In a conference room at the Doubletree Hotel at Post Oak, Guy Zapoleon sat surrounded by radios. Shortwave. Multiband. Pocket transistors. Every inch of the room was either occupied by radios or swallowed up by the music pumping out of them. For two straight days, Zapoleon and an associate, Dave Robbins, tuned these instruments to every station on Houston's FM dial; they listened carefully to every format, every drive time, every playlist. They took copious notes; they compared their notes, and after 18 hours and two days of doing nothing but listening to Houston radio, both men looked up and stared at each other. They had reached an obvious conclusion.
"Hey," Zapoleon told Robbins, "nobody plays any Fleetwood Mac."
It was February 1990, and that Fleetwood Mac epiphany was just the beginning of the research Zapoleon would conduct. It was his first step in trying to find the "hole" in Houston's radio market, that programming space on the dial that, theoretically at least, would attract thousands of listeners and millions in advertising revenue.
A pair of talented radio programmers, Zapoleon and Robbins were the scout team for Nationwide Communications, a Columbus, Ohio-based company that had just four months earlier purchased KNRJ, 96.5 FM, from Emmis Broadcasting. The duo's mission was both simple and complex: Find out what the competition was playing -- and what it wasn't -- and design a format that would lure an audience demographic that was underserved and ready to spend.
Once they set up shop at the Doubletree, it didn't take the guys long to find their hole. In the spring of 1990, Houston's radio scene was dominated by country music: KIKK/ 95.7 FM was No. 2, and KILT/100.3 FM was No. 4. Atop the heap, according to radio industry data provider Arbitron, was the urban contemporary station (KMJQ/102.1 FM, with a 7.8 share of the market), followed by rock's KLOL/101.1 FM (No. 3), Top 40's KKBQ/92.9 FM (No. 5), news/ talk's KTRH/740 AM (No. 6), lite's KLTR and Top 40's KRBE/104.1 (tied for No. 7), easy-listening's KODA/99.1 FM (No. 9) and classic rock's KZFX/107.5 FM (No. 10).
Hovering at No. 14 with a two share was KNRJ/96.5 FM.
"Houston was 'all Xymox, all the time,' " recalled Zapoleon, alluding to the market's tendency to play unknown bands. "There was a wide hole for something mass appeal."
On July 20, 1990, less than six months after the war room plotting session at the Doubletree, Zapoleon rolled out a playlist and an on-air identity that few had ever heard before. Zapoleon, the guy known as Zapper, who had been named the radio programmer for Nationwide's new Houston station, didn't know it yet, but he was about to launch a radio revolution: mix radio, a well-rehearsed and low-stress mixture of hits from the '70s, '80s and '90s. His brainchild, KHMX/96.5 FM, The Mix, would soon become, along with alternative rock, one of the two most influential formats of the 1990s, inspiring hundreds of imitators across North America.
KHMX wasn't the first station in the country to launch a Mix format, just the first to make it successful. WWMX-FM in Baltimore and WOMX-FM in Orlando predate KHMX by a couple of months, but they were Mixes in spirit only, not in name, and they built their listenership slowly. Houston's station, however, was not only the first to give the Mix format a name (with its on-air slogans, bumper stickers, letterhead, everything), but also the first Mix station to attract major listener and industry attention. The Mix made Mix a recognized format, which was called "Hot AC," or "Hot Adult Contemporary"; by fall 1990, a mere six months from the spring ratings, KHMX had leaped to No. 3 in the Houston-Galveston market, the tenth largest in the country, with a 6.6 share. Ears perked up.
"[Zapoleon's] station was the hardest-rocking [AC] station people had heard," said Sean Ross, editor of Airplay Monitor, a radio trade publication. "Guy took [AC] up to the next rung.It was a success story."
Succeess, of course, breeds two things: copycats and contempt.
Today, more than nine years after Zapoleon launched Mix 96.5 in Houston, there are nearly 300 similar stations across the country, although they may not use the Mix term. They might call themselves a "Hot AC" station, or just "AC." But whatever they call themselves, they program essentially the same kind of playlist: a female-heavy roster of '90s artists (Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette, Natalie Merchant), a short list of well-established '80s hitmakers (Bonnie Raitt, U2, R.E.M., Peter Gabriel) and an oddball assortment of '70s tunes ("You Sexy Thing," by Hot Chocolate, "Maggie May," by Rod Stewart).
While that sort of rigid programming has its commercial appeal, it also has its creative limitations. The format's reliance on empirical data -- listener surveys, focus groups and other demographic-oriented tools -- cemented a trend already taking form in the radio industry: Radio programmers had no real opportunity to break a song themselves. Nor could they really tinker with the sacred playlist. It led to an irony that few in the industry failed to notice: The Mix may offer variety, all right, but damn little of it. Indeed, the Mix format was so processed and packaged that renowned radio consultant David English once called it the "cat food" of commercial radio.
"A lot sounds the same," said Channel 2 reporter/anchor Susan Lennon, who was part of The Mix's original morning team, Larry and Susan. "You're really not getting any variety."
So if listeners weren't getting any variety, why did The Mix become so popular? To be blunt: It's exactly what the people wanted. Something warm, something familiar, something to remind them of less-stressful times.
Zapoleon knew it's what the people wanted, because he asked them -- repeatedly. His method was a matter of survival as much as innovative programming. Nationwide, after all, had purchased KNRJ for $29 million in the fall of 1989, and some industry analysts were wondering aloud whether this underperforming spot on the dial, a mere two-market share and billings that totaled in the low single-digit millions annually, was worth that kind of investment. Besides, if a radio powerhouse like Emmis couldn't make it work in Houston, how could Nationwide, a company that owned only 15 stations at the time?
To shoulder the heavy responsibility of turning its newly acquired Houston property around, Nationwide turned to Clancy Woods, who at the time was its general manager. Woods, based in Tucson, Arizona, just a short drive from Zapoleon, barely had time to celebrate his new post when he received a phone call from Nationwide owner Mickey Franko, who wanted to know whom Woods was going to select to program the music. Woods had a notion: He wanted to add to Guy Zapoleon's responsibilities as national programming director and give him a single station to build. But Franko balked; Zapoleon was too valuable, the owner said, to waste his talents on one station, no matter how important it was to the chain.
"And I said, 'Mickey, this station means a lot to you, right?' " recalled Woods. "He said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'You want this station in Houston to work, too, don't you?' He said, 'Yes.' Well I said, 'Wouldn't it make sense to have your best guy working on it?' "
Franko relented, but Woods still had one other man to convince: Guy Zapoleon. Even though the programmer was dissatisfied with his national position ("I didn't enjoy the big-company politics"), Zapoleon wouldn't commit to Houston. So Woods worked an angle that he thought might succeed: He tried to convince Zapoleon that if he could build a Houston station from scratch, he would be just that far from becoming an independent radio consultant, a job Zapoleon coveted.
The bulk of Nationwide's employees didn't actually move into the station on Post Oak Boulevard until April, four months after the purchase had been announced publicly. Zapoleon had assembled a research team, which comprised full-timers and consultants, including operations manager Jeff Scott, sales manager Ellen Cavanagh, media buyer Doug McCall, TV producer Steve Stockman and promotions director Joe Pogge. These people were going to determine exactly what this new station should sound like, and maybe even smell like.
The timetable for the new Nationwide station in Houston had already been thrown out the window; it was supposed to launch in April, but Nationwide wisely decided that time would be its ally here, not its enemy. So the company took as much of it as it needed.
To buy time, however, Nationwide had to figure out what to do with the former NRJ. The company came up with a brilliant plan. From April to July, 1990, the station, with no identifying call letters, no promotions, no giveaways, no personality except for the slogan "no kids, no rap, no crap," played nothing but grunge. Almost around the clock. It was Zapoleon's idea. And it came from his intuition. Not from research.
"And that's the genius of Zapper," said promo director Pogge. "He set up a fake radio station for months, and it sank in. It could've stayed on and gone big-time."
The extra time allowed Zapoleon to do what he did best: research. His first trick was to create his own personal "music chart," which would soon become an industry standard. His chart, which he carried mostly in his head until he decided to start writing it down several years later, was simply a makeshift graph on which he would plot all of a given market's radio stations.
The chart consisted of a plus sign, with the four major types of popular music represented by each line that radiated from the center, sort of like directions on a compass. To the north was alternative. To the west was R&B. To the east, rock. And to the south, adult contemporary. A circle in the middle represented all of pop. In theory, if five or six radio stations could be located around, say, R&B, a programmer would know opportunities existed in the three other types of music. It took Zapoleon only a few more listens to Houston radio to know exactly where his hole was.
"There was a pop-rock hole in my mind," Zapoleon recalled.
Before he could move ahead with his theoretical format, Zapoleon had to test it. He hired researchers to call 700 people, 18 to 54 years old, play music for them, ask them their reactions and record their responses. Unfortunately those results proved unsatisfying to Zapoleon, so he brought in John Perikhal of Stamford, Connecticut-based Joint Communications, to conduct a more specific perceptual study. Perikhal's researchers phoned about the same number of households, played prerecorded snippets of songs to the same age group and wrote down listeners' reactions. But unlike in the first study, researchers played sound bites of a wider variety of music: jazz, rock, rap, New Age, country, whatever. "Image" questions were also asked.
Said Zapoleon: "We wanted to know who likes what, who's playing them, which songs people were most passionate about and which stations got the credit. And that was it. If people gave radio stations no credit, we knew we had a place."
A pattern began to emerge from all the research. A particular type of music was strongly favored by a particular group of people. Specifically, women 25 to 39 years old were digging a variety of pop-rock hits. This would be Zapoleon's target audience. It was an extremely narrow one (a mere 14 years) for a company trying to recoup a multimillion-dollar investment. Nonetheless, Zapoleon felt he had found his listeners.
One last piece of research was needed before the station could dedicate itself to its burgeoning format: focus groups. At Zapoleon's request, Perikhal hired a research firm to pay 200 women about $30 or $40 each to sit through the hooks of 700 songs and offer up their comments. From that research, Zapoleon devised a master list of songs. It was made up of three solid-gold, honest-to-goodness tunes loved by women 25 to 39, around which the station's first rotation would be built. The songs? "Higher Love," by Steve Winwood; "Forever Young," by Rod Stewart; and "Jack & Diane," by John Cougar Mellencamp.
"If something tested well, but didn't fit, we wouldn't keep it," said Perikhal. "I remember [Led Zeppelin's] 'Stairway to Heaven' came in at No. 38. Out of 600! It tested well, but it just wasn't compatible.
"You know, you might like sushi, but you don't want it at an Italian restaurant."
Like many visionaries in their fields, Guy Zapoleon is geeky. He is a midsize guy with soft brown hair who has been known to show up to big meetings with shirttails, unbeknownst to him, hanging out. He's a guy with low blood sugar who would leave stray peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches lying around his old Toyota Supra. A guy whose constant companion is his portable transistor radio with an earplug that seems to be attached to his ear. A guy everyone calls Zapper.
Zapoleon was born in Nashville, Music City, in 1952, but didn't stay there long. His father, who owned a men's clothier business, relocated the family frequently. When Zapoleon was 13, he was living in Stamford, minutes from Manhattan, the Music City of pop music.
Station WABC-FM and DJ Bruce "Cousin Brucey" Morrow turned Zapoleon on to rock and roll. One listen to Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and Zapoleon was on the hunt for a pocket transistor radio. He found a handheld brown and white model, which he says still works today. He listened to it everywhere he went. Even to bed.
In 1966, after his parents had separated and Zapoleon had lived in numerous cities (including Houston), he settled in with his father and three stepsisters in Los Angeles. There, he listened to KHJ/930 AM and watched all the young girls at Birmingham High School flock around George Voss, the hip kid who knew all the boppers' names and songs. "I was shy," remembered Zapoleon. "I had just come from Houston and had this Southern accent. There was this pressing need" to own and show off a radio.
Zapoleon soon forgot about girls and began dedicating himself to music. Not just by listening to the sounds, humming along and wondering why some tunes made him sad while others made him happy, but by actually analyzing which songs were successful and why. As he listened, Zapoleon kept track of the most popular tunes. After a while, he created his own chart on a legal pad, listing his personal favorites, and then matched his top tunes against KHJ's. If he correctly predicted a song's spot on KHJ's chart, he gave himself a star. If not, nothing. More often than not, his chart had more stars on it than blank spaces.
Zapoleon performed this ritual for years, and by the time he was 20 years old, he had mapped out KHJ's top 1,000 popular songs of all time. All on legal-pad paper. All in his handwriting. "It was a good way to learn," said Zapoleon. "A good way to check my instincts."
The formula for the top 1,000 was simple: Every time a song was No. 1 on KHJ's chart, it received 30 points. Every time it was No. 2, it got 29 points. And so on. The higher the total, the higher the overall rank. For Zapoleon, spending his time this way was merely a hobby. He never thought staying glued to his transistor all those Wednesday nights from 6 to 9 p.m. would mark the beginning of a career. After all, he figured his career was already laid out before him. "I would just follow my dad into the clothing business or be a doctor," he said.
