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Fresh Listen: KOFX (The Fox) El Paso, Texas

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You will probably not rush out to copy KOFX (The Fox) El Paso, Texas on your radio station.

Not even after you learn that it is No. 1 in the market and was up 6.6 – 9.5 12-plus in the Summer Nielsen ratings.

And you probably shouldn’t copy them. It was, after all, my quest for “local” and “sense of place” that sent me back to KOFX recently, the first time I’d listened to the longtime Greatest Hits station in years. With a long history of hit records that test nowhere else in the U.S., a population that is 79% Hispanic, and music that has historically been tracked as much with Mexico City (and thus Europe) as any U.S. market, I felt reasonably sure that I would hear something interesting on KOFX.

I got something interesting almost immediately, when the first song I heard was “Me And Baby Brother” by War. I’m on my fourth listening stint now. I keep meaning to move on to another station, then I hear something else I haven’t heard for years. And regular readers know my threshold for “oh wow” is higher than average.

The Fox is positioned on-air as “Yesterday’s Hits and Today’s Classics.” It’s not just a “Greatest Hits” station that plays an increasing amount of rock, which could be most stations in the format. It’s not an Adult Hits station, although it has Bob- and Jack-like depth. I’ve just heard an hour where every song was tasty. The overall feel is Classic Rock and the closest comparison is KQRS Minneapolis in the mid-‘00s. Then-KQRS-PD Dave Hamilton certainly knew how to play the hits. But he didn’t limit himself, and the station was a reliable source of surprise and delight.

But although its predominant feel is Classic Rock, the Fox also plays R&B with Hispanic appeal. Usually, that means the R&B acts that were part of the Album Rock format at some point in the ‘70s: War; Stevie Wonder; Tower Of Power. But I’ve also heard “Funkytown” and “Always And Forever.”

In other words, it’s Classic Rock as the format would have sounded if there had never been a “kickass rock ‘n’ roll” era of the format in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, or the disco backlash that not only took R&B out of rock libraries but threatened its existence at top 40 as well for several years. When the Classic Rock format resurfaced a few years later, it did away with the tough guy posturing of that era, but it didn’t reclaim the R&B (or, to be fair, much of the James Taylor/Gordon Lightfoot soft-rock that had also been excised).

So far, that’s been mostly for cause. In the mid-‘80s, Classic Rock very quickly pulled ahead of the poppier, more broad-based Classic Hits format. One of the reasons that the Greatest Hits format is rocking so hard these days is that it’s been easier for rock records to find a quorum of memories. You could grow up with top 40 and still hear plenty of rock, more so than vice-versa.

But there have been signs of change over the last 5-10 years. Bob- and Jack-FM catered to the listeners whose tastes in rock were formed during the kickass era, but they never promised stylistic purity, or needed it. Some Triple-A stations experimented with playing Al Green and Marvin Gaye again, although that largely ended when that format became less Classic Rock- and more Alternative-based.

Then the Greatest Hits format made its comeback, showing that many listeners didn’t necessarily believe that Boston and Bill Withers belonged on two different stations. Recently, the attention around Sirius XM’s pop-up “Yacht Rock” channel has proven that listeners’ tastes aren’t quite as hip as PDs might have thought.

No other market is El Paso. In most places, what we’ll likely see is the ongoing reacceptance of a few songs. As for War, “Low Rider” has become a regular part of Classic Rock radio again, although I don’t expect that to extend to “Me And Baby Brother” (however awesome it may be) in most places. Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” is on a handful of Classic Rock stations, including some that I remember being adamant about not wanting to play it a decade ago. There have been parallels on the Alternative Rock side. KRBZ (The Buzz) Kansas City has extended its throwback Hip-Hop component to include Dr. Dre and Biz Markie, not just House of Pain and the Beastie Boys.

Many PDs will look at the depth and breadth of KOFX and decide, probably correctly, that it’s not for them. But they won’t be able to write off the station’s success to being outside a PPM market—it’s often diary markets where Classic Hits stations have continued to struggle. They also won’t be able to cite a lack of competition. El Paso has another Classic Rock station, as well as Adult Hits XHIM (Universal 105.1), which can play both The Band and Depeche Mode. Then there’s “Fox-AM,” playing ‘50s oldies through ‘70s, with its own Hispanic R&B component.

When the Adult Hits format exploded a decade ago, broadcasters were never quite sure whether the demand it exposed for variety and depth (at least among previously familiar songs) had always existed, or if it was a newly created byproduct of the iPod era. When the phenomenon tapered (but didn’t disappear) in the PPM era, programmers were never quite sure why. Had a few years of depth sated the need forever? Did PPM prove that listeners only liked variety in the abstract? I’m glad KOFX isn’t sweating that question too much.

Here’s KOFX just before Noon on Oct. 20:

America, “You Can Do Magic”
Rolling Stones, “Beast of Burden”
Glenn Frey, “The Heat Is On”
Eric Clapton, “After Midnight”
Prince, “1999”
Tower of Power, “What Is Hip?”
Journey, “Stone In Love”
Stevie Wonder, “I Wish”
Hollies, “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress”
Styx, “Mr. Roboto”
David Bowie, “Golden Years”
Beatles, “Come Together”
Santana, “Open Invitation”
Rare Earth, “Get Ready”
Pink Floyd, “Another Brick In The Wall”

And here’s the station at 11:30 on Oct. 21:

REO Speedwagon, “Keep Pushin’”
Toto, “Hold The Line”
Rolling Stones, “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?”
Beatles, “She Loves You”
Foreigner, “Hot Blooded”
Stevie Nicks, “Rooms On Fire” (beginning of the Lunch Hour show)
Heatwave, “Always And Forever” (a listener request)
Led Zeppelin, “Rock And Roll”
U2, “With Or Without You”
Cheap Trick, “I Want You To Want Me”
Los Lonely Boys, “Heaven”

Finally, here’s the station later that afternoon:

Kinks, “Come Dancing”
Bobby Caldwell, “What You Won’t Do For Love”
Beatles, “Paperback Writer”
Phil Collins, “Two Hearts”
Lipps Inc., “Funkytown”
Men At Work, “Overkill”
Heart, “Heartless”
Michael Jackson, “Thriller” (set up as a Halloween song)
Steely Dan, “Don’t Take Me Alive”
Tony Carey, “A Fine Fine Day”
Dr. John, “Right Place, Wrong Time”
Blondie, “Rapture”
Bad Company, “Shooting Star”

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

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