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Part I: In The Lab (With A Pen And A Pad)
Last years, broadcasters took tentative but significant steps toward doing what they must to stay competitive in 2015: addressing the spotload issue on FM music outlets; adding new online radio stations that had the spotload that listeners were coming to expect for “continuous music”; creating new content for the broader world of “audio” that didn’t rely on an antenna and transmitter.
By contrast, broadcasters threw themselves with enthusiasm to the world of low-powered FM translators. Translators allowed broadcasters some low-risk innovation, but even more low-risk spoilers. At least two major groups launched major-market stations that were intended to remain indefinitely commercial-free. In addition, translators played enough of a role in the resurgence of alternative radio and the launch of classic hip-hop to confound any real read on the long-term potential of the formats.
The net effect of so many stations that were built only to flank, and so many tentative solutions to vast challenges, was that 2014 was a year of relatively modest successes. Fortunately, our look back at each year’s “Intriguing Stations” is never about only the biggest ratings stories. It’s about both new and existing stations. Some were a talisman of industry change. Some were just enjoyable audio tourism (we’ll look more at those in part II). Not all were stations per se. A few came from our major groups. The most significant development, one with implications for all broadcasters, came from public radio.
“Serial” – If broadcasters had created Pandora, there would be fewer discussions about what counts as radio, and less concern about broadcasters’ future. Instead, the dialogue was about whether broadcasters were capable of offering anything as innovative as Pandora. By spinning off the long-form reporting that was too long-form even for WBEZ Chicago’s “This American Life,” “Serial” showed that broadcasters could compete in the audio world by doing what they already did well. After years of broadcast radio more resembling network TV or the video store, “Serial” was radio venturing into the Netflix model.
Even before “Serial” gave podcasting its moment this fall, it was becoming evident to me that podcasting’s quiet gains were likely related to the much publicized travails of talk radio. Many broadcasters had banked on spoken word radio to provide their future, now that listeners could get music anywhere. But beyond sports talk, they hadn’t found talent or a position that worked for younger listeners. As podcasting reveals itself as the next generation’s talk radio, “Serial” reinforces the importance of broadcasters being the ones who provide it.
NPR One, Omny – It was also public radio that went furthest into the “build your own radio channel” model, an ingenious response to the challenge of offering on-demand content without disenfranchising individual affiliates. “Build your own full-service station” shouldn’t be impossible for mainstream music radio – especially given the amount of voice-tracking already being done – but it was Australia’s Omny app that combined jock content from Australia’s SCA Austereo chain with music of the listener’s choosing.
RadioLeague – I’m a little reluctant to devote this much attention to a commercial-free suite of jockless side channels. Many major European stations offer them as well. But U.S. broadcasters haven’t done much since their initial HD Radio efforts to create “the other radio,” the one that offers listeners the lower spotload they’ve come to expect online, or satisfies tastes that aren’t mainstream enough for FM. This app from Journal Milwaukee is up to 17 channels, none based on its over-the-air stations, and has included such offerings as “Oktoberfest” and two play-by-play channels of “Preps Live.”
KNDD (The End) Seattle – It was not the only experiment with a lower spotload, but the Seattle alternative station’s commitment to two-minute breaks and “half the commercials” was the most publicized. It was a strategy that most stations were not eager to adapt. A few months later, the End seemed to be kicking around the same ratings neighborhood, and many broadcasters were happy to abandon the dialogue and move on. But in the December PPM, the End had pulled further ahead of modern AC rival KLCK (Click 98.9), not an insignificant achievement in a market where an otherwise viable alternative share is split in two. And if this isn’t the thing that will allow broadcast radio to compete with Pandora’s shorter breaks and lower spotloads, then the last thing broadcasters should do is rest easy.
WBMP (Amp 92.3) New York – When New York’s former “Now FM” regrouped this spring, I thought of its “commercial-free weekends” mostly as proof that “Commercial Free Mondays” were no longer enough. By the time the weekends ended, Amp had finally moved the ratings needle, not enough to dislodge rival WHTZ (Z100), but enough to clearly be felt and acknowledged in both its rival’s music mix and imaging. More important, the weekend strategy seemed like a clever way of generating some usage, on the beach towel and elsewhere, that might not have gone to broadcast radio at all otherwise.
CKMP (Amp 90.3) Calgary’s “QuickHitz” format – In the early-‘00s, mainstream commercial radio was an easy and regular target for the consumer press. Then satellite radio and NPR Music gave rock critics something that was more to their liking. The ranks of radio writers thinned anyway, and the anger died down. But when Calgary’s second CHR became the first major taker for this decade-in-the-making format of edited songs, the din was very reminiscent of a decade ago, especially among those who clearly didn’t like pop music very much in the first place. The food was lousy, they said, and the portions were small. Soon thereafter, Canada’s record industry closed ranks against Amp 90.3 and the station returned to its regular format.
