In an age when your smartphone can call up TV images from the other side of the world, it might not sound like a stretch to use it for programming a local radio station.
But Cox Radio made a bit of radio history Friday, turning Tampa Bay area alternative rock station WSUN-FM (97.1, 97X) into the first local station where every song played is chosen by fans through a free smartphone app.
The Foo Fighters' Best of You rang out at 5 p.m. Friday, the first choice of fans amid 65,000 votes logged before the format change began. Later, songs by Metallica, Muse and the Beastie Boys aired, chosen by app users from a list of 1,800 songs covering 30 years.
In a 21st century twist to the time-honored song dedication, fans can also record a personal message with the song they pick. They will receive a text message to alert them when the song and message are about to play.
And users are urged to employ Facebook to get friends to pick songs, spreading awareness of 97X throughout their social media circle.
The change means that the station's current lineup of personalities will mostly vanish, including its Morning X morning show. But station officials insisted other elements of the station, including its Next Big Thing concerts, would stick around.
Morning X co-host Drew Garabo, who also hosts a midday talk show on Cox Radio's WHPT-FM (102.5 The Bone), was upbeat about the changes, saying staffers would get new jobs in the transition and no one would be laid off.
"Certainly, this could be called a cost-saving measure, but this is also really changing the way music is delivered to listeners," said Garabo, whose WHPT talk show will expand by an hour. "The alternative rock radio format isn't that viable. … Gone are the days of you requesting a song and waiting around to see if they play it."
Despite Garabo's enthusiasm, fans filled the station's Facebook page with complaints over the change, saying they had trouble finding the app in their smartphone software store and noting the new system could encourage people to try recommending songs while driving.
A new Facebook fan page named "Tampa Bay wants the Morning X back" had more than 100 likes by 6 p.m. Friday, with the tagline: "picking music from an app on your phone is not radio … it's an iPod!"
The technology is provided by Ohio-based Listener Driven Radio; just one other station in the country, WHPP-FM (now known as ClickHop.com) in Fort Wayne, Ind., has turned its entire format over to listeners in this way. But Cleveland-based WHLK does allow listeners to choose songs in parts of its broadcast day, according to Listener Driven's chief revenue officer, Maureen Lesourd.
She said Cox Radio has set up its system so a live person must implement the results of the app voting. That makes it tougher for a group of listeners to hijack the results, along with settings allowing a single person to vote only a few times.
"The way we communicate has been reinvented in front of our eyes with social media," Michael Sharkey, 97X program director, said in a press release. "And today we are injecting that experience into radio."