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First Listen: KOAI (The Wow Factor) Phoenix

The Wow Factor 95.1 KOAI Phoenix John Sebastian OasisWhen radio was at its most universal as a shared experience, there were certain musical journeys from genre to genre that you could pretty much count on a large number of listeners having taken together:

There was the listener who began with Top 40 radio in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, then switched to rock radio, usually somewhere around age 12-13. If you meet a Detroiter of a certain age, you have a pretty good chance of guessing their musical history correctly if you say “CKLW until 1974, then the AORs.”

There’s the Southern Californian who grew up with AOR on KMET or KLOS, then switched to KROQ’s Alternative “Roq of the ‘80s.”  In other markets, those fans might have been in opposite cliques.

It’s easy now to find the ‘90s male listener who liked, and still liked, both Hip-Hop and Alternative. Or the ‘90s Hip-Hop/R&B fans lured from CHR for more than a decade, until “American Idol” and turbo-pop brought them back to the pop side.

As common as some of these shared musical histories are, it’s rare that programmers reliably build a radio station around them. The most common, least abstract one has been the oft-repeated AC paradigm of the last 35 years—older uptempo titles; softer recent ones. KCBS (Jack FM) Los Angeles did successfully follow L.A.’s evolution to the point where some of its relatively obscure KROQ classics became playable for Classic Hits KRTH (K-Earth 101).

Recreating other coalitions are harder. Acknowledging Hip-Hop and Alternative together still scares rock radio, because if you are old enough to miss the cut-off point by even a day, you really don’t hear a commonality. Will stations in a decade play both Country and Top 40 from the early ‘10s for the listeners who liked them both? They’re afraid to play those songs together now.

One of the first promos for KOAI Phoenix, veteran programmer John Sebastian’s long-sought first outlet for his “Wow Factor” format, promises not just “all the music you love,” but from “every phase of your life.” It’s Sebastian’s programming journey, too: Top 40 through the mid-‘70s, then Top 40 stations with Album Rock values, then Rock radio, outright. In the early ‘00s, Sebastian programmed Country stations that played Classic Rock gold—once a common strategy, but by then contrarian.

Like a number of prominent launches of the last 18 months, the Wow Factor plays a lot of the ‘70s titles that have now disappeared from Classic Rock and Classic Hits formats. Also, some that never got there; the first song on the station was “Ride My See-Saw” by the Moody Blues. It’s not The Breeze stations or any of their Soft AC brethren (including a previous version of KOAI as “The Oasis”) because there are harder-rocking titles in the mix. Unlike any of the recent attempts, there’s also ‘90s and ‘00s Country. As one friend astutely observes, it’s almost the inverse of Sebastian’s country stations.

Jack-FM made a point of not explaining its (not really that unusual) variety as anything other than “playing what we want.” Sebastian’s ’70s stations specialized in a type of earnest promo that was transparent about what the station was doing, and you can hear those here as well. The same promo with the “every phase” line has several other good ones: “more radical variety than any other station in the Valley”; “it’s not a slogan, it’s the truth” (another promo calls the station’s more music claims “fact, not fake news”).

Other liners refer to The Wow Factor as “the boomer station.” The sweepers into stopsets say there will be no more than three minutes of ads. The sweep starter afterwards follows-up: “Promise made. Promise kept.”

Currently, KOAI’s stream is geo-blocked for most listeners, but it is possible to follow the station through the now playing/song history info on its streaming player. Without the imaging and without actually hearing the transitions, reading some of the segues sound more provocative than they are on the air. Aerosmith, “Sweet Emotion” cold-segued into Alan Jackson, “Remember When” went right by me without evoking an “oof.” But I didn’t hear George Strait, “The Chair” into Jimi Hendrix in real time.

There’s another significant difference to The Wow Factor. Some ’70s/’80s-based ACs go older and softer to establish an initial beachhead, but remain concerned with 25-54, and often modernize as quickly as possible. Wow Factor is one of several stations cheerfully defining its target as 55-72.

