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Mix stations soon began sprouting up across the country and in Canada. One of the first to emulate KHMX's format was WRQX FM in Washington, D.C. Incidentally, the station's first programming director was Lorrin Palagi, who is now an associate of Zapoleon's independent radio consulting firm, Zapoleon Media Strategies in Houston. "It's interesting," said Palagi. "Guy had just put on The Mix in Houston in July, and a month later we go on."
Since pop music was on its deathbed, WRQX, like many Top 40 stations, had to decide whether to change its format or die. D.C.'s "Q-107" could've either gone ultra-poppy, reaching out to Top 40's bubblegum demographic, or it could have gone the other way, trying to appeal to that 25-and-older group.
It decided to go for the latter, specifically targeting women ages 25 to 40, and it worked. Before the format switch, WRQX had been in the red, according to president and general manager Jim Robinson, who was sales manager back then. "We could've lost about half a million in 1990," he said. But within two years of the changeover, the station had increased its billing by $14 million and had reached No. 1 in the Arbitron ratings for Washington, D.C. Today it's still competitive, scoring four shares on average in the country's ninth-largest market.
Other new converts to The Mix weren't as successful, some because they were outmaneuvered by more aggressive competitors. Even back in the early '90s, WZMX in Hartford, Connecticut, was the fourth "Hot AC" station in its market. As a result of that glut, the station stayed with the format for only about a year and a half before switching to classic oldies. It's now a "dancin' oldies" station. "It wasn't scientific," said David Simpson, WZMX music director, of the switch to Mix. "We tried to make it work. But we just cut our losses and moved on. We were following a wave of 'Hot AC.' It was the format of choice."
Nationwide sold KHMX as part of a 17-station deal to Jacor Communications in the summer of 1998 for $120 million. That's a profit of $91 million.
Jacor merged with giant Clear Channel later that same year, bringing to seven the number of Clear Channel-owned radio stations in the Houston-Galveston market. The company's ballooning presence in the market was a direct result of the passing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which loosened restrictions on station ownership. Companies could now own eight stations in one market, up from four, and an unlimited total number, up from 40.
Zapoleon worked at KHMX for two years before burnout set in. The busywork of running a station -- signing paychecks, interviewing new hires, going through mail -- made Zapoleon long for the old days, when all he had had to worry about was building a station from the logo up.
After winning Program Director of the Year from Billboard magazine in 1992, Zapoleon left KHMX. The station's immediate success was followed in the winter of 1990 by a sharp drop, of nearly two points. Everybody thought the station was, like some of the artists in its rotation, a one-hit wonder. But by the following spring, KHMX was near the top of the rankings again, where it would stay until the mid-'90s. At that time it found itself in direct competition with KRBE, which eventually knocked The Mix off its throne later in the decade. Zapoleon's standing was also uncertain. He had dropped his comfy $150,000-a-year job to start his business. He began with no clients.
"It was frightening," he said. "It was a reality check about how many people didn't know who I was. As a programming director, I had a good reputation, but business managers didn't know me."
With the help of Steve Perun, an Arista Records executive and former program director whom Zapoleon had known for years, as well as business manager Srini Iyengar, Zapoleon began working out of his home at Richmond and Voss with only a laptop, printer, phone and a PC for the secretary. The first client for Zapoleon Media Strategies was WEHM FM, Long Island. That was in December 1992.
Zapoleon currently works with approximately 30 different radio stations. Not all, contrary to what one might think, are Mixes. "We look at each market individually," he said. "If it looks like a Mix might work, then, yeah, that's what we do."
But before he can make that judgment, Zapper, the programmer practically synonymous with scientific research in a field devoted to that most abstract of art forms, must check his charts.
E-mail Anthony Mariani at email@example.com.