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Commercial Break

103.7 is winning fans with its "adult alternative" format.

For the past decade, working in commercial radio has been similar to being an attorney or a banker when it comes to job respect from the public. Music snobs categorically rule out commercial radio as a vast corporate conspiracy controlled by evil people in pinstriped suits. These people are out to end all freedom of choice by limiting playlists to, at most, their top 40 songs, which spin over and over.

So were we ever surprised to learn that some colleagues at Houston Press stream Cumulus station 103.7 during their workdays. Say what?

Presenting itself as an "adult alternative" format, KHJK 103.7 is one of the most interesting mixes on the dial, ranging from modern rock hits — R.E.M., U2, Barenaked Ladies, Tom Petty — to a few classic rock nuggets, to the new Black Keys and Snow Patrol. And every once in a while, they slip in critics' darlings like Lucinda Williams, Mumford and Sons, Shawn Mullins, the Avett Brothers, even an occasional rare nugget such as Elvis Costello doing a live version of "Peace, Love, and Understanding."

Afternoon disc jockey Donna Mc­Kenzie has worked in Houston radio for more than 20 years, mostly in rock and classic rock stations. She bubbles with enthusiasm about her current gig.

"There's a bit of a stigma attached to working in commercial, mainstream corporate radio versus public stations like KPFT, but this is the best I've ever felt in my career," she says. "I really can't wait for my show to begin every afternoon. This station and format would've been unthinkable not that long ago. This is like a dream job."

Asked to define her ­audience, ­McKenzie goes on the offensive.

"Who's listening to radio? Well, who does radio serve? It serves the person at the end of the dial, and I see my role as being a servant. Listeners are coming to us for something they want, or else they'd be listening to CDs or satellite radio. And I think what brings them to us in particular is the musical blending. And we're constantly re-blending it for an audience that isn't dead yet, that doesn't want to hear 'Louie, Louie' or 'Stairway to Heaven' ever again, an audience that is still interested in finding new music blended with something familiar but not fossilized."

Counter to the perception of a huge, oppressive corporate hand on the controls, McKenzie claims she has quite a bit of flexibility and choice.

"Sure, we have a playlist, but I can take a request if it fits," she says. "I can pull something from our archive and slip it in the rotation if I've got a good angle. It's not like they have me chained to a chair, and all I do is read commercials."

Indeed, on one recent show McKenzie ad-libbed at length about an explosive, much-discussed blog post by Elvis Costello in which he told fans not to buy his expensive new album but rather spend the money on the new Louis Armstrong box set.

"Another part of this job I love, that I can sit here with the Internet and pull items that are timely and interesting and that fit some pertinent commentary into the music stream I'm programming that day," she explains. "It may be corporate radio, but it's not scripted as much as the public probably suspects."

McKenzie is also enthusiastic about her second assignment at 103.7, promoting local music and venues via the station's Web site, where in a recent blog she touted a house concert in Pasadena and some small club shows.

"Steve [Robison, program director] gives me a platform to support local music, and that is one of my passions," she says. "I love my little piece of Internet real estate. And they leave me completely to my own devices with my page, so I can do a plug for someone like David Olney. We'd never play him on the station, but we are aware and supportive of lots of music we can't program here."

McKenzie, who solemnly notes she's never owned a record by Lynyrd Skynyrd or Kenny G but respects them as artists, describes herself as a freelancer who makes only part of her income working at 103.7. Outside the station, she does commercials, voice-overs and tour support, and counts Elvis Costello and Stevie Wonder as clients. She notes that being freelance gives her much more personal latitude than back in the day when station jocks were expected to be doing public appearances constantly, at events that supported a station's format.

"I do some personal appearances for the station," she explains, "but most nights my time is my own, so I can go see Beans Barton or Shinyribs or something at Anderson Fair. It's not mandatory that I be at Red Hot Chili Peppers.

McKenzie's program director at 103.7, Robison, another 20-plus-year veteran of Houston radio wars and one of the creators of The Buzz format, is another enthusiastic cheerleader for the station. Asked to explain "adult alternative," Robison quickly spells it out.

"It starts from a mix of stuff people my age [mid-forties] grew up on, so it doesn't go back much beyond the late '80s. We also look for deep tracks, we don't just regurgitate hits. And we're flexible enough to program new stuff into the mix when something really grabs us. And our audience not only wants new stuff, they actually count on us to be a filter and a discoverer of what's new."

