Played Out

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

Like many stations, KRBE also uses a software program called Selector, which sequences a station's play list, factoring in such elements as tempo, mood, style and even the gender of an artist. Not surprisingly, Peake and Michaels prefer to downplay Selector's role and emphasize the human elements.

"We go into our music meetings and we listen to lots of different records," says Michaels. "We figure out how many slots we have for new records -- and there's usually only a few -- and we try to pick out the biggest record that we're not playing. It's not too difficult, really."

Typically, those meeting-room calculations are computer-like in their reliability. Particularly impressive is the station's rocketing cumulative audience (the "cume" is dominated by channel-surfers with no real station loyalty). "For the first time, we've reached 800,000, which gives us more listeners than any station in the state of Texas," says Peake with pride. "From the [music side], it's very conservative, because we want to make certain that every record we play has a great amount of appeal."

But Peake also maintains that in the numbingly restrictive confines of Top 40 radio, KRBE actually boasts more variety than other stations of its ilk. "We have a diverse number of sounds on the station," he says. "Some [stations] are more narrow in their approach -- more dance-oriented or more rock-oriented -- and we sort of have all components."

On a typical week last month, KRBE's version of variety translated into a whopping 67 spins for Savage Garden's "Truly, Madly, Deeply," not to mention a 66 count for Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." Meanwhile, Paula Cole's "I Don't Want to Wait" warranted a mere 36. Only a single new song was added to KRBE's 27-song play list that week: the Backstreet Boys' "Everybody." Five tunes were dropped.

To determine when a song is working and when it isn't, KRBE swears by its call-out research. Listeners are phoned at home and asked to rate songs for favorability, familiarity and burnout. The results determine everything from whether a song like Usher's "Nice and Slow" has run its course to what time of day is best for Madonna's "Frozen." Normally, a song must be played on-air for at least a month before a station can begin testing its commercial viability.

"Like any good tool, all of it's in the interpretation," Peake says. "It's based on about a hundred people; they rate the songs on a scale of one to five -- only if they're familiar with them. Generally, what should happen is, songs should debut at the bottom and sort of gradually move up the page."

Other factors that may shape the station's rotation on any given week include phone-in requests and, on rare occasion, gut instinct. Though, with all the more reliable resources at their disposal, it's hard to believe the latter plays much of a role.

"I look at the Top 15 singles [in the country], and I better be playing as many of those as I can," Peake says. "Then I know I'm doing my job."

"Playing the hits is easy," says KTBZ program director Jim Trapp. "It's playing the non-hits that gives a radio station its personality."

If that's so, then it could be argued that "the Buzz" has only a hair more personality than KRBE, its former competitor. Three years ago, the two stations -- then both playing alternative music -- were locked into a very public sparring match.

No more.
When KRBE pulled out of modern rock in 1996, the Buzz was left to sift through the rubble of the waning alternative revolution. If KRBE's Michaels and Peake are the Biff and Chad of Houston radio, Trapp and longtime music director David Sadof are its Beavis and Butt-head. Both retain a music geek's air of muffled rebellion -- even within the sterile confines of KTBZ's 11th-floor offices near Richmond Avenue.

Still, there's nothing particularly rebellious about the way Trapp and Sadof devise the Buzz's weekly play list. They study what modern rock stations are playing in other cities; they pore over retail sales charts and the usual on-line networks and databases. Yet it's safe to say that they lead with their innards a bit more than their colleagues at KRBE -- and retain a degree of credibility with their listeners because of it.

In appealing to the post-Nirvana masses -- most of whom fall on the younger end of the 18-to-34 demographic -- the Buzz plays a lot of music KRBE won't touch, bands such as Everclear, Pearl Jam, Radiohead and God Lives Underwater. Even though the Buzz continues to overlap with KRBE on the biggest, rock-oriented hits, its rotation is looser, hovering around 35 currents, and thus, the repetition less relentless. (For the week ending April 5, the station's most-played single was the Foo Fighters' "My Hero," at 43 spins.) The station also has specialty programs -- The Nightly News and Lunar Rotation -- that address both the local scene and a wider breadth of new national music.

For all that, the Buzz is rewarded with a mediocre 3-plus percent in the Arbitron ratings -- making it tenth in the market, six stations behind KRBE. With that nothing-special performance has come a string of ownership shakeups. Currently, the station is part of the Jacor empire, but it's rumored that change will arrive within months. Apparently, even the slightest degree of impulsiveness in radio comes at a cost.

"If [we] only played the records that were true, genuine hits, then [we'd] have a play list of 20 songs," says Trapp.

Adds Sadof, "Which is pretty close to what KRBE has. And they're playing a lot of those songs every 90 minutes."

Sadly, that's the formula for success.

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