Played Out

By all appearances, KRBE/104.1 FM is a station thoroughly immersed in a keen sense of its own well-being. An aggressively sunny, self-satisfied vibe greets visitors to the Top 40 giant's offices near Westheimer and Gessner. Up there on the seventh floor, the waiting area could be mistaken for an oversized KRBE merchandise booth: The station's sharp purple-and-green logo adorns everything from babies' bibs to T-shirts to those omnipresent foam coozies. There's even a KRBE motorcycle helmet, though it doesn't appear to be for sale.

Such logo-emblazoned gimcracks are only the beginning of KRBE's campaign for the hearts and ears of Houston. The station also showers its carefully targeted audience with well-orchestrated special events, free concert tickets and cash giveaways. The message is hard to miss: Loyalty to KRBE equals free stuff -- membership privileges, if you will.

The waiting room's radio, of course, is tuned to KRBE, and the music fits perfectly with its surroundings. Inoffensive, bright and not all that memorable, the carefully packaged pop is just another of KRBE's freebies.

The formula works. KRBE's 6.3 showing in the latest Arbitron survey places it among the top three stations in Houston, just below urban music kingpin KBXX/97.9 FM (6.8) and nostalgic Adult Contemporary giant KODA/99.1 FM (7.1). In terms of influence, the Arbitrons are equivalent to television's Nielsen ratings. Stay above a 4 percent listener share, and you're in fine shape; sink below 3 percent, and there's cause to worry. Score higher than 6 percent, and it's time to break out the champagne.

"I like to win in the Arbitrons," KRBE music director Jay Michaels says simply. "We basically just give the listeners what they want." Affable and clean-cut, Michaels was imported from Dallas back in 1996, when KRBE switched from a hit-driven alternative format (which had generated decent ratings) to Contemporary Hits Radio/Pop, as Arbitron calls the Top 40 category. In many ways, Michaels represents the kind of listener KRBE has corralled in droves: well-groomed, 18 to 34 years of age, reasonably successful; a casual, not particularly adventurous music fan drawn to the most middling elements of a variety of styles.

He isn't female, of course, but a nice chunk of KRBE's listeners are. Though the airtight play list appeals to men, women are especially enamored of the station's mixture of rhythm-oriented R&B, shock-proof modern rock, drippy, big-production ballads and light rap and hip-hop. "We don't want anything too edgy," Michaels says.

Sitting in an office surrounded by row upon row of CDs from every label imaginable -- most by artists (Pearl Jam, Jen Trynin) he'll never play on the air -- Michaels illustrates KRBE's "wait and see" tactics. He explains that the station generally holds tight until a riskier tune like, say, Smash Mouth's ska-inflected "Walkin' on the Sun" is at saturation level nationally before adding it to the KRBE rotation. If a single has been out for a while, and listeners have heard it elsewhere, Michaels says, "it doesn't sound as edgy." Then, and only then, would KRBE play the song.

Familiarity only seems to breed listener appeal: The station considers repetition a good thing, and hits are played up to nine times a day. That doesn't leave room for many songs. If a typical week's new-music rotation is any indication, KRBE is more Top 25 than Top 40. And for that, the station makes no apologies.

Says Michaels, "We're not playing Celine Dion 68 times a week just because we want to hear it again."

To see for yourself just how stagnant the commercial airwaves have become of late, simply scan the local dial half an hour or so -- heck, even for 15 minutes, which is generally all a station like KRBE expects of its listeners in one sitting. Or to gain a broader perspective, drive cross-country and try to discern any earthshaking differences from big city to big city. Chances are, you'll hear pretty much the same routine in Boston as you will in Houston. Now, more than ever, stations look to success in other markets as the basis for selecting their own play lists.

Out-of-town ownership also helps homogenize the nation's airwaves. Consider this: 29 of the 49 frequencies in Houston proper belong to out-of-town outfits; and out-of-towners own every one of the city's top ten stations. Such scenarios are standard in large metro areas. And as you might expect, pressure to keep the bean-counters at headquarters happy has created a glib franchise mentality around the industry. Boston Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy calls the phenomenon a "malling of the airwaves."

Blame the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The law loosened restrictions on station ownership. Before, a single company could own up to four stations in a given market; under the new law, the number rose to eight. Before, a company could own no more than a total of 40 stations; under the new law, there's no limit at all.

Across America, the repercussions have been breathtaking. BIA, a radio research firm, reports that roughly 4,400 of the country's 10,000 commercial radio stations have changed hands. The total price tag: a whopping $33 billion.

In Houston, the biggest fish in the pond -- Irving-based Chancellor Media -- owns five FM and three AM frequencies. In second and third place rank San Antonio's Clear Channel Communications (three FMs, three AMs) and New York multimedia behemoth CBS (two FMs, three AMs). Yapping at their heels is Los Angeles-based Hispanic radio group Heftel, which has snatched up eight local stations (five FMs, two AMs) but isn't in quite the same revenue-generating league as the three leaders.

