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."
So how does a new track like the Black Keys single go into heavy rotation?
"I have a weekly conference call with the other program directors basically just to talk about new music. That's how we decided to add Mayer Hawthorne, who I'd never heard of. That came from another program director who heard it, liked it and thought it fit the format," says Robison. "Those weekly calls where we throw all our new stuff on the table are something I always look forward to. I like hearing what's new and exciting people in other markets."
Recently, 103.7 competitor 94.5 The Buzz, which took Best Radio Station honors in this year's Houston Press Music Awards, has been getting props for playing local rock bands like thelastplaceyoulook. Robison admits he can't do much to program local music.
"First, I can only consider stuff that fits our format profile," he explains. "And secondly, sometimes locally produced stuff just doesn't have high enough production quality. But that's why we want Donna, who is very tuned in to local music, to plug those bands on her blog. Local bands need help building a live fan base, and that's something we can support them on."
Asked to define the station's target demographic, Robison chuckles.
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"Obviously we want all the 25-to-49 age group we can pull, but I'll take anyone. Our audience is active and well-educated, pretty socially conscious and decidedly green. What's a pleasant surprise right now is how many women seem to be finding us."
One middle-aged female fan explained her attraction to the station to Houston Press thusly: "I think it's for people like me who want to hear some of the old stuff but not be stuck in the '60s, '70s and '80s, because that's really sort of depressing if the radio is on an oldies station all the time. And some older people want to hang onto being in tune with the newer stuff like they're still sort of young and hip, but they don't like the screaming stuff. That's why I listen."
McKenzie, who says that after all her years in radio "I still have a fire for radio in my belly," finds comfort in the fact that many of the calls and e-mails to her are from the younger end of the demographic.
"Kids don't trust that we grownups actually buy tickets, buy albums and pay attention. So when I get a call from someone young saying they're surprised I'm spinning the new Black Keys, it totally makes my day."