Film and TV

Gimarc Has Another Alternative

George Gimarc, at far right, used to produce and write a syndicated radio show called Rotten Day with John Lydon. Bet that was a real joy. Because Johnny's so...not rotten.

If you grew up in Dallas in the 1970s and '80s, you need no introduction to George Gimarc. On his "Rock and Roll Alternative" Sunday-night radio show, which debuted March 1977 on the long-gone KZEW-FM, Gimarc introduced a generation of would-be Styx, Kansas and Rush fans to the faraway sounds of punk erupting from the U.K. and NYC; without Gimarc, some of us would have been years late coming to the likes of the Sex Pistols, Gang of Four, the New York Dolls, XTC, Television--you name it. Then, 12 years later, he was the original music director and afternoon jock at KDGE-FM, an "alternative" radio station long before Nirvana commodified and radio mummified the phrase. After that, he turned into an author, publishing two "diaries" filled with the detailed day-to-day doings of punk from, oh, 1970 to 1982 and another book about celebs who should have never croaked into a microphone.

If you need more history about the man, go here. But keep in mind Gimarc says he's a little "creeped out" by the fact he has a Wikipedia entry on him, complete with the name of his elementary school. Such, I guess, is the fanaticism he inspires. I, like many people who grew up here anxiously awaiting the Sunday-night sign-on, owe George a lot. And he owes me, come to think of it. Because of him, I spent all my teenage allowance on high-priced British import singles; gosh, how it is I could not get laid, anyway?

If Gimarc needs a re-introduction at this late date, that is because for the last six years or so he has been sequestered away once more reinventing himself and, he hopes, reinventing radio in the process. Finally, after all that time and after having spent "tens of thousands of dollars," he is prepared to debut his latest project--which, should it take off, could well be the biggest thing to hit the medium since the anything-goes Jack format, since satellite radio, since the proliferation of sports talk...since electricity itself. OK, not so much the latter. Still, it could be a very big deal. What is it? After the jump. If you go here, you will find a Web site for something called "Radio SASS." The SASS stands for "Short Attention Span System," because no song in Gimarc's new format will last longer than two minutes--no, not even "Stairway to Heaven." Imagine your favorite song reduced to verse-chorus-verse-adios. No dickin'-around guitar solos. No wankin'-off drum solos. No nothing except the meat of the song, shorn of the gristle. In and out. Wham and bam.

There's a longer explanation here, but as Gimarc tells it, he hit upon the idea in 2000 when he was driving with a friend, who kept switching stations in the middle of songs he actually liked. Gimarc asked his buddy why he was punching out: Did he hate the song? Was he tired of it? No, said the pal. He just wanted to find out what else was on.

"You want the next thrill," Gimarc says. "People pay attention to the beginning of songs, not the end. They register an emotion and continue on with whatever they're doing. So I started thinking, 'Well, how can I get more of those moments than the next guy and keep them from getting bored in the middle?' We have this internal clock set at two minutes. It takes us two minutes before we realize we're listening to a piece of crap and punch out... We get as much as we feel we want and move on."

So, Gimarc figured, why not give people 30 to 40 songs an hour, rather than the 12 to 15 most stations play? And why not keep commercial breaks to 90 seconds? But how to do it, that was the problem. At first, Gimarc toyed with the idea of minute-long tracks; wasn't gonna work. But at two minutes, it worked--to the point where Gimarc's radio and musician friends couldn't tell their favorite songs had been altered, not unless someone pointed it out to them. Don't believe it? Hear for yourself: Gimarc has posted two demo hours to his Web site, and, really, till I heard the abbreviated version of the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" I had no idea the original song was way too long.

It's such a genius idea that Gimarc actually had the format and the protocol for shortening songs patented; if you really want to see his U.S. Patent issued by the federal government, well, it's right here, but keep in mind it reads like it was translated from another language. Needless to say, Gimarc says all the songs are trimmed by hand, usually by Gimarc and his team of musician friends who also have engineering experience. Gimarc says it's important to have people cutting the songs who can also put them back together without throwing the piece out of key or rhythm tracks. You're not supposed to know you're listening to something being edited, after all.

"It's not that I am saying all radio needs to be this way," Gimarc says. "I am just saying there needs to be a radio station that can act as a sampler station. We can play on average 30 songs an hour, and if you're running a light spot load, you can bump into the upper 30s or 40. And so far we've done it in all genres: from rap to classic rock to country to pop. I would expect a station with this format to be able to play 720 songs a day, which is roughly twice what most radio stations keep in their entire library.

"By design a radio station employing this protocol will have to broaden into adjacent formats or deepen their existing format--or do both. You can actually create some hybrid formats, like rock country. The problem is, time spent listening to the radio is down in to the 15-minute range, and in 15 minutes you need to be able to define the staiton in any given 15 minutes--two songs and a commercial. Well, you have to be pretty one-dimensional. But in 15 minutes using this format, you can play four songs or six songs that give you a few more facets to show off. You can say, 'We're country, but we also play Allman Brothers and Little Feet,' and in 15 minutes, people will understand who you are."

Without a doubt, it's a nutty idea. And Gimarc knows he'll have two hurdles to get past: the audience that might complain about having its fave songs gutted, and the artist who'll bitch about how Gimarc's mangling the art, man. But, fact is, songs are abbreviated all the time--in commercials, on TV shows, in movies and on the iPod you can't stop shuffling around to find a song you like better than the one you're skipping past. "Sure, we're condensing and altering your art," Gimarc says, "but you get three times as much exposure for your back catalog." And radio is nothing if not a 24-7-365 commercial for CDs.

Gimarc will debut the format this week at the Radio & Records Convention, which takes place, along with the National Association of Broadcasters' annual Radio Show convention, at the Hilton Anatole Hotel. He will pitch it to folks who own radio stations and conglomerates, as well as those who manage stations. The idea is to sell it to a Clear Channel or Cumulus, who would have to pay Gimarc for the right to drop the format into their markets. And he has very high expectations.

"I've had an enormous number of highly placed radio people who are fascinated by the format and wanted to hang back till somebody else did it," Gimarc says. "Now that we have a patent in place, if somebody steps up, they're gonna lock up markets, which is now where you wanna be. So, if XYZ Radio Group has 60 markets and says, 'We want to put it in 40 markets,' I'd say,'Fine, you've got a hold on them till the stations are up in six months' or whatever. Then if another radio group comes on and says, 'We wanna do it too,' then I have to say, 'OK, but we can't do Baltimore or Atlanta, because XYZ got here first.' It behooves people to get in first."

Gimarc really oughta know: About a decade ago, he used to sell old records over the Internet through something called Record Web, which was more or less an online auction site. But he could never find anyone terribly interested in backing the idea, so he abandoned it. That was more or less the same time eBay was prepping its launch. After that, Gimarc says, "I didn't want to be on the outside again." --Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky