The rules were simple: Show up, get on stage and make your three-minute pitch why you should be part of the city's newest rock radio station. The turnout was a mix of the curious and creative — an old guy telling jokes, a briefcase-toting salesman, young people who just wanted to be involved.
In all, 175 people filed through the Beachland Ballroom the morning of July 21, looking for their little piece of what's now happening at the very far left of Cleveland's FM radio dial. The new rock station is as ambitious as it is unlikely in an age of corporate-radio strongholds and music-streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify.
"We're a small staff. When we're hiring people, we're hand-selecting them. It's like building a family," says Tom Embrescia, who launched 87.7 Cleveland's Sound with business partner Tom Wilson in September on an obscure available frequency (actually the audio feed of a low-power TV station). The broadcasting-industry veterans formerly co-owned WDOK 102.1 and WRMR 850 prior to selling them more than a decade ago.
Broadcasting from the fourth floor of the Agora concert club building at 5000 Euclid Ave., 87.7 is a mix of old and new rock. It skews heavily toward '90s acts but mixes in Rock and Roll Hall of Famers (Queen, The Police) alongside new names (The Gaslight Anthem, Mumford & Sons), aiming squarely for a mid-20s-to-early-40s audience.
The station's small studio and office space exhibits a funky mix of bright colors, animal-print throw rugs and a sign at the entrance welcoming expected visitors as the day's "rock star." The entire operation of little more than a dozen employees emits a palpable do-it-yourself, creative vibe.
"We talked about, what should it be? Where's the need? We want it to be Cleveland," Embrescia says. "We wanted to have a little fun in the marketplace."
That's why Richmond Heights High School graduate Archie Berwick, an on-air novice who most recently worked as pre-game entertainment for the New York Mets, serves as DJ during the morning drive, and Melt Bar & Grilled creator Matt Fish has a Sunday-night show where he plays some of his favorite heavy rock 'n' roll tunes.
Rachel Steele, a Cleveland radio veteran who worked with 87.7 FM partner and director of sales Chris Maduri at CBS Radio, handles weekday afternoons and serves as the station's music director.
"I just play hits — things that people like, things that we grew up with," says the 36-year-old. "I'm not afraid to go back and put on a cheesy '80s song because everybody likes it. I have maybe 20 new songs rotating. ... But you'll hear predominantly the '90s stuff that will take you back to college or when you were growing up."
It's an ongoing experiment to create a living, breathing entity that feels authentic. Listen to Embrescia talk about the station, and it's clear he looks at the venture as a personal one.
"We're building a kid," he says. "It looks like Cleveland, feels like Cleveland. It's used to the cold. It sits in the Dawg Pound in the snow. It's a Cleveland kid."
Radio veteran Rachel Steele is the friendly voice on your drive home. Here's your cheat sheet on the other people behind the microphone at 87.7.