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Rocking the Boat

With a twist on country radio, "The Wolf" takes a bite out of the competition.



Rather, he seems more proud of what the station has brought to local airwaves: country with a rock attitude.

Considering Beck's background, it's not a surprising twist. A longtime fixture in Richmond rock radio, Beck was co-host of the immensely popular "Jeff & Jeff" morning show for more than a decade on XL-102. The show drew high ratings and multiple awards before Clear Channel Entertainment dismantled it in January 2001.

Out of a job, Beck moved on. He commuted to work at a Fredericksburg radio station, which may have helped him make a transition to country music — and bring a twist to The Wolf.

"The station in Fredericksburg had a country-rock format, which gave me insight into the market," Beck says. "Southern rock was also a huge part of classic rock."

When Main Line Quad decided to launch The Wolf in Richmond, Beck joined the station. "In toying with format ideas," he says, "I pitched a country-rock format. I told them, I think it will make money."

Plus, it would fill a niche locally.

"Traditional country stations cater to the female listener. I felt the male audience was not served as well," Beck says. "Country music can be very ballad-heavy. I wanted to incorporate rock that will fit in."

Take his Toby Keith theory: Beck imagines that if listeners hopped into the country star's pickup truck, they might hear Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band and Hank Williams Jr. playing. His philosophy is echoed nationally by the Country Music Television show "Crossroads," which pairs country artists with rock or pop artists. It's a place where Brooks & Dunn meet ZZ Top, where Bon Jovi plays with Sugarland.

The Wolf launched in October 2004 with the tag line "Country That Rocks." Beck says it was the first local station to play Big & Rich's crossover hit "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)," calling it "representative of what we are trying to do."

By contrast, K-95 takes the slow and steady approach — it plays proven hits and shies away from anything that isn't country.

"We don't play rock or ZZ Top," K-95 program director Jim Tice says. "As far as being first with songs, that is not what we do. We are slow to add new songs, and that is based on listener research and response."

Beck says The Wolf respects its country roots, too, including artists such as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. And as for his playlist, he enjoys having the freedom to include some album tracks — songs not promoted as singles but potentially as good as chart hits.

"A great song is a great song ... people will listen to a great song," Beck says. "I don't have to wait to get corporate permission from someone down in Texas." In broadening the definition of country, he says, "I think we are bringing people into the country fold."

K-95 is part of Cox Radio Inc., which Tice says is the fourth largest radio group in the country. But he says music is programmed locally, and he has the final decision on playlists.

"We play country music. That is our job," Tice says. "It's a pretty simple game. We find out what people want to hear and play it for them."

Simple or not, K-95's approach seems to be holding strong. Locally, it's ranked No. 3 of 22 in overall radio ratings. The Wolf is ranked No. 16.

Beck seems happy with his new music. Compared with rock, country is "more exhilarating," Beck says. "The artists are accessible, and they really do have a special place in their hearts for the fans. That's a refreshing thing to see."

Beck has kept his passion in the midst of personal tragedy. In September, his 21-year-old daughter, Jessica, died in her sleep. Country newcomers Hot Apple Pie played a Richmond show in February to benefit The Jessica Beck Memorial Scholarship, established to help Jessica's teammates at Ohio State University, where she was a dean's list student and member of the school's renowned synchronized swim team. Beck says a memorial scholarship is also being established at his daughter's high school alma mater, Douglas Freeman.

In December, Pennsylvania-based Main Line Broadcasting acquired The Wolf, making it part of a three-station group that includes oldies station WBBT-FM 107.3 and the diverse Liberty 98.9-FM. Beck says the new company brought welcome additional resources — including more money for marketing.

With a small staff that includes on-air personnel Mike Levay, Tara Hunter, Beck and K2, The Wolf has connected with local events, such as the just-wrapped Cold Harbor Sundown five-week spring concert, which it co-sponsored. It was the first year that the series, started in 2004, featured such national country acts as Ronnie McDowell and T. Graham Brown. In past years K-95, which has eight on-air personalities, sponsored the series.

But Beck says he doesn't look at K-95 as competition. "We present an entirely different product," he says. "We play some of the same music [as K-95], but we have more freedom with our playlist. If we tried to compete doing the same thing, we'd lose." S

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