At some point during this evening's CMA awards in Nashville, one of the presenters will announce Houston's 93Q (92.9 FM) as the 2014 winner of the association's Radio Station of the Year-Major Market division. It's yet another piece of hefty hardware for the Cox Media Group-owned property, whose "Q Morning Zoo" show is also up for Outstanding Morning Show-Major Market for the team of Kevin Kline, Erica Rico and Tim Tuttle.
But that's not all. KKBQ is also coming away from this year's Marconi Radio Awards, given by the National Association of Broadcasters, with its second trophy in a row -- and in a much broader category this year. In 2013 the station won for Country Station of the Year, but this year graduated to Major Market Station of the Year, an honor that covers all formats. Within the industry, KKBQ is increasingly being recognized as a model of how to run a successful radio station.
"This has been an incredible year for KKBQ from a ratings standpoint, from a revenue standpoint, and from a recognition standpoint," says Mark Krieschen, Vice President and Market Manager for Cox's Houston stations, which also include classic-rock outpost The Eagle (106.9 FM) and Country Legends 97.1.
"I kind of look at it as the three R's," Krieschen adds. "The ratings have been great, the revenues have been great, and the recognition has been awesome for the station and our employees."
93Q is consistently one of the top-rated FM stations in the Houston-Galveston metro area, the sixth-largest media market in the U.S. According to the trade Web site Radio Online, last month KKBQ tied for third in the Nielsen Audio ratings with 97.9 The Box, finishing behind only perennial powerhouses Majic 102 and Sunny 99.1 and several spots ahead of its rival, KILT "The Bull" (100.3 FM), which barely grazed the Top 10.
According to the station, more than 1.3 million people listen to 93Q during an average week. This kind of success comes at a time when some people regard FM radio as passe, given the plethora of music-delivery options available to consumers, first with satellite radio and especially now that streaming services like Pandora and Spotify have also gained a foothold in the marketplace. But what makes KKBQ Krieschen argues, happens when the songs are over.
"You can hear this music anywhere," he says. "There are so many choices for the consumer to hear these songs. And I think the secret sauce is what you do between the records. I go back to how you engage with your audience."
The station does that, Krieschen explains, by emphasizing its on-air personalities' close ties to the community. The staff, he says, "Lives, works, goes to church, shops, has kids in school or kids in soccer" in the Houston area, making them voices listeners come to respect and trust the same way they would their other friends and neighbors.
"You can tell stories on the air," he continues. "And when we tell stories on the air about our talent, our audience can relate to that."
Krieschen says KKBQ has also been successful in reaching its listeners through social media, including its smartphone app. Since Cox hired a full-time employee to look after its local stations' Facebook pages and whatnot, Krieschen says 93Q especially has seen encouraging results.
"It used to be people would pick up the phone and get to our studio," he says. "Now you can reach our people on the air via Facebook and Twitter, [and] the open-mike feature on our Web site. So there are a lot more ways for us to have a relationship with our audience than there were before."
Krieschen sounds especially enthusiastic about the station's smartphone app.
"[It's] been a great tool for us to engage with our audience," he says. "It lets our people vote on songs that we play on the air; it lets the kids have direct access to our studio with our open-mike feature, where they can make a request right on their smartphone through our app and it goes right into our studio and we play it on the air."
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Still, one would think, listeners must tune in for more than just traffic updates and ticket giveaways, or to hear the DJs talk about their kids' feats on the soccer field. For a decade, the past few years at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 93Q has invited some of its top artists to perform its "A Day In the Country" outdoor festival, traditionally a sellout stoked by plenty of on-air and now online giveaways. Held in July, this year's lineup included Sheryl Crow, Rascal Flatts, Gloriana, Frankie Ballard and The Swon Brothers.
And during Kacey Musgraves' concert at Warehouse Live last month, the Texas-born Grammy winner thanked 93Q from the stage for being the first country station in the city to take a chance on her.
"Yes, 93Q was the first station in Houston, and one of the first in America, to play Kacey Musgraves' music," confirms KKBQ's Operations Manager, Johnny Chiang. "In fact, we've been the first in Houston to play every one of her singles. We like her! She represents the future of the Country format."
Besides The Band Perry, who Chiang says were "absolute unknowns," 93Q began playing "Hip to My Heart," his list of the station's early adoptees reads like a program for who viewers will see at tonight's CMAs, which begin at 7 p.m. on ABC: Taylor Swift (in her country days), Lady Antebellum, Florida Georgia Line, Justin Moore, Brothers Osborne, The Railers, and Charlie Worsham.
"Those are just the ones off the top of my head," Chiang adds.
Between a keen ear for which artists listeners want to hear and on-air staff they might invite over for a backyard barbecue, KKBQ seems to have pulled off the improbable - an old-media property in the so-called new media age that has not only survived but thrived by establishing a real, personal, lasting connection with fans.
"I believe they feel that 93Q is their friend," Krieschen says. "We are a bond. Radio is such a personable medium; and whether you're having a good day, bad day, whatever, our talent [is] in a great mood, very uplifting, and we want to get you through your day. And I think we are a station they can count on to get them through the day."
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