Irony abounded. Labels aren’t shy about pitching their songs for 30-second syncs in TV and movies. Jann Arden, the ‘90s Canadian hitmaker who commandeered center stage in the debate on Twitter, wasn’t unwilling to issue her own edits and remixes. A Canadian AC tweeted its support by saying they were playing the whole 4:25 version of one of Arden’s songs, apparently unaware that the full version was actually 4:50. And during its three weeks of QuickHitz, Amp made good use of the extra slots created by shorter songs by becoming one of the most musically aggressive major-market CHRs in North America.
Beyond the unrecognized benefits to the music industry, QuickHitz ticked a number of boxes that should have pleased both broadcasters and radio’s critics: a different way of doing top 40 and something different on the radio overall. It was also a good way to listen to the hits when even a fan of the format could be worn down by hearing them on five different stations in a given market. At year’s end, there’s some satisfaction in knowing that Amp has more momentum than it has in years. Also that iHeart Radio has adapted its online stopset filler into something that sounds a lot like QuickHitz.
The Old-School Hip-Hop Boom – Here’s what we knew about the explosion in “throwback hip-hop and R&B” stations by the end of 2014. The spectacular debuts usually tapered off after a few months, although WBQT (Hot 96.9) Boston proved that you could grow steadily to a perfectly acceptable number (which is where the others are likely to settle anyway). There were almost as variants as stations. You could buffet the hip-hop throwbacks with currents or ‘90s R&B. But the less you diluted the old-school hip-hop, the more fervent the likely listener reaction. Most important, there was a fervent listener response of the sort no longer guaranteed to radio, even with a new body of “lost” music, in an era where listeners have every song at their fingertips.
By year’s end, there were more than a dozen candidates for this list. Those with special significance include:
- KXJM (Jam’n 107.5) Portland, Ore.
- KZEP (Hot 104.5) San Antonio, Texas – San Antonio was a spectacular worst-to-first debut against a rhythmic top 40 (KBBT) that wasn’t broken. KXJM is the one that has, thus far, done the best at controlling both the “hits and throwbacks” franchises.
- KROI (Boom 92) Houston
- WPHI (Boom 107.9) Philadelphia – By the time KROI launched in October, there was clearly a pulse for some sort of ‘90s rhythmic gold-based format. But Houston and Philly’s Booms were galvanizing in a different way, and shifted the action to the purer “classic hip-hop” version. Philly was also the deepest and most (appropriately) northeastern-flavored of all the stations, making it a very different experience, and the one that most resembles the favorite-rapper discussions in Chris Rock’s “Top Five” come to life.
- WCFB (Star 94.5) Orlando, Fla. – Around Thanksgiving, WCFB traded a successful Urban AC format for a very adult distillation of classic hip-hop and R&B. Since then, they’ve backed off, becoming more of an urban AC that plays throwbacks (and increasingly concentrates on the more melodic ones). That, so far, has been a particularly delicate balancing act for long-established urban ACs.
Part II: C’Mon And Ride It (The Trainwreck)
Part I of our look at the “Intriguing Stations of 2014” was devoted to those stations and other broadcast products that addressed radio’s broader challenges – maintaining listener engagement and ensuring that broadcasters were the supplier of audio on any platform. These are the stations that represented a broader format evolution, intrigued just by being quirky, or all of the above.
Part III: Listeners Respond (Or “Norway, Folk You Up”)
For the last two weeks, we’ve been spotlighting our “Intriguing Stations of 2014.” Some were key stations in the evolution of major formats. Some brought radio on to new platforms. Others were just fun and eclectic. Throughout, we’ve been soliciting your suggestions as well. I’ve also reached out to fellow radio tourists James Cridland, Adam Jacobson, Chris Huff and others for their suggestions as well.
A lot of the reader picks gravitated to alternative or eclectic rock of some sort. But there were also briefs for supersoft AC, classic hip-hop, urban AC, and a low-powered oldies AM that does all-Jewish programming as well. Also, Norwegian folk music.
Here are your intriguing stations of 2014.
