Perspectives, News & Opinions From The Researchers At Edison

The Most Intriguing Stations Of 2007 (And Echoes Of 2005)

Entry by Sean Ross | Wednesday, January 9th, 2008 | Permalink

In the same way that it was hard to discuss the “Songs That Made A Difference” in 2007 without mentioning Gwen Stefani’s two-year-old “Hollaback Girl,” the most influential stations this year may be a cluster whose experimental formats lasted only a few months in late 2005. TMO’s three Eastern Long Island stations went jockless and (tried to) replace spots with sponsorships in a declared attempt to beat iPods and satellite radio on their own turf. It was impossible not to see similar intent this year at the Clear Channel music stations that dramatically streamlined their presentation, experimented with the sponsorship model (KZPS [Lone Star 92.5] Dallas) or both (WCRR [Labatts Blue Country 107.3] Rochester, N.Y.). And while the sponsorship model clearly presents challenges–KZPS modified theirs and WCRR’s Labatts deal is no longer in evidence–expect to see more stations taking a swing at it in 2008 and beyond.
Our annual recap of the year’s most intriguing new and resurgent radio stations–stations that didn’t just do well in 2007, but somehow reflected format trends–was harder to write this year than in any in recent memory. The biggest stories were fairly obvious. (One colleague quipped recently that I was writing a lot about WRFF [Radio 104.5] Philadelphia, but at least it stopped me from writing about WWFS [Fresh 102.7] New York every week.) The smaller ones that deserved to have some attention called to them were more elusive, enough so that most of the programming junkies I compared notes with this year had pretty short lists themselves.

The most influential stations this year may be a cluster whose experimental formats lasted only a few months in late 2005

One key story for everybody was the resurgence of Rock radio and, most intriguingly, the resurgence of the gold-based Adult Modern format–the most written about format at this time four years ago, then, seemingly, too defined a niche for most stations. Radio 104.5, KNRK (94/7 FM) Portland, Ore., and WSWD (94.9 the Sound) Cincinnati, all came at it from different angles and all made an impact. And by the end of the year, Canada had two gold-based Alternative stations as well.
WRFF has earned its attention in these pages for its imaging, its ability to cover several market positions at once, and its use of that always challenging mid-’90s oh-wow music. But there’s also a wider story in so many stations’ willingness to take another swing at this format (and the existence of two Cincinnati stations in the same neighborhood).
And now the rest of the honors roll for 2007:

