Mix Master

Who do we have to thank for Rod Stewart every hour on the hour? This guy, Guy Zapoleon.

"A lot sounds the same," said Channel 2 reporter/anchor Susan Lennon, who was part of The Mix's original morning team, Larry and Susan. "You're really not getting any variety."

General manager Clancy Woods knew who he wanted to program his new station in Houston. He wanted the "best": Guy Zapoleon.
Kasey McKee
General manager Clancy Woods knew who he wanted to program his new station in Houston. He wanted the "best": Guy Zapoleon.
Joe Pogge was part of the original KHMX team that put the Mix format on the map.
Amy Spangler
Joe Pogge was part of the original KHMX team that put the Mix format on the map.

So if listeners weren't getting any variety, why did The Mix become so popular? To be blunt: It's exactly what the people wanted. Something warm, something familiar, something to remind them of less-stressful times.

Zapoleon knew it's what the people wanted, because he asked them -- repeatedly. His method was a matter of survival as much as innovative programming. Nationwide, after all, had purchased KNRJ for $29 million in the fall of 1989, and some industry analysts were wondering aloud whether this underperforming spot on the dial, a mere two-market share and billings that totaled in the low single-digit millions annually, was worth that kind of investment. Besides, if a radio powerhouse like Emmis couldn't make it work in Houston, how could Nationwide, a company that owned only 15 stations at the time?

To shoulder the heavy responsibility of turning its newly acquired Houston property around, Nationwide turned to Clancy Woods, who at the time was its general manager. Woods, based in Tucson, Arizona, just a short drive from Zapoleon, barely had time to celebrate his new post when he received a phone call from Nationwide owner Mickey Franko, who wanted to know whom Woods was going to select to program the music. Woods had a notion: He wanted to add to Guy Zapoleon's responsibilities as national programming director and give him a single station to build. But Franko balked; Zapoleon was too valuable, the owner said, to waste his talents on one station, no matter how important it was to the chain.

"And I said, 'Mickey, this station means a lot to you, right?' " recalled Woods. "He said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'You want this station in Houston to work, too, don't you?' He said, 'Yes.' Well I said, 'Wouldn't it make sense to have your best guy working on it?' "

Franko relented, but Woods still had one other man to convince: Guy Zapoleon. Even though the programmer was dissatisfied with his national position ("I didn't enjoy the big-company politics"), Zapoleon wouldn't commit to Houston. So Woods worked an angle that he thought might succeed: He tried to convince Zapoleon that if he could build a Houston station from scratch, he would be just that far from becoming an independent radio consultant, a job Zapoleon coveted.

The bulk of Nationwide's employees didn't actually move into the station on Post Oak Boulevard until April, four months after the purchase had been announced publicly. Zapoleon had assembled a research team, which comprised full-timers and consultants, including operations manager Jeff Scott, sales manager Ellen Cavanagh, media buyer Doug McCall, TV producer Steve Stockman and promotions director Joe Pogge. These people were going to determine exactly what this new station should sound like, and maybe even smell like.

The timetable for the new Nationwide station in Houston had already been thrown out the window; it was supposed to launch in April, but Nationwide wisely decided that time would be its ally here, not its enemy. So the company took as much of it as it needed.

To buy time, however, Nationwide had to figure out what to do with the former NRJ. The company came up with a brilliant plan. From April to July, 1990, the station, with no identifying call letters, no promotions, no giveaways, no personality except for the slogan "no kids, no rap, no crap," played nothing but grunge. Almost around the clock. It was Zapoleon's idea. And it came from his intuition. Not from research.

"And that's the genius of Zapper," said promo director Pogge. "He set up a fake radio station for months, and it sank in. It could've stayed on and gone big-time."

The extra time allowed Zapoleon to do what he did best: research. His first trick was to create his own personal "music chart," which would soon become an industry standard. His chart, which he carried mostly in his head until he decided to start writing it down several years later, was simply a makeshift graph on which he would plot all of a given market's radio stations.

The chart consisted of a plus sign, with the four major types of popular music represented by each line that radiated from the center, sort of like directions on a compass. To the north was alternative. To the west was R&B. To the east, rock. And to the south, adult contemporary. A circle in the middle represented all of pop. In theory, if five or six radio stations could be located around, say, R&B, a programmer would know opportunities existed in the three other types of music. It took Zapoleon only a few more listens to Houston radio to know exactly where his hole was.

"There was a pop-rock hole in my mind," Zapoleon recalled.

Before he could move ahead with his theoretical format, Zapoleon had to test it. He hired researchers to call 700 people, 18 to 54 years old, play music for them, ask them their reactions and record their responses. Unfortunately those results proved unsatisfying to Zapoleon, so he brought in John Perikhal of Stamford, Connecticut-based Joint Communications, to conduct a more specific perceptual study. Perikhal's researchers phoned about the same number of households, played prerecorded snippets of songs to the same age group and wrote down listeners' reactions. But unlike in the first study, researchers played sound bites of a wider variety of music: jazz, rock, rap, New Age, country, whatever. "Image" questions were also asked.

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