CIND (Indie 88) Toronto – “My station of the year. The most successful major-market launch of an alternative station in a very long time What an amazing accomplishment for this tiny group of guys in Toronto, attacking [rival CFNY] The Edge at its most vulnerable moment.” – Adam Jacobson
KCRW Los Angeles – “Jason Bentley finding Top 40’s left-of-center hits? Yep. Hozier was a featured artist back in Q1 of 2014 … It’s a unique station that fits Southern California perfectly, whereas KROQ and KYSR have stumbled as of late to balance their heritage and core with a vastly changing music scene.” – Adam Jacobson
KINK Portland, Ore. – “This station does a great job of being listenable, while being somewhat unfamiliar to me, a top 40 format P1. KINK certainly echoes the old days of AOR that I grew up with in the early ’80s, and they play the [pop alternative songs that are] being missed. KINK gets it done. They’re old school for sure.” – Brian Woodward
KXKT (KXT 91.7) Dallas – “Public radio with a great eclectic mix of new and old, classic, and not classic, pop and rock.” – Andrew Gordon
WRLT (Lightning 100) Nashville – “I started listening intently in October. I really love how dialed in this station is to the community. Their [emphasis on] Nashville as the ‘center of the music universe’ is well-branded.” – Paul Wiilliams
FIP France – “An eclectic radio station run by the public-service broadcaster Radio France. It was so trendy and unique that, for a while, someone rebroadcast it, illegally, in Brighton in England — seemingly without anyone complaining.” – James Cridland
WCBS-FM New York – “It’s still a great radio station. Getting Scott Shannon made it better. It rivals KRTH Los Angeles in the early ’90s for capturing an era with Shannon and Bill Lee as its Robert W. Morgan and Real Don Steele. It’s just a killer station, even with those fat PPM stopsets.” – Mark Summer
WDUV Tampa, WSUN (97X) Tampa – For serving the demographic needs of a diverse market, “Cox Radio Tampa is perhaps the best cluster in America right now. The Dove gives the market all the music that Q105 played in its heyday with a presentation that’s [more] welcoming and not intrusive. 97X is my runner-up for station of the year. Putting Milky Chance in power helped redefine them and … may have saved the station from a format flip.” – Adam Jacobson
The Classic Hip-Hop Boom – “I’m a big fan of these classic hip-hop stations. The playlist can’t be that deep though. I suspect they will have to broaden to stay ‘fresh.’ The Churban era might be a source of inspiration.” – Mark Summer
KKMJ-HD-3 (96.3 RNB) Austin, Texas – “They’ve been overshadowed by Q4’s ‘Boom’ boom, but 96.3 R’N’B has managed as high as a 3.5 and proven that urban [AC] can work in a market that has never had one before, all on a 250-watt translator.” – Chris Huff
Sirius XM The Highway – “It’s opened the door for many artists in the past: Florida Georgia Line, Colt Ford, Parmalee, and Chase Rice to start, and you’ll see it happen for Haley & Michaels, Kelsea Ballerini, Logan Mize, Old Dominion, and, I hope, Gunnar & the Grizzly Boys, which I manage.” – Joe Schuld
NRK P1+ Norway – “NRK P1, Norway’s equivalent of BBC Radio 2, was getting too old, so they sacked all the old DJs and stopped playing Norwegian folk music, and made the presenters much younger in feel. Audiences improved and the age range went lower, but older audiences were left without a station of their own. At the same time, the Norwegians made a decision to migrate to DAB. So they rehired all the DJs, put NRK P1+ on digital radio … and it’s done amazing things in terms of audience and in terms of DAB+ sales.” – James Cridland
Dubai 92 UAE – “For making ’80s and ’90s work, at least for its market.” – Adam Jacobson
ORF FM4 Austria – “A pubcaster with spots, programmed professionally with a CMJ playlist? Yep. And it seems to work.” – Adam Jacobson
702 Oscar Extra Johannesburg South Africa – “A pop-up radio station, online-only, from Primedia, the folks behind Highveld Stereo and talk 702 Johannesburg. Meant as a short-term station, it lasted rather longer with live coverage of and discussions about the Oscar Pistorius trial and nothing else. Doubtless, since an appeal has been granted, it’ll pop up again.” – James Cridland
KOOI (Sunny 106.5) Tyler, – “They’re playing the ‘greatest hits, ever’ with a playlist that borders on genius and trainwreck.” – Chip Kelley
WGHN Grand Haven, Mich. – “CBS News, and they actually give the time of day. They also play a nice mix of new, old and obscure.” – Jim Khan, seconded by reader Christopher Bubb.
Some readers wrote in on behalf of (no less worthy) stations they were involved with (or formerly involved with): K-Love – “I truly feel K-Love is one of the unique and most service-oriented radio signals around today. You know the numbers, but deeper than that, the impact it has on people’s lives.” – Mike Novak, whose Christian AC network has long been the sort of fully realized national brand that commercial broadcasters are just beginning to attempt. And they just launched a video channel.
1640 WJPR New Brunswick, N.J. – “Contemporary Jewish all day and rock-and-roll oldies all night. The latter boasts a playlist of over 4,500 songs from the ’50s through the ’80s. The morning show is an upbeat top 40 presentation that just happens to play Jewish music, complete with a break-the-format segment after 8 a.m.” – Al Gordon
WLRM Memphis – “Playing blues and southern soul along with black local talk. A niche-focused station in a heavily saturated urban market.” – Kevin “Koolin’” Fox
WIKY Evansville, Ind. – “I would take a closer look at America’s last full-service radio station, especially given its history and sale this year, which will probably bring changes soon.” – Former PD Mark Elliott, now at Cumulus Toledo, Ohio.
WBMX (Mix 104.1) Boston – I’d humbly submit WBMX, hot AC that is more aggressive than most; high-personality from 5 a.m. to midnight, including a morning show in p.m. drive; a local music feature every night. Station concerts are always free. Proof that personality, solid music, relevant promotions, and excellent imaging can create radically passionate fans and win even in a ‘post-radio world.’” – Matthew Reid
KFRQ (Q94.5) McAllen/Brownsville, Texas – “Turned the big 2-0 on January 1.” – Alan Sells