A KIKK in the Pants

For the fourth year running, Robert Earl Keen brings his Texas Uprising to The Woodlands on Memorial Day weekend. And as always, the bill comprises the handsome young swains on the Texas alt-country/folk scene, including Keen, Charlie Robison, Jack Ingram, Cory Morrow, Slaid Cleaves and Beaver Nelson. But this year there's a new belle on their dance cards where an old standby had always been. KIKK has unceremoniously cut in on KPFT's waltz. So much for dancin' with the one who brung you.

KIKK's recent format adjustment -- from Young Country to Houston's Country Alternative -- and its "infinite" resources (KIKK is owned by Infinity Broadcasting, which in turn is owned by Viacom) have scotched several of the embattled Pacifica station's higher-profile sponsorships. The battle for listeners has just begun, as tiny listener-sponsored KPFT (see "Tuning Out the Static," by Lauren Kern, April 5) struggles with a deep-pocketed new rival.

Ah, there's the rub. While KPFT is literally "listener-sponsored," there are times when the station seems more content to take listener money and use it to act like a commercial radio station. KPFT may be The Sound of Texas, but since when did Texas harbor Sting or Peter Gabriel? Why is it that KPFT never sounds more Texan than during pledge drives? Why is it that on any given weekday the once-eclectic Pacifica station often sounds as programmed as many commercial stations?

The streamlining is acknowledged quite frankly by KPFT's Lonestar Jukebox host Rick Heysquierdo. "There's no doubt that Monday to Friday KPFT is scripted," he says. "There's no doubt that [playlists] are coming from the record labels. KPFT will tell you, 'We need to be more predictable. That's how we gain a larger audience.' But it's lost an edge."

KIKK, on the other hand, has listeners in utter wonderment, if not wonder. Segueing from Houston Marchman to Bonnie Raitt to Tim McGraw to Rodney Crowell is not what listeners expect from a corporate behemoth. If there is seemingly no rhyme or reason to KIKK's playlist these days, that's because the usual corporate agenda isn't at work. By being extremely open to requests, by seeing what sells in Houston record stores, by ignoring orders from the playlist factory in Secaucus, New Jersey, KIKK is trying something new under the sun.

Heysquierdo sees this approach as merely "throwing stuff against the wall." Cactus Records general manager Quinn Bishop sees a far more revolutionary idea at work. He says: "KIKK is really listening to their listeners. I think this is the first time that a major-market commercial station reflects what their audience is buying."

Perhaps there was a day when commercial radio played what people wanted to hear, but those days are long gone. Until KIKK, says Bishop. Usually, it's "like a push economy, where they're just ramming it down," he says. "Instead, KIKK is saying, 'This is what people like, so this is what we're gonna play.' "

For KIKK program director Darren Davis, the altered format is a natural. "We own both KIKK and KILT," he says. "And it makes sense to have them clearly differentiated both for the listeners and the clients.

"KILT has been the No. 1 country station here in Houston for ten years playing the mainstream Nashville stuff. We needed to find a different niche for KIKK, and this Texas thing is turning into more than a niche. The station's ratings are higher than they have been in at least eight years."

"KIKK is playing all the barroom honky-tonkin' things that will be embraced by a male audience," says Bishop. "KILT's playing all the Alan Jackson/George Strait things that women are gonna dig. You know Pat Green, without putting a negative spin on it, it's a frat-boy, Dockers, Ropers thing. That's who KIKK is catering to, and it's working. KPFT seems almost ashamed of the name 'country,' while KIKK is embracing the term."

Still, Bishop doesn't see KIKK poaching too many of KPFT's listeners. Instead, he thinks that KIKK is drawing disaffected young good ol' boys away from the talk, sports talk and classic rock formats.

Musically, there isn't as much common ground between KIKK and KPFT as one might first think. Only what Bishop refers to as the "flagship, vanguard" Texas artists are at stake, and even among those each station can and does choose different material. KIKK won't play Guy Clark or Billy Joe Shaver much, if at all, while KPFT wouldn't touch Pat Green or Cory Morrow.

"I don't see KIKK as competition," says Heysquierdo of his listenership, if not sponsors. "If there's one lawyer in a town, he's gonna go broke. If there's two, they are both gonna make money head over heels."

But how deep is KIKK's commitment? Love or hate today's KPFT -- and there are plenty on both sides of that divide -- the station has three decades of commitment to Texas artists. KIKK wasn't playing Lucinda Williams when she was backed by the Hemmer Ridge Mountain Boys. Furthermore, KPFT's DJs seem much more knowledgeable about these artists than those on KIKK. One doesn't get the feeling that KIKK's Dave E. Crockett has ever sipped whiskey with Guy Clark. "I'm always here if any of their DJs need any help talking about their artists," Heysquierdo chuckles.

And perhaps Bishop is giving KIKK a little too much credit. First and foremost, this is a business decision. Davis is not on any mission other than to win listeners. If Alvin and the Chipmunks were drawing thousands of young beer-drinking Dockers-clad dudes to concerts without any radio play whatsoever, a wise programmer would start cranking up the furry little squeakers on his playlists.

But then Davis says, almost as an afterthought, that "it really is just good music." Maybe he is a believer after all. He has certainly put his ass on the line. "Corporate has allowed us to do this, but they'll only let it go so far. Since it's very untraditional, we can't market it traditionally. We can't run a TV spot that says [assumes radio DJ voice], 'If you're tired of hearing this, now there's this.' A lot of it is just gonna have to be word of mouth. We don't want to do the homogenized, sanitized, corporate radio thing, and now it's up to the fans to see if we can keep it up. This is commercial radio's version of PBS's plea for help. Help us help you."

As much as Racket would like to take Davis's mock-folksy corporate appeal and crush it like a grape, we cannot yet see KIKK as cynically as is our wont. The station is exposing local artists to new fans. It is shattering the mold of commercial country radio and bringing a down-home sense to an industry that has tried to homogenize its listenership simply because doing so would make their jobs easier. KIKK has awoken KPFT, a listener-sponsored station that has slowly but surely grown almost as complacent as some Young Country station in Birmingham. All of these are good things, and Racket would love nothing more than to see them continue. But something tells us that this may be too good to be true.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax