The sorry state of Houston radio in the year of our lord 2002 got even more desolate last Monday at noon. In the inestimable wisdom of parent company Infinity Broadcasting, 43-year-old country institution KIKK was put to the sword by the company's newest brainstorm: KHJZ, Smooth Jazz 95.7 The Wave. What used to be KIKK now churns out pure pap for non-people from the likes of George Benson, Spyro Gyra and the Crappingtons.
Back in the 1980s, KIKK was the top-rated overall station in Houston and the unofficial flagship country station for the entire nation, much as Los Angeles's KROQ has long been for rock. The call letters were more than just a means for station identification -- they signified the dominant lifestyle of Anglo Houston. KIKKers drove their KIKK-up trucks to the honky-tonk. There were KIKK clothes, KIKK marriages and KIKK divorces. KIKK was Gilley's, the Luv Ya Blue era and the Urban Cowboy movement.
How the mighty have fallen. The latest ratings had KIKK ranked 20th, sandwiched between KPRC and KSEV -- Houston's dueling rabid-right talk/rant stations. And now it's gone, replaced by the sugary effluent of smooth jazz. It's almost as bad as J.R. Richard living under a bridge, Kiddie Wonderland being bulldozed to make way for an Eckerd, or the Oilers leaving town. Oh, wait, those things happened too
KIKK suffered a mortal wound back in 1993 when Westinghouse bought the station, and it's been bleeding out ever since. KIKK was second in the ratings in the early '90s, playing the neo-traditionalist country of Dwight Yoakam, George Strait and Randy Travis. But the new owners had a cunning plan to keep it at the top of the heap: Fire all the DJs everybody loved and bring in the line-dance-crazed Young Country of such hunky nonentities as Neal McCoy, Bryan White, Little Texas and Sawyer Brown.
When that pseudo-movement fizzled, KIKK flipped to a Texas country format. While the station's recent "Houston's Country Alternative" and "Sounds Like Texas" playlists were never all they were cracked up to be, the station was one of the only places on the dial where you could find anything outside the dreary corporate norm. While most recently that was only a little Jack Ingram and Robert Earl Keen at best -- and Cory Morrow and Pat Green ad nauseam at worst -- it was still something.
No more. The Wave will be taking no chances in its bid to bring waiting room/porno soundtrack music to the masses. The press release tells us that the formula for the station has been tried and tested in markets like Dallas, Los Angeles and Detroit. Surely Houston will be just as susceptible as those cities to the siren song of Kenny G.'s tooting sax.
The news release also hints at another reason for the switch: "format overlaps." In other words, there were simply too many country stations in Houston. KIKK was getting hammered in the ratings by its Infinity sister station KILT-FM and its Cox Communications competitor 93Q Country. Until the January putsch of general manager Garland Ganter, even KPFT, a noncommercial station that doesn't report its ratings, was probably giving KIKK a run for its money.
One former KIKK listener who agrees with the format overlap view is Joe Parsons, a.k.a. The River Oaks Redneck. The retired, grandly mustachioed Parsons, a fixture at Blanco's and on the statewide honky-tonk circuit, sends out a weekly e-mail newsletter about "O.K.O.M.," which is his acronym for "Our Kind of Music," by which he means Texas (and Oklahoma) country.
"Well, I expected it to go," he says, citing the fact that former program director Darren Davis had recently moved on to Detroit and some of the KIKK jocks were known to have been in résumé update mode the last few weeks. "And it deserved to go, quite frankly," Parsons adds. "I can't see how Infinity was so stupid as to have two of their stations competing with each other in a market that has been dwindling for years. And of course, it's been dwindling because of the quality of the music." Parsons hopes that KIKK's void will be filled by a real Texas country/bluegrass/Americana station.
Cactus Records general manager Quinn Bishop doesn't believe there were too many country stations, but he does agree with Parsons about the quality of the music. "The answer is not changing to a new format," he says. "It's the music they're playing within their format. There's nothing creative happening ever with most stations. I'm sorry, but if you're a Clear Channel or Infinity station, odds are you're not doing anything too creative."