But in 1972 Zapoleon's well-connected mother, who thought the music business would be little more than a summer hobby for her son, set up an interview for Zapoleon with Russ Shaw, who was an A&R man for Warner Bros. Records.
Between semesters at college, Zapoleon just wanted to work the docks at WB, unloading and loading crates of records. "I figured I could start there and work my way up," he said. When he asked Shaw for a position, after talking with him for more than an hour, he was told there were none. Discouraged, Zapoleon stood up to leave. But before he walked out of the office, he pulled out and set on Shaw's desk a yellow binder with a KHJ sticker on it. It was a neatly bound stack of Zapoleon's charts.
"[Shaw] opened it up and said, 'Wow,' " remembered Zapoleon. "He had never seen anything like that."
There were similar charts circulating around magazines and radio stations, but nothing so extensive, nothing so accessible to the everyday reader. "[Shaw] sent me right down to the PR department," said Zapoleon.
"This is Guy Zapoleon. He can prove that Chubby Checker, Billy Darin [and] Ferrante & Teicher were more popular than the Beatles in Los Angeles," read the cover of Circular, a monthly newsletter distributed by Warner Bros. WB public relations chief Pete Johnson had received Zapoleon's charts from Shaw and was impressed. So impressed, in fact, that he dedicated a dozen pages of the circular to Zapoleon's project, wrote five reasons why Zapoleon should be in the industry and put the shy guy on the cover. The newsletter reached approximately 1,000 radio stations across the country.
Not long after his mug appeared in that Warner Bros. promotional mouthpiece, Zapoleon was the subject of a brief Rolling Stone article. Shortly after that, the job offers came. Billboard, Record World, RKO. Seemed like everybody in the biz wanted that young go-getter with the made-for-radio name.
Zapoleon's first full-fledged radio gig came a few months after theRolling Stone
article. Betty Brennamen, national music coordinator at RKO, which owned KHJ, met with Zapoleon and hired him at local KRTH FM, where his first job was simply to rearrange the station's tapes. For the next couple of years, Zapoleon worked 20 hours a week at KRTH, coordinating music and working in traffic and continuity (which is radio patois for "scheduling commercials").
In 1975, degree in hand, Zapoleon got the word from Dad. "It was either get a full-time job or go into the executive training program with [clothing company Federated]," remembered Zapoleon. Not one to displease his father, Zapoleon entered the program and, six months later, completed it. And just when Zapoleon's position as assistant manager for housewares was getting interesting, he got a call from KRTH. The station wanted him back as full-time traffic-continuity coordinator. "I told [Dad] I proved I could do the executive training thing," Zapoleon recalled. "So I asked him, 'Now, can I do what I want?' He said, 'Yeah.' " Zapoleon worked at KRTH until 1977.
He then worked at local Los Angeles oldies station KRLA for a year and a half, went back to KRTH as music director for three years, then landed his first programming job in September 1981, at KRQQ FM in Tucson, which was owned by Western Cities Broadcasting. "It was Top 40," said Zapoleon. "That's what I wanted."
Yes, Zapoleon was impressed with himself. Having worked his way up from bedroom scientist to music programmer before his 30th birthday gave him reason to believe he was hot shit. But once he got to Tucson, he realized creativity and good taste weren't the only things that made a station tick. He soon learned about promotions, about "call out" surveys that solicit listener responses to new music and about "the clock," that simple clock face on which precise times for announcing station IDs or promotional spots or contest giveaways were written in indelible ink.
After perfecting his trade for two and a half years in Tucson, Zapoleon spent nine months in Pittsburgh working at the ultra-poppy "B-94 FM," before he was called back to Arizona. He wanted to be close to his father, who had suffered a heart attack since moving there. Zapoleon got a job at KZZP FM in Phoenix, which was owned by Nationwide.
Four and a half years later, Zapoleon was in Houston, preparing to launch Mix 96.5.
It didn't take long for The Mix to connect with audiences in Houston. One day after the station was up and running, President George Bush launched Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. Zapoleon, Pogge and Woods decided to do their part for the war effort: They began passing out somber yellow ribbons, which, according to Pogge, "created an element of community" and "was emotionally relating to our listeners."
But the promotional gimmicks were just part of the package; The Mix also interacted with its audience, whether by regularly asking for requests or by posing such questions as "What was your best brush with greatness?" on the Larry and Susan morning program. The Arbitron share numbers rose accordingly.
