habits in the market.
Phone surveys would be a more accurate method than asking people to remember and write down what they listened to hours ago, Chartrand says. Some ratings companies use this method in other markets.
“If you’re talking to active adults, do they have the time to sit down and say, “I’ll keep this diary and be very detailed as to what I listen to, when I listen to it, and do it for a week’?” he says. “Wrong.”
The latest Arbitron ratings putting his station 11th in the market with 12 and older listeners, and Stern in the eighth position during the morning drive, do not reflect the format change, Chartrand notes. In fact, ratings for all the stations now are inaccurate because of the change WNVE has brought to the market.
Chartrand says the criticism over Stern has not affected him; it was expected. He was in Philadelphia when WYSP-FM brought Stern to the market, and he heard the same criticism and arguments in both cities.
It took four years for Stern to hit the top in Philadelphia, Chartrand says, and Stern will reach No. 1 in this market as well. No doubt troubles his mind.
Upon reflection, however, Chartrand admits some criticism did get to him.
“You know what bothered me? What bothered me is people made judgments without knowing anything about it,” he says. “That bothered me.”
Even so, Chartrand says, he does not let programming controversies such as the Stern flap divert his focus as general manager.
“I’m in the advertising business, I’m not in the radio business,” he says, “because without advertising, we can’t survive.”
Chartrand is a salesman at heart, colleagues say, and he admits it is true.
Growing up on his father’s Bedford, N.H., poultry farm–surrounded by 50 acres of land and 14,000 chickens–Chartrand knew at a young age he was comfortable with sales and with meeting people. He worked retail jobs throughout high school and college. At Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, Chartrand studied music, including trumpet, voice and composition.
He joined his first radio station in 1973 and worked his way up. In the early 1980s, Chartrand began buying radio stations with various partners. He has been involved in eight stations so far, including WNVE, which he purchased with three partners in 1985.
In 1986, Chartrand was hired to turn around troubled station WKSZ-FM in Philadelphia. He succeeded, colleagues say, as he has at every station that appears on his resume. The practice earned him the nickname of Turnaround Expert.
In 1989 Chartrand married his wife, Deborah, while enjoying an early retirement on profits he made from WKSZ’s turnaround. The name followed him when he came out of retirement and moved in 1991 to Rochester, where WRQI had been losing money since Chartrand purchased the station.
The station finally posted a profit in 1994, Chartrand says. And now it is outpacing last year, despite the added expenses stemming from the format change.
Chartrand owns four other stations, three in New Hampshire and one in Boston. He remains the managing partner of WNVE, with two out-of-town partners and new partner Squires. Yet another of Chartrand’s titles is president of Great Lakes Wireless Talking Machine Co., WNVE’s parent company.
“They affectionately call me the boss around here,” he says, laughing.
Employees and co-workers, past and present, say he is a tough boss, but a straight talker and great teacher who has earned their respect.
“I think when people walk out of my office, they know where they stand,” Chartrand says. “I think I’m fair.”
Chartrand wants to see everyone around him do well, Squires says, and that is one reason the two are partners in WNVE. Squires worked with Chartrand in Philadelphia during WKSZ’s difficult turnaround process. Chartrand’s offer of partnership to Squires, who supported and helped with the restructuring, was a sign of the Chartrand’s loyalty.
He also is the kind of idea man who actually follows through with his ideas, says Lynn Bruder, executive vice president and general manager at WPLY-FM in Philadelphia. She worked under Chartrand as sales manager at WKSZ and has kept in touch.
“Steve is a very likable, very easy-going guy,” she says, “(but) on the business side, you certainly wouldn’t call him easy going at all.”
Chartrand acknowledges that he expects a lot from his employees.
“I have compassion for people who work hard,” he says, “and have little time for people that don’t.”
The hardest part about his job is trying to find people who do want to work hard, he says, and trying to get people to do what he asks them. The greatest part of the business was best summed up by one of Chartrand’s mentors: 50-year radio veteran Bud Armstrong.
“He said to me, “Steve, there’ll never be two days the same.’ And so far, he’s right.”
Now more than ever, Chartrand considers himself a family man. He recently purchased a home on a secluded, two-acre lot in Mendon.
Chartrand enjoys getting out for a game of golf, but he says his greatest joy comes when his two children–4-year-old Kristina and Todd, almost two–greet him when he arrives home at the end of the day. Soon there will be three children to greet him–his wife is due to give birth to another in November.
“I think I’ve accomplished a lot of things,” Chartrand says. “I’m very content with my life right now. Good friends, great family … what else can you ask for?
“Certainly I’d like to make this station better than it is. That’s a goal, a personal goal.”
And if some think of Chartrand as the rebel in Rochester radio, he says, that’s all right. After all, this town was built by people who took risks to go beyond the status quo.
“If they want to call me a rebel, I’ll accept it,” Chartrand says. “But I’d rather look at it as a pioneer.”

[Rochester Business Journal Profile, 5/12/95]

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