Fresh Listen: K-Love

K-Love 98.3 WPKV Duquesne PittsburghOne of the first stations I worked with as a researcher, more than a decade ago, was the iconoclastic Classic Hits format on WKLU Indianapolis. Back when “Classic Hits” was not yet a euphemism for “Oldies,” WKLU was one of the first stations to bend the distinction between the two terms with a wide list that stretched from “Play That Funky Music” to Collective Soul’s “December” to an obscure Stephen Stills song, left over from the station’s unusual “jam band” Triple-A predecessor.

After my involvement with them, WKLU went to a more typical Oldies/Classic Hits format. Then, they were sold to the Christian AC network K-Love. And both these things were true: I was happy to see K-Love come to Indianapolis. I was sorry it was on that particular frequency, especially since Indianapolis never got another true Classic Hits station. I was also sorry to see the Richmond, Va., station that I’d helped launch as Bob/Jack-like Adult Hits WWLB (Liberty FM), even though that station had been through several subsequent incarnations before K-Love as well.

But as a Christian AC station, WKLU was the No. 3 station overall in Indianapolis in September, up 6.4-6.9, ahead of either Mainstream AC. It’s around a four share in San Antonio and Denver, and has spiked considerably higher in the latter market on several occasions. It’s not alone among Christian AC success stories. There’s WFSH Atlanta (4.3-5.3) tied for third last month and KTIS Minneapolis (5.6-5.6) tied for fifth. WAYF (Way-FM) West Palm Beach is up 4.2-5.0 this month.

If I controlled the radio dial, K-Love would have found a place in Seattle other than Classic Hits KMCQ, a place in Hartford other than heritage rocker WCCC, and a spot on the Providence dial other than college broadcaster WBRU. But if I controlled the dial, my reanimation of heritage brands would hardly stop there. (I’d like three different incarnations of WDRC Hartford back, as well.) And I’d still want K-Love to have a place in those markets.

I wish K-Love were landing on stations with no local employees. I wish K-Love were buying those group-owned stations that were supposed to be divested years ago. There are plenty of those. But the reality is that even when good broadcasters expand, it is still often a case of other good broadcasters leaving a market, or getting out of the radio business. And I do consider K-Love to be a good broadcaster.

When I last spoke to the Christian Music Broadcasters three years ago, K-Love’s growth was a source of trepidation to existing Christian ACs. Until approximately that time, K-Love had mostly grown in markets where there was a Christian AC hole. Certainly, those secular radio people now being displaced by K-Love at KSWD (The Sound) Los Angeles and elsewhere come by their dismay honestly as well.

Beyond that, however, there’s been a certain amount of chat room/trade press piling on, and some of it is from people who are likely unfamiliar with K-Love for anything other than its buying spree. I thought that Radioinsight’s Lance Venta was more on target. 

So here’s what you should know about K-Love:

If you accept that there is room in American radio for national brands, K-Love is making the most of theirs; only NPR and ESPN are comparable, and they’re not doing it in the context of a music format. K-Love offers a shared experience. K-Love sounds big. K-Love was doing a national awards show before the iHeartRadio Music Awards. National radio often sounds generic; K-Love sounds distinctive. And in many ways, what it recalls is the 50,000 watt Top 40 AMs that had their own broad footprint.

That’s not a coincidence. K-Love CEO Mike Novak is a veteran of the same KFRC San Francisco dream team that launched Broadway Bill Lee to stardom. K-Love could, if it wanted, play close to 60 minutes of music every hour. Instead, the music is peppered with teaching promos (some of them voiced by Novak) that sort of recall the “Father Harry’s God Squad” vignettes that aired on KFRC in that era.

In the 2 p.m. hour of K-Love I listened to a few days ago, there was also a news update. There was concern expressed about the Northern California wildfires (but no mention that K-Love was based in Northern California as well). Afternoon host Scott Smith gave a longer testimony based on meeting the family of his son’s girlfriend. He set it up seven minutes ahead with a PPM teaser. He followed it up with a listener call about a poem that her new daughter-in-law had read to her.

There were several fundraising promos for the station (one ingenious one was a standard hook promo, but interspersed with listener testimonials about how that song had moved them). There were vignettes with artists talking about their new song (something else I’ve heard K-Love do for a while that has become common in secular radio).