The first hour of the station was published in the launch story on Radioinsight. Here’s nearly two hours of The Wow Factor on its second day, October 1, just after 11 a.m.:

  • Naked Eyes, “Always Something There To Remind Me”
  • Alicia Bridges, “I Love The Nightlife (Disco Round)”
  • Bertie Higgins, “Key Largo”
  • Fleetwood Mac, “Go Your Own Way”
  • Beatles, “Norwegian Wood”
  • Bellamy Brothers, “Let Your Love Flow”
  • Maria Muldaur, “Midnight At The Oasis”
  • Daryl Hall & John Oates, “She’s Gone”
  • Paul Revere & Raiders, “Kicks”
  • Barry White, “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe”
  • Box Tops, “The Letter”
  • Robert Palmer, “Addicted To Love” (also the last song heard yesterday on the Classic Hits format)
  • Alive & Kickin’, “Tighter Tighter”
  • Blake Shelton, “Some Beach”
  • Barry Manilow, “Mandy”
  • Derek & the Dominos, “Layla”
  • Shirelles, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”
  • Genesis, “Follow You Follow Me”
  • Donna Summer, “Hot Stuff”
  • England Dan & John Ford Coley, “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight”
  • Emotions, “Best Of My Love”
  • Beatles, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”
  • Greg Kihn Band, “Jeopardy”
  • Al Green, “Let’s Stay Together”
  • Vogues, “You’re The One”
  • Brooks & Dunn, “My Maria”

UPDATE: Here’s a new stretch of the station at 9:40 p.m. on Oct. 7:

  • Traveling Wilburys, “End Of The Line”
  • Aretha Franklin, “I Say A Little Prayer”
  • Brothers Johnson, “Strawberry Letter 23”
  • Faith Hill, “Breathe”
  • Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”
  • Beach Boys, “Fun, Fun, Fun”
  • Queensryche, “Silent Lucidity”
  • Tommy James & Shondells, “Crystal Blue Persuasion”
  • Steve Winwood, “Roll With It”
  • Seals & Crofts, “Get Closer”
  • Deniece Williams, “Let’s Hear It For The Boy”
  • Doors, “Hello, I Love You”
  • Don Henley, “All She Wants To Do Is Dance”
  • Neil Diamond, “Cherry Cherry”
  • John Lennon, “Imagine”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Wow Factor or any of the other recent stations of similar intent. Please leave a comment. You can also see some of my recent Twitter dialogues on the station (including with Sebastian himself) here.

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  1. patholiday says

    Love John’s idea and what he’s doing. It actually looks much safer than I thought it would be. The music styles are different but this isn’t unlike the Garth Channel on Sirius in that there’s more than a few non-traditional genre’s/songs put together that you wouldn’t normally hear on any regular station. But, they work totally fine together because there’s ‘glue’ that’s holding them together. In Garth’s case it’s clearly his musical taste. My guess would be if you like his country picks you’ll also like is non-country picks like Lady Gaga and Aerosmith etc. All BIG songs, just not country. For John here it looks similar (one taste) and also it’s weaving though era’s, as you suggest, that were compatible with most boomers. Really hope it succeeds.

    1. Sean Ross says

      Hi, Pat – Great comments, thanks. On every platform except broadcast radio, listeners are used to the playlist defined by usage or other commonalities that go beyond musical genre. Almost everybody in the target has lived through a period (or two, or more) where Country crossovers were a regular part of Top 40. At this point, it’s only relevant that Keith Urban/You’ll Think Of Me was worked to CHR and Raining On Sunday wasn’t a hit there if the listener doesn’t know both of them.

  2. Gary Guthrie says

    I think John Sebastian deserves a standing ovation.
    It takes guts to do what he’s doing and I’m glad to see there are broadcast groups that will give ideas like his a fighting chance.
    While the “Sweet Emotion” to “Remember When” segue might have been served better by “Sweet Emotion” to Alan Jackson’s “Ring of Fire,”* I think John probably just had to hear it play out in real-time. God knows we’ve all had our trainwreck episodes, but good PDs fail forward fast and John will, too.

    *The texture in the intro of “Ring” is pretty much the same as “Emotion.” I think they’re even in the same harmonic key.