Local stations were definitely paying attention, particularly since they were losing audience share as a result.
"They found a niche and did real well in it and got real good, real good ratings," said Dickie Rosenfeld, general manager of KILT, where he has worked in various capacities for 40 years. "Yeah, you watch 'em. You see what you can do to take some of their audience away without messing up your own format."
Said DJ Scott Sparks of KRBE: "The Mix was something new and original. The advantage that it had was it had '70s music. Unlike '80s music [KRBE's focus at the time], '70s music had hit a wall. But by the mid-'80s, there were 'Disco Nights,' and radio started embracing '70s hits. The '80s were always there. The Mix had a unique advantage. Their demo[graphic] was older -- and is getting older -- and with '70s music, they were in line for success."
Mix stations soon began sprouting up across the country and in Canada. One of the first to emulate KHMX's format was WRQX FM in Washington, D.C. Incidentally, the station's first programming director was Lorrin Palagi, who is now an associate of Zapoleon's independent radio consulting firm, Zapoleon Media Strategies in Houston. "It's interesting," said Palagi. "Guy had just put on The Mix in Houston in July, and a month later we go on."
Since pop music was on its deathbed, WRQX, like many Top 40 stations, had to decide whether to change its format or die. D.C.'s "Q-107" could've either gone ultra-poppy, reaching out to Top 40's bubblegum demographic, or it could have gone the other way, trying to appeal to that 25-and-older group.
It decided to go for the latter, specifically targeting women ages 25 to 40, and it worked. Before the format switch, WRQX had been in the red, according to president and general manager Jim Robinson, who was sales manager back then. "We could've lost about half a million in 1990," he said. But within two years of the changeover, the station had increased its billing by $14 million and had reached No. 1 in the Arbitron ratings for Washington, D.C. Today it's still competitive, scoring four shares on average in the country's ninth-largest market.
Other new converts to The Mix weren't as successful, some because they were outmaneuvered by more aggressive competitors. Even back in the early '90s, WZMX in Hartford, Connecticut, was the fourth "Hot AC" station in its market. As a result of that glut, the station stayed with the format for only about a year and a half before switching to classic oldies. It's now a "dancin' oldies" station. "It wasn't scientific," said David Simpson, WZMX music director, of the switch to Mix. "We tried to make it work. But we just cut our losses and moved on. We were following a wave of 'Hot AC.' It was the format of choice."
Nationwide sold KHMX as part of a 17-station deal to Jacor Communications in the summer of 1998 for $120 million. That's a profit of $91 million.
Jacor merged with giant Clear Channel later that same year, bringing to seven the number of Clear Channel-owned radio stations in the Houston-Galveston market. The company's ballooning presence in the market was a direct result of the passing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which loosened restrictions on station ownership. Companies could now own eight stations in one market, up from four, and an unlimited total number, up from 40.
Zapoleon worked at KHMX for two years before burnout set in. The busywork of running a station -- signing paychecks, interviewing new hires, going through mail -- made Zapoleon long for the old days, when all he had had to worry about was building a station from the logo up.
After winning Program Director of the Year from Billboard magazine in 1992, Zapoleon left KHMX. The station's immediate success was followed in the winter of 1990 by a sharp drop, of nearly two points. Everybody thought the station was, like some of the artists in its rotation, a one-hit wonder. But by the following spring, KHMX was near the top of the rankings again, where it would stay until the mid-'90s. At that time it found itself in direct competition with KRBE, which eventually knocked The Mix off its throne later in the decade. Zapoleon's standing was also uncertain. He had dropped his comfy $150,000-a-year job to start his business. He began with no clients.
"It was frightening," he said. "It was a reality check about how many people didn't know who I was. As a programming director, I had a good reputation, but business managers didn't know me."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
With the help of Steve Perun, an Arista Records executive and former program director whom Zapoleon had known for years, as well as business manager Srini Iyengar, Zapoleon began working out of his home at Richmond and Voss with only a laptop, printer, phone and a PC for the secretary. The first client for Zapoleon Media Strategies was WEHM FM, Long Island. That was in December 1992.
Zapoleon currently works with approximately 30 different radio stations. Not all, contrary to what one might think, are Mixes. "We look at each market individually," he said. "If it looks like a Mix might work, then, yeah, that's what we do."
But before he can make that judgment, Zapper, the programmer practically synonymous with scientific research in a field devoted to that most abstract of art forms, must check his charts.
E-mail Anthony Mariani at email@example.com.