Musically, K-Love is conservative in texture. If it were a secular AC station, it would be a mainstream-to-soft one. There’s been a lot of music in Christian AC over the last 15 or so years that sounds like Matchbox Twenty or Lifehouse, but even that music reads as Mainstream AC these days. The hour I heard was roughly a third current, a third recurrent, and a third gold. All but two songs were from the 2010s, and K-Love has a reputation in the format community for being more aggressive on new music (at least within its stylistic wheelhouse) than many of its counterparts.

Here’s K-Love at 1:45 p.m., October 10:

  • Big Daddy Weave, “Jesus I Believe”
  • Elevation Worship, “O Come To The Altar”
  • Building 429, “Where I Belong”
  • Danny Gokey, “Rise”
  • Hawk Nelson, “Diamonds”
  • Jeremy Camp, “Word Of Life”
  • 7eventh Time Down, “God Is In The Move”
  • Ryan Stevenson, “The Gospel”
  • Chris Tomlin, “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)”
  • Jasmine Murray, “Fearless” (poppier and more uptempo than much of the other music, the first “4” on a 1-5 scale so far)
  • Matthew West, “Forgiveness”
  • Micah Tyler, “Different”
  • Needtobreathe, “Multiplied”
  • Lauren Daigle, “Trust In You”
  • Rend Collective, “Rescuer (Good News)”
  • Chris Rice, “Untitled Hymn (Come To Jesus)”
  • MercyMe, “Dear Younger Me”
  • Mandisa, “Stronger”
  • Sidewalk Prophets, “Prodigal”
  1. BJ Mora says

    Lovely article, Sean. A shorter analysis of EMF’s other network, Air1, could be had. To this amateur’s ears, Air1 historically has had closer to a Christian CHR (with a few more rock tracks); in my household we used to call them “crunchier” than K-LOVE. But my ears say they’ve softened a bit. A recent playlist:

    for King & Country, “Fix My Eyes”
    Landry Cantrell, “Before You”
    7eventh Time Down, “God Is On The Move”
    Matthew West, “Broken Things”
    Royal Tailor, “Remain”
    Chris Tomlin, “At The Cross (Love Ran Red)”
    Crowder, “Come As You Are”
    Lauren Daigle, “O Lord”
    Blanca, “Real Love”
    Sanctus Real, “Promises”

  2. Theater of My Mind says

    This company is predatory in every way.

    1. Mark says

      Would you be saying that if EMF were acquiring, say, AC or right-wing talk stations instead of rock stations? And how are they “predatory in every way?”

    2. Nathan Obral says

      Why are they predatory? Because they are the only major conglomerate not saddled with unconscionable debt? Because they managed to do what Cumulus and iHeart couldn’t do, and that’s creating a nationwide radio network people want to listen to?

      1. Mark says

        Don’t you know they’re taking away ROCK AND ROLL, Nathan? And it’s all a big plot by K-Love and, uh, uh, Ryan Seacrest, and, uh, uh, Clear Channel, and, uh, uh, OBAMA! 🙂

        Seriously, the wailing and gnashing of teeth would happen no matter who the new owner, because it’s still a rock format being replaced by something else that traditionally appeals more to women than rock formats (or pre-Beatles oldies, or lately pre-1970 oldies). If EMF was buying the second country station or the third AC in a market, no one would be complaining at all. And in LA, they bought the SECOND classic rocker in the market (third if you count KCBS-FM, which is more classic leaning than most other Jacks) and there were still complaints.

  3. Brammy says

    WCCC may have been a heritage rocker, but at the time they were sold to K-LOVE they have been a Classic Rock station for a year and a half having flipped in early 2013 to try to improve ratings and revenue.

    K-LOVE and Connoisseur were also in a bidding war for WCCC. That’s why K-LOVE paid around $9 Million for WCCC and it’s low-power AM station and Connoisseur only paid $5.6 million for WDRC and their 4 AM stations.

    If Connoisseur had ended up with WCCC, they probably would’ve kept the Classic Rock format in place. Not sure if they still would’ve bought WDRC.

    K-LOVE could’ve came to Hartford in 2009. They could’ve bought 104.1 out of the Aloha Trust. They were an all-automated Classic Alternative station known as WURH “fm 104.1” Full-Power Radio bought 104.1 and relaunched Radio 104.1 WMRQ.

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