  • WOGL Philadelphia – The return of WCBS-FM New York got (and deserved) plenty of attention. And 2007 had no shortage of Oldies success stories, including KLUV Dallas, KLTH Portland, Ore., and KKLZ Las Vegas. But it was WOGL’s success–highlighted, but not created by PPM–that helped prompt the relaunch of WCBS. And if Oldies stations were all about finesse in 2007, WOGL managed to modernize just enough without sounding like an entirely different station.
  • Fresh 102.7 - At year’s end, WLTW (106.7 Lite FM) is back in No. 1 and Fresh 102.7 is ensconced in the (nicely saleable) niche that had eluded the 102.7 frequency for years. Fresh has modified its “today’s soft music” positioner to “today’s fresh music” — reflecting a mix that can’t really be called soft anymore. Between then and now, though, you can’t deny what Fresh accomplished. It made “today” a selling proposition for AC radio–which, until now, had needed “songs you haven’t heard on the radio in a while” to get noticed. It further demonstrated the appeal of the “new adult music.” And it proved that with enough TV and a concerted effort, you could convince at least a few people that the best-oiled machine in America had issues.
  • KBCO Denver, KINK Portland, Ore., and KMTT (the Mountain) Seattle — The rise of the “new adult music” presented a challenge for Triple-A, which had to both stake its claim to music that it had nurtured for nearly a decade without losing its identity. While KBCO has doubled as a Modern AC for a while now, the success of all these transitions (and some that I’m doubtless overlooking) deserve a mention.
  • KIFM San Diego – Just as there was a movement in Triple-A to move away from Classic Rock, there was a renewed push at Smooth Jazz to break away from Urban AC. In some markets, that smacked of ingratitude to the audience that had given Smooth Jazz a foothold when nothing else had. But seeing a large-market station with a purer Smooth Jazz identity win has to be taken seriously.
  • WCKX (Power 107) Columbus, Ohio – In a year when Hip-Hop and Urban radio had so many heavily publicized travails, it was interesting to see markets like this one where a Hip-Hop station was staking out No. 1 overall for the first time. And in a year when some Mainstream Top 40s like KIIS Los Angeles seemed to be developing a stealth “R&B hits” utility, it was nice to see a Hip-Hop/R&B station that could go into Top 40′s turf.
  • WDAS Philadelphia, KMJQ (Majic 102) and KBXX (the Box) Houston – Urban radio was starting to have issues before PPM came along, so perhaps the key to these stations’ strength in a PPM world is that they were among the strongest and least fragmented of the Urban stations measured by PPM in the first place. But if that’s the answer, it’s still significant, particularly for The Box’s younger-skewing counterparts which have notably struggled.
  • CIRR (103.9 Proud FM) Toronto – The idea of a LGBT-targeted music station has picked up momentum in recent years, evolving from the syndicated “Radio With A Twist” to stations like KNGY (Energy 92.7) San Francisco that cultivated a gay presence to the launch of Clear Channel’s “Pride Radio” specialty show and HD-2 multicast stations. This low-powered Toronto FM may be the most ambitious venture so far–both in its full-service presentation and the relative complexity of its music.
  • WLBW (the Wave) Ocean City, Md. – In a year when the trades retired the word Oldies for “Classic Hits,” and the format’s evolution into the ’70s and ’80s seemed like a fait accompli, it was impressive to hear the Wave ignoring the memo, continuing to include not just pre-Beatles oldies, but some pretty deep ones for an FM.
  • WJJK Indianapolis – First, it took off the left-field records and presentational trappings of the Jack-FM format, and the numbers rebounded. Now we’ll see how it does without the name. Further evidence that while the package was a bonus, the need filled by the Adult Hits format was younger classic rock. Not that it’s a hot debate in the industry these days–but if you can prove that there’s a music franchise at the bottom of all this, you can prove a long-term need. And if what you wanted to hear a new set of “oh wow” songs on Jack, there was its launch of Jack FM in Oxford, U.K., this year.
  • KDND (the End) Sacramento, Calif. – After the death of a listener during a morning show contest last January, it was logical to wonder if this station had any future. At this writing, it’s No. 2 in a market where Mainstream Top 40 has usually taken a backseat to its Rhythmic counterpart. Some people might attribute that to listeners’ morbid curiosity. We would attribute it to the strength of the format and to Dan Mason’s performance in the hardest PD job in America this year.

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As always, there are some format trends that are best expressed in terms of more than one radio station:

  • The continued spread of Regional Mexican to WQBU New York and, at the end of the year, WZMQ (106.3 La Raza) Miami;
  • The ongoing migration for News, Talk and Sports to FM. “It’s one thing to do this in a market like Phoenix that’s never been an AM town to begin with,” says 100000watts.com’s Scott Fybush, who cites CBS’ willingness to put WXYT Detroit on FM even as sister WWJ depends on AM traffic as particularly gutsy.

Some other changes that haven’t borne ratings fruit yet or are too new to be evaluated yet, but certainly come under the headline “most intriguing.”

  • WBZW (B94) Pittsburgh – Another vote of confidence for Mainstream Top 40 that somebody would launch one, even when the hole isn’t wide-open;
  • Lone Star 92.5, not just for its use of the sponsorship model, but for taking another swing at the Country/Classic Rock hybrid on a big major-market signal;
  • KSCF (Sophie 103.7) San Diego – The rotating artists on the Website are a lot more mainstream than the ones that were there at the outset, but for a while, this looked like the first attempt to capture MySpace music as its own format;
  • Suburban Chicago’s WBEW (Vocalo), Chicago Public Radio’s unusual mix of listener-generated content and old-style college radio progressive music. Part of the larger youth movement at NPR that included this year’s launch of the Bryant Park Project.

And now, your most intriguing stations of 2007, please.

16 Responses to “The Most Intriguing Stations Of 2007 (And Echoes Of 2005)”

  1. Hi Folks,
    What a great thing to find out that terrestial radio and ‘organic’ programming IS noticed and appreaciated. As Music Director for a overwhelmingly volunteer staffed station we feel that the freedom of expression and actual concern for listeners is more valuable than all the market predictions and Arbitron [root word: arbitrary] data in the world. Being of value to the community of listeners WSGE serves has been a point of pride with us for over 27years and counting so someday we hope to be good enough at what we do to deserve mention on the list of Most Intriguing Stations.

  2. Lou P. says:

    Lightning 100 (WRLT) in Nashville is a fascinating station, a Triple-A with outstanding programming and a few local artists thrown in for spice.

  3. Thanks for the great post. Are there any non-commercial stations that you’d characterize as “most intriguing”? Surely, one or more of them are doing innovative, unique things.

  4. Applause to Sean for the recognition of the innovative endeavors of a few. In a day of so much centralization and corporately rigid and manufactured programming, this is evidence that
    there are emerging visionaries who can break the sound barriers of status quo to deliver a revolutionary product.
    When I was awarded the very exciting mission to create the nation’s first 60s specific format for XM, I recall the boot camp meetings that inspired
    this new frontier’s programmers to think beyond
    the limitations that had always been known to stifle the natural growth of terrestrial radio.
    I discovered that when you are permitted to unleash imagination to become an integral part of operation, all that you create becomes a magic lure.
    Bottom line: the laws of attraction work and are always applicable – especially in communications and entertainment.
    The channel I developed, became one of the most popular on the system. The music defined it clearly, without use of the word “oldies” or “classic hits” and I christened the category
    for the line-up of XM vintage music channels, “decades”.
    Something tired and antiquated was made something new and vital all over again. Of course, there was also a distinguishable difference in the content and presentation of XM6 and the standard format ingredients of terrestrial radio’s “oldies” stations.
    For all that was so successful about that channel, I could well have been standing as the accused next to Roger Clemmons!
    In close examination of the human spirit, sometimes all we need the natural inclination to
    produce and exceptional performance.
    Our business needs to install the kind of change that compels and surprises again. Regardless of the challenges presented by all the new technologies, terrestrial radio holds the birthright of broadcasting and should always be one step ahead of the “next big curve” to offer the novel and unprecedented. There is no excuse not to
    I can only hope that what these brilliant programmers are doing becomes viral in the industry.
    My hat is off to all of them for their outstanding
    contributions and particularly, to the management and ownership of their stations, who placed the (rare) confidence and trust in them to empower their accomplishments.
    There is an old cliche often used to inspire, that ironically seemed to be denied implementation for many years in this business. “Think outside the box.”
    My view has always been, “what is a box?”

  5. Cindy Webster says:

    Hi Sean-
    I just wanted to thank you for choosing WOGL for your honor roll! I have been the Marketing Director for 16 years and have seen this radio station through many phases. It has never been healthier or more vibrant then it is today. And that’s not an easy task in this format. We appreciate the kind words.

  6. Michael McDowell says:

    Leamington, Ontario’s CFCO and Windsor, Ontario’s CKWW both get my vote. Any station that offhandedly an routinely works into their mixes the likes of Barry Allen’s “Love Drops”, the Guess Who’s “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” and Terry Black’s “Unless You Care” (whether for Can Con obligations or otherwise) is definitely alright in my book.

  7. Mark Jeffries says:

    Cephas:
    Sean mentioned one non-com in Chicago’s WBEW (Vocalo), with its combination of indie pop/Current TV/”This American Life” aimed at the non-white under-25 audience that shuns public radio.
    Unfortunately, WBEW seems to be making no impression in the market, as far as I can tell, although it’s partially because the signal barely reaches large parts of Chicago from its Indiana transmitter. (Chicago Public Radio bought the signal originally as a repeater of WBEZ to combat Bible-thumper translators in northwest Indiana interfering with the main WBEZ signal at 91.5.) Even after they raise the power to 50kw as planned, the signal will barely be heard in the northern suburbs. The jazz buffs who were angry with the related drop of music programming from WBEZ (and the original plans to make WBEW all-music, presumably mostly jazz) will claim that no one wants to hear Vocalo, but the signal would have been a challenge to the all-music station. It’s still too early to tell, but if Vocalo continues to make no impression, there could be a big shakeup at Chicago Public Radio.

  8. Mike McGough says:

    Here are a couple of Left Field Picks for “Most Intriguing Stations of 2007:” KQKQ(FM), Omaha and WPPT(FM), Hagerstown.
    KQKQ, known for decades as CHR “Sweet 98″ has re-emerged as a Modern AC–not Hot AC, but Modern–and has surged back into the upper tier in market #72. As far from a coast as you can get, Omaha may not strike you as an alternative kind of town, but Q-98-five has struck a chord with Omahans.
    WPPT, formerly “The Point” as a CHR/Hot AC, has made a big splash as Country Legends 92.1, grabbing the #3 slot in market #166. Now DC’s newest suburb, Hagerstown has strong Country roots and WPPT complements co-owned current-based Country leader WAYZ perfectly.

