Played Out

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

Naturally, ownership changes have led to flux on the airwaves. An unexpected partnership was consummated between The Box (KBXX) and Magic 102 (KMJQ/102.1 FM), stations that had been fierce rivals in the local rap/R&B market; nowadays, like it or not, they cooperate under the Clear Channel umbrella. And in the last two years, KKPN/102.9 FM has morphed from Adult Standards to Modern Adult Contemporary, and now looks likely to switch to a Latino format when its planned sale from Chancellor to Heftel is made final in June.

Meanwhile, the Buzz (KTBZ/107.5 FM), which has seen several ownership changes in the last few years, has just been acquired by Kentucky-based Yber-broadcaster Jacor Communications. The number three radio group in America (after CBS and Chancellor), Jacor also got KHMX/96.5 FM as part of the deal.

The standard company line is that consolidation is good for radio, and that even more diversity on the airwaves will be the result. Chancellor, for example, will want to make sure every one of its eight stations in Houston differs from the others so that each can reach its own carefully screened listenership. But in practice, consolidation doesn't necessarily ensure more variety -- let alone a shred of homegrown personality. The future looks decidedly generic.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in Houston's coveted a.m. drive-time slot. Really, what is KRBE morning DJ Sam Malone but a PG-rated version of the syndicated Greaseman? Then there's Malone sidekick Maria Todd, whose voice bears an all-too-striking resemblance to that of the Howard Stern Show's Robin Quivers. Longtime KLOL fixtures Stevens and Pruett aren't getting any younger, and KKPN recently hired a team from Fresno, California.

Certainly, consolidation has been good for corporate bottom lines. Since the Telecommunications Act, radio advertising booty has mushroomed. Stations sold roughly $14 billion in ads in 1997, up more than 40 percent over the previous four years. Nowadays, to place an ad, a national media buyer need no longer plod deal-by-deal, station-by-station; instead, the process is as easy as making a phone call to corporate.

Advertisers love something called the "cluster group" -- listeners who fit a narrow demographic profile. (Say, in an extreme case, female light-beer drinkers in Houston.) And naturally, stations compete to give advertisers just such an audience. Listeners are reduced to the basest sort of consumer statistic, their taste in music supposedly as predictable and soulless as their taste in soft drinks.

And damned if that bloodless approach doesn't bring in fat Arbitron numbers. "What consolidation has done is that it's allowed owners to go in and segment a marketplace," says Tony Novia, an editor for the radio industry trade journal Radio & Records. "It's good business sense. The downside is that there is enormous, enormous, enormous amounts of pressure to perform."

"Our company likes KRBE because we make money," says John Peake, the station's program director.

The sole Houston frequency owned by Susquehanna Radio Corporation, KRBE is something of an anomaly; in radio-speak, the station is a "stand-alone." And it's stayed that way by being remarkably adept at morphing with the trends. The station saw the dip in popularity of alternative rock and, in no time, made the decision to move in a safer direction.

Susquehanna, the tenth-largest radio conglomerate in the country, has held fast to KRBE since acquiring the station from Lake Huron Broadcasting in 1986. Like any corporate entity given to buying up stations like so much prime real estate, Susquehanna doesn't see its radio venture as a vanity enterprise. "We'd very much like the opportunity to expand [in Houston]," says Susquehanna president Dave Kennedy. "But we adopt a more conservative approach to consolidation than some others."

But "conservative," obviously, doesn't mean "noncompetitive" -- and no one plays better in a consolidated playing field than program director Peake. Back in April 1996, Peake came to KRBE from a Top 40 station in Denver. His first responsibility: to ease the alternative-leaning KRBE into its current CHR format. Certainly, Peake looks like the man for the job. Clean-cut and handsome, he resembles a loose cross between Tom Cruise and Party of Five's Bailey Salinger -- the kind of guy you'd expect to listen to pop music.

The metamorphosis at KRBE didn't happen overnight. In fact, Peake admits, the transformation was often glacially slow: "In the first few weeks, the one record that people noticed was Eric Clapton's 'Change the World,' which this station wouldn't even have considered playing before. That was a signal that there were more changes to come."

The Zeitgeist smiled. Top 40, Peake notes, was "starting to enjoy a rebirth" in '96. But KRBE owes its success to more than good luck. Peake, it turns out, is very good at his job: choosing which hits the station will repeat relentlessly.

Each week, Peake and his staff fashion a list of 25 or more "currents" (industry lingo for current hits) likely to appeal to listeners ages 18 to 34. Those tunes -- along with the occasional "recurrent" (an old reliable from the vaults) -- make up the airtight play list.

Among the resources at the station's disposal: Radio & Records, Billboard and other trade journals, as well as an on-line monitoring network called BDS (Broadcast Data Service) that allows Peake and music director Jay Michaels to access other stations' play lists from around the country.

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