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.
As always, there are some format trends that are best expressed in terms of more than one radio station:
- The success of Mainstream Top 40 in markets that haven’t always been strongholds;
- 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;
- WTGB (the Globe) Washington, D.C. – The green-themed Triple-A;
- KNVO (Super Estrella 101) McAllen, Texas – The CHR/Spanish CHR/Radio Disney hybrid;
- 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.