A Format Change That Matters In A Market That Matters

102.1 The Edge KDGE Dallas Atom Smasher Jessie JessupThe decision on November 17 by iHeart Media to take KDGE (the Edge) Dallas from Alternative to Mainstream AC as “Star 102.1” is significant not just for what it is, but for where it is. It wasn’t that long ago that a series of format changes and modifications, particularly in the Midwest, opened up Mainstream AC holes that threatened to go unfilled for a while. And over the years, the Metroplex has proven itself to be a bellwether market for radio format developments, including both the stations involved in this series of format flips.

Since the beginning of the contemporary era of radio programming, Dallas/Fort Worth has been:

  • An early major-market showplace for Top 40 and Gordon McLendon’s KLIF.
  • An early showplace for FM AC, thanks to KVIL—for many years the most emulated station in the format.
  • The market where Jacobs Media launched its earliest version of Classic Rock on an AM, KRQX.
  • The market where KLTY demonstrated the viability of Christian AC as a mainstream format, even through multiple frequency changes.
  • The market where KJKK became the first full-signal, major-market U.S. showplace for the Jack-FM branding, setting off a series of format changes within CBS (including the brief, unhappy flip of WCBS-FM).
  • One of several markets that led to the rise of FM Country radio in the early ‘80s as an alternate universe AC format with the rise of music-intensive KSCS.
  • The market that launched the “Young Country” brand (although the station that popularized it wasn’t really “young,” just more-recently launched than rivals KSCS and KPLX).
  • The market where the rebranding of KPLX as “The Wolf” helped end Country’s late ‘90s/early ‘00s doldrums and propelled it to being a younger, more active format again.
  • In the early ‘90s, home to the best R&B/Hip-Hop format war between KKDA-FM (K104) and KJMZ (100.3 Jamz). Now, it’s the market that shows the travails of Urban radio, with, as market observer Chip Kelley notes, the loss of four shares in two years.
  • Recently, and significantly, the market that helped foster the strategy of moving Adult Top 40 (KDMX) as close to Mainstream Top 40 as possible (KHKS), even if you owned them both, as iHeart did.

And since the original KLIF, Dallas/Fort Worth has always been an indicator market for the health of Mainstream Top 40. It has cycled from having effectively no stations in the format (late ‘70s/early ‘80s) to having three FMs (mid-‘80s) to nothing in the format again in the early ‘90s.

It was the success of KHKS (Kiss 106.1) in the mid-to-late ‘90s that provided major-market group owners both with the confidence to repopulate CHR as well as the rhythmic lean that became the template for major-market top 40. KHKS hasn’t shown itself to be particularly vulnerable over the years, but at the moment, Dallas/Fort Worth is the market where all three major groups are in the format, with Cumulus’ KLIF (Hot 93.3) (after a brief detour to Throwback Hip-Hop) and now CBS’ KVIL.

The refurbishing of KVIL over the past few years, to Hot AC, then Top 40, could certainly have been seen as a referendum on both AC and Top 40. The recent decision to finish the evolution came with a publicized announcement about the need to rebrand and get away from the baggage of what were once the proudest call letters in AC, and perhaps American radio.

CBS, the owner, has shown itself increasingly interested in recent years in having a Mainstream Top 40 in as many markets as possible, so the KVIL move was robably more than a vote of no confidence in AC. And KVIL hasn’t really been AC for a while. But for a period in the early ‘00s, it was startling to see many heartland markets without what was considered Mainstream AC at the time. Minneapolis and Kansas City lost their only AC. Heritage ACs in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and San Diego—the latter two CBS properties—evolved to the point where they could barely be called Mainstream AC.

All of this happened even as Mainstream AC remained dominant or clearly healthy in other major markets. But with the format buffered by a surprisingly adult-friendly CHR (for those adults who thought young) and a Classic Hits format that was taking possession of Billy Joel and Michael Jackson (for those who didn’t), some programmers saw Mainstream AC as existentially challenged anyway.

Over the next few years, things stabilized a little. Mainstream AC nationally modernized to the point at which Chicago and St. Louis no longer seemed like outliers. San Diego returned to a Mainstream position. The holes in Kansas City and Milwaukee were filled by smaller operators. Only in Minneapolis/St. Paul has the format never been replaced, although you could argue that the CBS Baltimore station, WLIF, has also modernized to the point of opening a hole there.

So having the Mainstream AC hole filled in Dallas/Fort Worth is not insignificant — especially by an operator that already has a CHR and a Hot AC in the market. Earlier this year, iHeart showed itself willing to venture into Soft AC with the launch of KISQ (The Breeze) San Francisco, but there was spoiler intent there against heritage-but-evolving KOIT, and it’s easier these days to know what Supersoft AC is supposed to be, relative to the mainstream version. If there was any crowd-control intent here, it was probably against successful Classic Hits KLUV, which, like similar stations elsewhere, was already doubling as Mainstream AC to some extent.

We won’t know exactly where Star 102.1 is going to land until Dec. 26, when it finishes with Christmas music. The only clue so far has been the core artists mentioned in the station’s news release—Madonna and Michael Jackson, Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson. That would put Star in the ‘80s-through-now arena that most AC’s occupy, but the proportion of ‘80s to today is everything with some of these stations.

The loss of KDGE created its own ripples in the Alternative format. And iHR hasn’t been shy about going into new markets with that format, including a spoiler strategy in St. Louis recently, but KDGE is also one of two Alternative stations it changed in as many weeks. And in choosing to have one rock station, iHR committed to KEGL (the Eagle), whose Active Rock format has had its own national problems lately. I still believe that Alternative will eventually settle in the right place again. And when it does, based on history, Dallas/Fort Worth may well be one of its early showplaces.

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  1. jon ellis says

    Another great read. One quick thought: Minneapolis did briefly have an AC outlet in “Love 105” after WLTE’s demise, but Cumulus dropped it to clear CBS Sports Radio (which was also eventually dropped).

  2. jason steiner says

    Considering AC is a market leading format in so many places it’s strange how much resistance there is to flipping stations to the format. I’m not surprised Iheart was the company to take a DFW station AC considering they have several powerhouse ACs in large sunbelt markets such as KODA/Houston, KOST/Los Angeles, KESZ/Phoenix and KSNE/Las Vegas.

    You mentioned KISQ/San Francisco. I noticed there are now beating KOIT who is in decline and at their lowest share in recent memory. This goes to show that mainstream ACs who go with the flow and get too hot and modern are vulnerable if they ever get a softer competitor. Several markets have a soft AC hole. Human nature has not changed so drastically where there isn’t a demand for at least one soft music station per market.

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