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First Listen: Austin City Limits Radio (KGSR Austin)

Austin City Limits Radio 93.3 KGSR 97.1This is not how the story usually ends. There’s a struggling heritage brand. A chain reaction of frequency flips. The sudden availability of a new, lesser frequency. A promo about a major announcement coming the next day. It would have been entirely reasonable to expect something far more anodyne on the 93.3 frequency of Triple-A KGSR Austin.

Instead, KGSR rebranded as Austin City Limits Radio, which launched today at 5 p.m., on both the current and new frequency, promising “not a format, but [the] aesthetic” of the ACL TV series and festival. And by imaging around the festival scene, KGSR found the best hook so far for doing mixtape/playlist radio on a viable frequency in a significant market.

KGSR, which spent several years as a Triple-A/Hot AC hybrid along the lines of KTCZ (Cities 97) Minneapolis, couldn’t have gone back to the more eclectic, acoustic-based station it once was. Not only was non-comm KUTX in the way, so was progressive Country KOKE, a successful (and very enjoyable) revival of another Austin legend.

I like the new concept for a lot of reasons. It’s Triple-A for a new generation (which likes what that format represents but not in its current package). It allows KGSR to play a cool variant of “the hits”—something that was an entirely valid idea for the previous incarnation, if only it hadn’t meant taking away the John Prine and Lucinda Williams records. And in the first hour, the average tempo was (by my accounting) a 4.1 on a 1-5 scale, giving it far more tempo and song-to-song variety than most of today’s CHRs.

KGSR is also in the same cluster with KBPA, one of the longest-running and most successful versions of “Bob-FM,” the format that helped facilitate more variety on the radio when that meant being compared to an iPod, not Spotify. It’s also next door to Alternative KROX, and while this is not Alternative radio as we currently know it, it is an alternative in its own way. Then again, KROX and the previous version of KGSR were issues for each other as well.

Here’s the first hour of Austin City Limits Radio:

  • David Bowie, “Changes” (the final record before the relaunch)
  • Willie Nelson, “Whiskey River” (the first song on “Austin City Limits,” the TV show)
  • Childish Gambino, “This Is America”
  • Spoon, “The Underdog”
  • Alessia Cara, “Growing Pains”
  • Foo Fighters, “Learn to Fly”
  • Drake, “In My Feelings”
  • Chris Stapleton, “Tennessee Whiskey”
  • Portugal. The Man, “Feel It Still”
  • Tom Petty, “I Won’t Back Down”
  • Kygo f/Miguel, “Remind Me to Forget”
  • Metallica, “Enter Sandman”
  • Nelly, “Ride Wit Me” (appearing at ACL 2018)
  • Lovely The Band, “Broken”
  • Kacey Musgraves, “High Horse”
  • Modest Mouse, “Float On”

The first hour of a station like this is always a policy statement. The second hour began with Camila Cabello, “Havana,” followed by Leon Bridges, “Beyond.” Since then, there’s been Alice Merton, Weezer, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the White Stripes, Buddy Guy, M.I.A., and Muse. There was Eminem, the Chainsmokers (“Closer”), Halsey, and Post Malone, “Better Now.”

Mixtape/playlist radio has been difficult for broadcast radio over the years because anybody it would appeal to has their own aesthetic. So I’m going to briefly quibble with the presence of some of CHR’s crispiest hits right now. Not with Post Malone; he’s undeniable now, however much his Top 40 ubiquity underscores the format’s biggest issues. Not with the Chainsmokers as an act; EDM is a significant part of the festival world. But I might have done without “Closer.” Or “Havana.” It never has to be obscure to be cool, but if “cool” is the thru-line, it’s going to be a while before those songs regain theirs.

I’d also enjoy a little more Outlaw Country–the first generation of music associated with “Austin City Limits” (and KGSR). The connection between “Whiskey River” and “ACL” was explained twice, as if one now needs to carefully stage a Willie Nelson song in Austin, by God, Texas.  The “ACL” concept gives KGSR permission to draw on its roots and the artists that made Chris Stapleton possible. (As I write this, they have just gone from Drake into Johnny Cash, “I Walk the Line.”)

But it’s good news for radio when broadcasters revive heritage brands (as Cities 97 was a few weeks ago) or create new brands that have national appeal (see my other article this week about Me-TV-FM finally streaming or the relaunch of “ROQ of the ‘80s”). Radio.com in particular seems to be understanding the need for the types of franchises that can work together to make broadcast streaming a destination at this late date. (They also launched a true Adult Standards station this week in Denver.)

(My recent coverage of Cities 97 also prompted veteran programmer Brew Michaels to check in with a plug for his Hot AC/Triple-A hybrid KRVO (The River) Kalispell, Montana, which plays Shawn Mendes, Macklemore, and Ariana Grande, but also Beck, Leon Bridges, Vance Joy, and Florence + the Machine. That gives it commonalities with both last week’s KGSR and the new station.)

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