Naturally, ownership changes have led to flux on the airwaves. An unexpected partnership was consummated between The Box (KBXX) and Magic 102 (KMJQ/102.1 FM), stations that had been fierce rivals in the local rap/R&B market; nowadays, like it or not, they cooperate under the Clear Channel umbrella. And in the last two years, KKPN/102.9 FM has morphed from Adult Standards to Modern Adult Contemporary, and now looks likely to switch to a Latino format when its planned sale from Chancellor to Heftel is made final in June.

Meanwhile, the Buzz (KTBZ/107.5 FM), which has seen several ownership changes in the last few years, has just been acquired by Kentucky-based Yber-broadcaster Jacor Communications. The number three radio group in America (after CBS and Chancellor), Jacor also got KHMX/96.5 FM as part of the deal.

The standard company line is that consolidation is good for radio, and that even more diversity on the airwaves will be the result. Chancellor, for example, will want to make sure every one of its eight stations in Houston differs from the others so that each can reach its own carefully screened listenership. But in practice, consolidation doesn't necessarily ensure more variety -- let alone a shred of homegrown personality. The future looks decidedly generic.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in Houston's coveted a.m. drive-time slot. Really, what is KRBE morning DJ Sam Malone but a PG-rated version of the syndicated Greaseman? Then there's Malone sidekick Maria Todd, whose voice bears an all-too-striking resemblance to that of the Howard Stern Show's Robin Quivers. Longtime KLOL fixtures Stevens and Pruett aren't getting any younger, and KKPN recently hired a team from Fresno, California.

Certainly, consolidation has been good for corporate bottom lines. Since the Telecommunications Act, radio advertising booty has mushroomed. Stations sold roughly $14 billion in ads in 1997, up more than 40 percent over the previous four years. Nowadays, to place an ad, a national media buyer need no longer plod deal-by-deal, station-by-station; instead, the process is as easy as making a phone call to corporate.

Advertisers love something called the "cluster group" -- listeners who fit a narrow demographic profile. (Say, in an extreme case, female light-beer drinkers in Houston.) And naturally, stations compete to give advertisers just such an audience. Listeners are reduced to the basest sort of consumer statistic, their taste in music supposedly as predictable and soulless as their taste in soft drinks.

And damned if that bloodless approach doesn't bring in fat Arbitron numbers. "What consolidation has done is that it's allowed owners to go in and segment a marketplace," says Tony Novia, an editor for the radio industry trade journal Radio & Records. "It's good business sense. The downside is that there is enormous, enormous, enormous amounts of pressure to perform."

"Our company likes KRBE because we make money," says John Peake, the station's program director.

The sole Houston frequency owned by Susquehanna Radio Corporation, KRBE is something of an anomaly; in radio-speak, the station is a "stand-alone." And it's stayed that way by being remarkably adept at morphing with the trends. The station saw the dip in popularity of alternative rock and, in no time, made the decision to move in a safer direction.

Susquehanna, the tenth-largest radio conglomerate in the country, has held fast to KRBE since acquiring the station from Lake Huron Broadcasting in 1986. Like any corporate entity given to buying up stations like so much prime real estate, Susquehanna doesn't see its radio venture as a vanity enterprise. "We'd very much like the opportunity to expand [in Houston]," says Susquehanna president Dave Kennedy. "But we adopt a more conservative approach to consolidation than some others."

But "conservative," obviously, doesn't mean "noncompetitive" -- and no one plays better in a consolidated playing field than program director Peake. Back in April 1996, Peake came to KRBE from a Top 40 station in Denver. His first responsibility: to ease the alternative-leaning KRBE into its current CHR format. Certainly, Peake looks like the man for the job. Clean-cut and handsome, he resembles a loose cross between Tom Cruise and Party of Five's Bailey Salinger -- the kind of guy you'd expect to listen to pop music.

The metamorphosis at KRBE didn't happen overnight. In fact, Peake admits, the transformation was often glacially slow: "In the first few weeks, the one record that people noticed was Eric Clapton's 'Change the World,' which this station wouldn't even have considered playing before. That was a signal that there were more changes to come."

The Zeitgeist smiled. Top 40, Peake notes, was "starting to enjoy a rebirth" in '96. But KRBE owes its success to more than good luck. Peake, it turns out, is very good at his job: choosing which hits the station will repeat relentlessly.

Each week, Peake and his staff fashion a list of 25 or more "currents" (industry lingo for current hits) likely to appeal to listeners ages 18 to 34. Those tunes -- along with the occasional "recurrent" (an old reliable from the vaults) -- make up the airtight play list.

Among the resources at the station's disposal: Radio & Records, Billboard and other trade journals, as well as an on-line monitoring network called BDS (Broadcast Data Service) that allows Peake and music director Jay Michaels to access other stations' play lists from around the country.

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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