People like Davis will tell you that KIKK tried the vision thing. Last year the station flipped from the dreadful Young Country format to Houston's Country Alternative, a flawed but promising blend of Texas country, classic rock and Nashville schlock. The ratings took off like a bottle rocket and fell back to earth just as fast. Since KIKK was never really the Texas country station it purported to be, it's hard to say now if its doom was sealed by introducing Billy Joe Shaver and Charlie Robison in the mix, or the fact that they would sprinkle Shania Twain, Tim McGraw and CSN's "Love the One You're With" in between. (The station's waning Sounds Like Texas months found it playing much less Texas music, but still more than the competition.)
"My whole scream about this thing from the very beginning has been either dive in and do it whole hog or do nothing," says Parsons. "And of course what they did was sort of dip their toe in and play just a little bit of this Texas country music, and it just didn't work. People need to get accustomed to the music, and they have been accustomed to the stuff that Nashville puts out. They weren't giving enough of the Texas country music for people to get accustomed to it, and now they're gone. And they deserve it, because they didn't do their jobs right. I told them right from the start that they would have to go 75 percent Texas and 25 percent Nashville, and they didn't."
Local country singer-songwriter Greg Wood doesn't think it would have worked even if Parsons's scream had been heard. He simply doesn't think Houston can support three full-time country stations anymore. "Houston isn't the same place it was 25 years ago," he says. "It's gentrified. In a bad way."
And indeed, Infinity's Houston-area vice president/general manager Laura Morris would seem to agree. "Houston is a diverse and very sophisticated town, and people are here from all over -- not just from the United States but also from around the world, and this station definitely speaks to that," she told Racket. And she's right. Smooth jazz does have mass appeal -- to people who don't really like music. As for sophistication, a truly cosmopolitan city, especially one in Texas, should be able to support the adventurous country station that KIKK never quite became and a real jazz station like KTSU. But the existence of a smooth jazz station does not enter into the sophistication equation. Most Kenny G. listeners of Racket's acquaintance are about as sophisticated as Boomhauer on King of the Hill. (One can just imagine the fast-talking ladies' man in his Mustang, tuning in The Wave for that special date.)
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For Wood, the death of KIKK marks the end of an era. Even the station's billboards had a profound effect on him as a child. "I remember when I moved here from Kentucky and used to see those orange billboards with the boots," says Wood. "Those things proved to me that I was in another world. There was just something that was so redneck about that logo and those letters, and it's always stuck with me."
One is hard-pressed to imagine another wide-eyed newcomer being as impressed by a billboard for The Wave. It'll be just another piece of junk along the highway. Come to think of it, that's truth in advertising.
Veteran local scenester and sound man Phil Davis was leaving Walter's on Washington three weeks ago on his motorcycle when he was knocked over by a hit-and-run driver in an SUV. His leg had to be amputated, but even that couldn't save his life. After two weeks in intensive care, Davis passed away on November 3. (The driver of the SUV remains at large.) The November 16 Cosmos benefit that had been planned to help defray his medical expenses will go on as scheduled. Davis's old employers the Romeo Dogs lead the music lineup, and there will also be a silent auction. Items up for bid include a leather bike jacket from Thunderbird's, a $300 Evans Music gift certificate, works of art by Sharon Kopriva, Ed Wilson and other local artists, and the legendary square toilet seat from the Cosmos restroom, among many other treasures. Proceeds benefit Davis's survivors Mud. It's all around us lately, and you can't beat it. Resistance is futile. You can only join it. One way to become one with the stuff is to round up a team of six friends and play oozeball: coed volleyball in the mire. November 17 may be Sunday on the calendar, but out at the Harris County Fairgrounds (Houston Farm and Ranch Club, Highway 6 at I-10 West) it'll be just another Manic Mud-day as a bunch of sponsors and a select list of superior Houston bands converge in the muck to benefit the Houston Fire Department. Simpleton, the Hunger, Faceplant, Arthur Yoria, Overshot, Ethyl, the Custodians, Shawn Pander and Paris Green head the all-star lineup of up-and-coming bands that will serenade the swamp. The event will take place rain or shine, of course.