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15 comments
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Righteously apathetic
Righteously apathetic

I just don't understand how people can listen to the same white bread pop music drivel for their entire life and pretend like they are open minded. If a pop radio station accidentally plays a song that is relevant to the time which we are living, I still refuse to listen to that station. On the basis that I would be supporting their arbitrary Arbitron ratings. At this point in music history we have pretty much exhausted the modern rock format(guitar,bass,drums). It is pointless to categorize music into genres and sub-genres anymore, especially for the sake of a guaranteed consumer base. It all sounds the same. I don't know anybody that doesn't like Tupac as much as they like Johnny Cash. Radio station owners only seek the almighty dollar. That's the conspiracy. Money makes the world go round. If you can guarantee that somebody will hear one of the thousands of pop songs on the market that made them feel special when they sixteen, then you can easily cash in on that base. Personally and anonymously, I miss KTRU. I would rather listening to cat's meowing than mattress mac yelling in my ear about back order slips. Furthermore, the part about local music not being produced as well as "professionals" is a line of B.S. It is basically saying that common people are not as good as the ones who have cashed in on the worlds necessity for music and made a profit. If you ever hear a good artist on a pop station, it is probably because they are either 15 years dead, irrelevant, or pushed by media hype.

Stacey
Stacey

@block .........my classmate's mom makes $79/hr on the internet. She has been without a job for 8 months but last month her paycheck was $7695 just working on the internet for a few hours. Here's the site to read more LazyCash4. com

Block Websites
Block Websites

Nice interest, and thanks for sharing your experience.......

Rayco
Rayco

ACCIDENTLY FOUND THIS STATION & FIND MYSELF LISTENING TO IT MORE. I'VE ALWAYS BEEN A FAN OF DONNA'S . HAVING MET HER ON A FEW OCCASSIONS. ANYTHING SHE'S ASSOCIATED WITH I WILL CHECK OUT. GREAT TO HEAR HER VOICE BACK ON THE AIRWAVES. AS LONG AS SHE'S TALKING I'LL BE TUNING IN. GOT SUPPORT MY FACEBOOK FRIEND.

Thomas Beard
Thomas Beard

I do like the station, but I readily admit that Donna is my main reason for listening! Donna has been a tireless promoter of local music for many years... I hope she is on the air for many more!

Realitycheck
Realitycheck

It's like the worst Arbitron rated station in all of Houston on the FM dial, look it up.

wms
wms

Realityc: I guess my question is 'so what'? KPFT only has about 17K listeners at its peak hours, but that doesn't make it bad radio.

Samuel Ramirez
Samuel Ramirez

I like it. I hear a lot of stuff I haven't heard before. I don't care about how it's rated, if it sounds good, that's all I care about

Kyle King
Kyle King

Where Donna Mac is concerned, it is a shame that radio is not a visual medium. Beyond that, she has been an integral part of Houston radio for decades...and hopefully decades to come unless she finds something even more rewarding! I am a huge fan...

GlenW
GlenW

So, how is 103.7 really different from "the Buzz" (which I hate).

wms
wms

GlenW: Like the lady says near the bottom of the article, "less screaming." and none of the Buzz's lowclass sex talk and bad jokes. the Buzz is for children to my ears. My son listens to it. I asked him if he liked the music. "Only some of it. I listen for all the stupid shit." And that's basically the same thing the people in our office who listen to 103 said.

skepticarpenter
skepticarpenter

"Verses public stations..KPFT.." , DJ kudos for mentioning your station as a parallel to public terrestrial ! I have not listened to commercial terrestrial here in like 10 years! seriously- addicted to Sirius, Pandora, and my own playlist. Maybe if this model of format goes nationwide I'd tune in. Been a long way since KAMU, KANM! - signed - youknowwho! :D

Helen
Helen

I listen to 103.7 on the way to work quite often. I'm on the younger end of Gen X. I like the music mix, though they certainly do get stuck in some playlist ruts. The main reason I listen in the morning (other than the music) is because there are no morning crew hijinks. I stopped listening to the Buzz a few years ago because the Rod Ryan show had turned into a radio version of Girls Gone Wild. Raunchy humor is one thing, but it just became gross and exploitative. I'm not sure 104.1 or 96.5 actually play music in the mornings. I listened to classic country for a while to escape inane chatter and still listen to music and get traffic reports (had what was quite possibly the worst commute in the city of Houston at the time).

At any rate, 103.7... more songs in the rotation, more new music and music I've never heard before would be great. If the production isn't all there on local music but you want to play/promote it, maybe have a whole show dedicated to just that at an odd hour. Do something like Lost and Found, but local. Don't be so afraid to go 'off format'. I think listeners would be a little more tolerant if it is a local act and they are good. You can't play Sublime then Adele then David Bowie then the Black Keys and talk about something being 'off format'. Take a risk. Radio is dying. Make it worth listenting to again. I'm the one of the very few people I know who still listens to radio with any regularity.

Guestlove
Guestlove

It's my #1 whenever i want to listen to the radio (which is to say, rarely), but i still wish they'd ease up on the retro-90s junk. Stone Temple Pilots was not that great the *first* time around. Free up some airspace for more format-appropriate current artists, like LCD, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, The National, etc., who are not exactly unknowns.

 
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