Played Out

The secrets of radio success Repetition. Caution. Repetition. Caution. Repetition.

By all appearances, KRBE/104.1 FM is a station thoroughly immersed in a keen sense of its own well-being. An aggressively sunny, self-satisfied vibe greets visitors to the Top 40 giant's offices near Westheimer and Gessner. Up there on the seventh floor, the waiting area could be mistaken for an oversized KRBE merchandise booth: The station's sharp purple-and-green logo adorns everything from babies' bibs to T-shirts to those omnipresent foam coozies. There's even a KRBE motorcycle helmet, though it doesn't appear to be for sale.

Such logo-emblazoned gimcracks are only the beginning of KRBE's campaign for the hearts and ears of Houston. The station also showers its carefully targeted audience with well-orchestrated special events, free concert tickets and cash giveaways. The message is hard to miss: Loyalty to KRBE equals free stuff -- membership privileges, if you will.

The waiting room's radio, of course, is tuned to KRBE, and the music fits perfectly with its surroundings. Inoffensive, bright and not all that memorable, the carefully packaged pop is just another of KRBE's freebies.

The formula works. KRBE's 6.3 showing in the latest Arbitron survey places it among the top three stations in Houston, just below urban music kingpin KBXX/97.9 FM (6.8) and nostalgic Adult Contemporary giant KODA/99.1 FM (7.1). In terms of influence, the Arbitrons are equivalent to television's Nielsen ratings. Stay above a 4 percent listener share, and you're in fine shape; sink below 3 percent, and there's cause to worry. Score higher than 6 percent, and it's time to break out the champagne.

"I like to win in the Arbitrons," KRBE music director Jay Michaels says simply. "We basically just give the listeners what they want." Affable and clean-cut, Michaels was imported from Dallas back in 1996, when KRBE switched from a hit-driven alternative format (which had generated decent ratings) to Contemporary Hits Radio/Pop, as Arbitron calls the Top 40 category. In many ways, Michaels represents the kind of listener KRBE has corralled in droves: well-groomed, 18 to 34 years of age, reasonably successful; a casual, not particularly adventurous music fan drawn to the most middling elements of a variety of styles.

He isn't female, of course, but a nice chunk of KRBE's listeners are. Though the airtight play list appeals to men, women are especially enamored of the station's mixture of rhythm-oriented R&B, shock-proof modern rock, drippy, big-production ballads and light rap and hip-hop. "We don't want anything too edgy," Michaels says.

Sitting in an office surrounded by row upon row of CDs from every label imaginable -- most by artists (Pearl Jam, Jen Trynin) he'll never play on the air -- Michaels illustrates KRBE's "wait and see" tactics. He explains that the station generally holds tight until a riskier tune like, say, Smash Mouth's ska-inflected "Walkin' on the Sun" is at saturation level nationally before adding it to the KRBE rotation. If a single has been out for a while, and listeners have heard it elsewhere, Michaels says, "it doesn't sound as edgy." Then, and only then, would KRBE play the song.

Familiarity only seems to breed listener appeal: The station considers repetition a good thing, and hits are played up to nine times a day. That doesn't leave room for many songs. If a typical week's new-music rotation is any indication, KRBE is more Top 25 than Top 40. And for that, the station makes no apologies.

Says Michaels, "We're not playing Celine Dion 68 times a week just because we want to hear it again."

To see for yourself just how stagnant the commercial airwaves have become of late, simply scan the local dial half an hour or so -- heck, even for 15 minutes, which is generally all a station like KRBE expects of its listeners in one sitting. Or to gain a broader perspective, drive cross-country and try to discern any earthshaking differences from big city to big city. Chances are, you'll hear pretty much the same routine in Boston as you will in Houston. Now, more than ever, stations look to success in other markets as the basis for selecting their own play lists.

Out-of-town ownership also helps homogenize the nation's airwaves. Consider this: 29 of the 49 frequencies in Houston proper belong to out-of-town outfits; and out-of-towners own every one of the city's top ten stations. Such scenarios are standard in large metro areas. And as you might expect, pressure to keep the bean-counters at headquarters happy has created a glib franchise mentality around the industry. Boston Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy calls the phenomenon a "malling of the airwaves."

Blame the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The law loosened restrictions on station ownership. Before, a single company could own up to four stations in a given market; under the new law, the number rose to eight. Before, a company could own no more than a total of 40 stations; under the new law, there's no limit at all.

Across America, the repercussions have been breathtaking. BIA, a radio research firm, reports that roughly 4,400 of the country's 10,000 commercial radio stations have changed hands. The total price tag: a whopping $33 billion.

In Houston, the biggest fish in the pond -- Irving-based Chancellor Media -- owns five FM and three AM frequencies. In second and third place rank San Antonio's Clear Channel Communications (three FMs, three AMs) and New York multimedia behemoth CBS (two FMs, three AMs). Yapping at their heels is Los Angeles-based Hispanic radio group Heftel, which has snatched up eight local stations (five FMs, two AMs) but isn't in quite the same revenue-generating league as the three leaders.

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