  9. Chuck Geiger says:

    Don’t forget in Country, Joel Folger’s THE BAR in Billings, Montana. A mix of Toby Keith and Synyrd, much like Clear Channel’s MOTHER TRUCKER HD-2 format and Lonestar 92.5 (w/out the Texas Music).

  10. Gregg Colamonico says:

    Can I cast a vote for Tampa’s WDUV 105.5? Maybe this is not in keeping with the spirit of this exercise, since “The Dove” is a throwback to an earlier era.
    WDUV is book after book after book Tampa’s #1 radio station, even after Cox switched it to a weaker signal a few years ago. It’s automated all day except morning drive. And even in the morning, the host also reads his own news headlines as a further way to keep costs to a minimum.
    But all day long, it plays nothing but the soft hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Even a few Sinatra hits, although in recent years, it plays fewer Andy Williams-Dean Martin-Perry Como hits.
    It’s probably the station that plays the most Beatles, Elvis and Carpenters anywhere on the dial with a good FM signal in a sizable U.S. market. But it’s also the station that probably plays the most Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John and Billy Joel, now that most conventional AC stations have put 70s music into slower and slower rotations.
    I suppose someday someone at Cox will pull the plug on the station. Clear Channel recently switched WRLX 92.1 in West Palm Beach to Spanish, even though it had a similar playlist and was often #1 in that market. I suppose if WDUV should ever stop getting twice the ratings as Tampa’s #2 station, it may be in for some trouble. But for now, thanks to internet audio streaming, we can still have The Dove, even if no such station exists in most other markets.
    I wonder how many markets would also make The Dove #1 if it were on a decent FM signal? But because of the high-end demographics, we’ll never know.

  11. Dave Mitchell says:

    To me the most interesting station in Canada is LiVE 88-5 in Ottawa. They are an alternative station that has a truly unique playlist, announcers that speak to you about things that matter and avoid many cliches that hamper radio today. LiVE also has the best weekend programming I’ve ever heard on a commercial station, much of it done in house to compliment it’s format. Truly a breath of fresh air in a very sterile market.

  12. Sean Ross says:

    If I haven’t already mentioned WDUV in years past, they certainly deserve some recognition now. This column is usually for stations that either debuted, significantly revamped, or made a comeback during the year. WDUV just continued to go about its business, but in a year that ended with the similar WRLX West Palm Beach, Fla., changing formats, despite being No. 1 in the market, that can’t be taken for granted.

  13. Stations Of The Year: How Many Have You Heard?

    Just a reminder: If you haven’t seen it already, be sure to check out the list in last Wednesday’s Ross on Radio of the Most Intriguing Stations of 2007, as well as readers’ own suggestions and comments….

  14. Brian Woodward says:

    The early 2008 story to me is WNCI. With an 8 share 12+ it’s the highest rated Top 40 in the Top 50 markets and they sound like top 40 should everywhere. Clear Channel copied the wrong model years ago with KISS…they should have gone with WNCI where the 3 M’s are done with almost perfection. Most impressive to me is they beat solidly 2 mainstream AC stations, 50 rock stations, an urban a Country and a Hot AC…all of which beat top 40 in almost every other market. Top 40 is very healthy when you look at the format thru WNCI’s eyes. There is a fire at CC Columbus…and there is no putting it out!

  15. I know we are a very small market up in Humboldt County, California, but there is no radio station quite as diverse and successful as KHUM. (www.khum.com)
    We’re top rated 25-54, award-winning (NAB and Edward R Murrow),and who else mixes bluegrass with Sinatra and Zappa. Sorry to boast.

  16. Kris Abrams says:

    Speaking as a proud member of the CBS Oldies/Classic Hits family – congrats to Anne Gress and her staff at the 800lb gorilla that is WOGL. Sean’s props to CBS-FM, KLUV/Dallas and K-Hits/Portland are well noted – and let’s not overlook the results Jhani Kaye and K-Earth are posting up in LA.
    Kris Abrams, Program Director
    KOOL-FM/CBS Radio, Phoenix AZ

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