    1. Sean Ross says

      Now we’re going to go off on segues and I’m going to have to mention Guy Mitchell/Singing The Blues into Eddie Rabbit/I Love A Rainy Night.

      I haven’t heard all of these segues on-the-air, but of the ones I’ve heard, everything has come off okay, at least in terms of pure sonics.

      1. Sean Ross says

        By the way, I mean I used to do that segue in the production room. Not that I heard it on Wow

  3. Gary Guthrie says

    So, a day later, I have a question to pose (to John, possible): What are all the “phases” considered?

    I see Classic Hits, Classic Rock, and Disco (although the Alicia Bridges and Donna Summer songs could qualify as Hits). The Modern Country add-ins are a natural given it’s Phoenix and the incredible influence of KNIX.

    I think I can safely say that many (most?) Baby Boomers went through other phases, too — like perusing a branch on the Singer/Songwriter tree, not to mention a Jazz phase and a Triple-A phase. It could be argued that the lower end of the Boomer scale also had a dalliance with Hard Rock. I think it could be said there was also an EWF/Benson’y phase (“Reasons”? “Breezin'”?).

    I would think that if Brooks & Dunn could be made to fit that some of those could find their way in some lunar rotation fashion. That would certainly make people lose their wig.

    Btw, Sean, I just tried the Guy Mitchell-Rabbitt seg. You’re spot on.

    1. Sean Ross says

      The timeline does seem to jump from 70s to 90s (over those 80s songs that are pretty well represented on regular Classic Hits stations). As I hear more, it’s possible to hear Country as one of 4-5 core sounds.

  4. Mike says

    Seems to me that a lot of boomers segued to Country in the early ’90s (when hip-hop on CHRs became commonplace) . So songs from that “Hat Guys”/”New Trad” period might make even more sense than more-recent “modern country”.

    1. Gary Guthrie says

      I buy into that.

      1. Sean Ross says

        I’ve thought that. Those songs were certainly heard by more people than some of the early ’00s doldrums titles.

  5. mattmc0916 says

    When I started to program country in the 1990s we sure saw that transition to the format from those who grew up with rock/pop. As contemporary music became unrelatable, they were attracted by the lyric and melody driven country which had a huge pop influence in that era. Interesting as I saw the music my first response was “wow” …. I think, however, if the programming is nothing more than a music box it will have limited success, however if you add relatable programming elements to add to the “wow factor” it could be a big player in the 45-64 demo

    1. Gary Guthrie says

      How true. The “stuff” between the records has been Radio’s great lost art and difference-maker. I trust that John knows that given his history and we’ll hear that extra context once all the musical nuances are ironed out.

  6. says

    Congratulations on the launch, John! The playlist is a lot like my long-running 70s/80s show, “The Lost 45s” — so many of those titles have been staples since the show began in 1981. Listeners have always sought it out…#1 on 6 different Boston radio signals, while in syndication in many other markets. It’s even more important what goes on between songs…which is why we have over 1,000 artist interviews and ten thousand TV/movie drops. Classic Hits radio as it has become is so damn tired, boring and thoughtless. It doesn’t take much to shake it up. Congrats on attempting to do just that! -Barry Scott.

  7. wtk says

    I’ve been saying for years that our (boomer) generation needs its Music of Your Life: something generally familiar yet comprehensive enough to take in a lifetime of listening across musical categories (it WASN’T just a big-band format!). In John Sebastian, we may have found our Al Ham.

    That said, for true wow factor, the background music in Marc’s, a Northeast Ohio discount store chain, still has any radio beat, wherever they’re getting their stuff. The most out-there track I’ve heard remains “See My Baby Jive” by Roy Wood’s Wizzard, but last week I heard “5-4-3-2-1” by Manfred Mann, which has to be a close second!

    1. Sean Ross says

      There are definitely people who program in-store music who I want to meet and talk music with. I’ve written before about the now defunct Pathmark supermarket that played deep Classic Soul. (Best moment–the older man in the checkout line explaining to his granddaughter who Baby Washington was.) But there have been others.

      1. wtk says

        This evening at Marc’s I heard “No Milk Today” into “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello into “Never Never” by the Assembly.

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