The dead Zone

Abby Goldstein is likely the only person who would take the news that she was being fired from her job as an endorsement. But that's just how the former music director at KKZN-FM (93.3) felt after Scott Strong and Dan Haliburton -- the new bosses at the station now known as Merge 93.3 -- informed her that they were letting her go on August 25, immediately following her morning air shift.

If nothing else, Goldstein's firing proved to her that she had done her job, that she was the one thing listeners could identify with on a station that had struggled to find any kind of identity since it signed on in October 1996. In many ways, Goldstein was The Zone. And to get rid of The Zone, Strong and Haliburton had to get rid of Goldstein.

"They wanted to make a fresh start, and they wanted to put together something that was not The Zone," Goldstein says. "I'm one of the original air staff. In order to do something new, you know, they really needed to start fresh. I have certain listeners that have certain expectations of me, and in a way, it's kind of a compliment. It's like saying that I've developed such a strong niche that I can't just play whatever they wanted to put on the air."

What Merge 93.3 has put on the air so far is not that different from The Zone's old playlist. (Meaning: still more Dave Matthews Band than anyone wants or needs.) Following a day inexplicably filled with old reruns of The Bob Newhart Show, the new station kicked off on August 30 with Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way." While that question has yet to be answered, anything would have to be better than The Zone's ranking in the most recent Arbitron ratings: 21st. It's not hard to move up when there's so much ground to gain.

For now, it appears that Merge 93.3 is aiming for a head-on collision with KDGE-FM (94.5), trying to appeal to the longtime listeners of The Edge who have been alienated by the station's recent forays into metal; the likes of Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Kid Rock have been put into heavy rotation on its playlist. The kids may love it, but the people who grew up listening to The Edge are turned off by it. And they turn it off. Merge 93.3, it seems, is interested in making those disgruntled listeners its prime audience, filling the "adult alternative" niche that The Zone was never quite serious enough about providing.

Still, as one local radio source asks, "Why would they want to take on The Edge? Even if they win, all they get is a two share." And he's right. Taking on The Edge in a ratings war is a pointless battle, little better than a late-season match-up between the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers. Who cares who wins, if everyone has to watch a couple of losing teams anyway? With Merge 93.3's playlist -- a recent sampling included Faith No More's "Epic," The Goo Goo Dolls' "Black Balloon," The Pretenders' "Don't Get Me Wrong," and Pearl Jam's "Last Kiss" -- it's practically like a civil war: the new Edge versus The Edge of four years ago. There is no new territory in dispute.

Merge 93.3 may win listeners in the short term with its metal-free playlist, but the bottom is likely to drop out sooner rather than later. The Edge may not be a much better alternative than Merge 93.3, but at least it's established. It'll be tough for the new station to capsize the old one, especially since both stations are fighting for such a small fragment of local radio listeners. And one thing's for sure: It won't be an interesting fight. (Though, to be fair, one local radio observer suggests that this will not be the station's final format, that it's a temporary transition hinting toward a playlist built around newer, less established bands -- ya know, a new rock alternative. Un-hunh. We'll believe it when we stop hearing "Personal Jesus.")

As for Goldstein, it looks as if she might be permanently out of the local radio arena. She says she has "so many options, it's just making my head spin." For now, she's taking time off to decide whether she's even going to stay in radio at all, and if she does, where she's going to go. But she's not upset that she was fired. Far from it, actually. Goldstein is proud of her time at The Zone, but she's glad to be out from under the constant threat of a format change. She's moving on and not looking back. Well, not much.

"I really miss Lone Star Radio in a big way," she admits, referring to her Sunday-night local music show. "It breaks my heart, because that was my baby. And I really miss 'Spin or Spare.' [That was Goldstein's pick-a-hit weekly guest spot on The Ticket, KTCK-AM.] Those are the two biggest things that I miss. I loved doing that. I'm really jonesing for a little 'Spin or Spare.' Other than that, I have no regrets."