Mix Master

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 rungŠ.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.

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Anthony Mariani