The Most Intriguing Stations of 2003

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

They couldn’t make the fragments any tinier. So in 2003, broadcasters rediscovered broadcasting, designing new stations or retooling old ones to target new or larger coalitions. They couldn’t write-off radio’s bad press anymore. So in 2003, stations tried to market “anti-radio,” stations that responded to listener complaints about radio—or at least tried to distance themselves from them—by deliberately trying to sound different.

At least one, and often both, of those elements figure into most of 2003’s most intriguing stations. WNEW-FM New York’s short-lived Blink 102.7 might have been ambitious on far too many fronts, but Canada’s Jack and Bob stations continued to offer a similarly broad mix of music with phenomenal success—even if American PDs were skeptical. Washington, D.C.’s already successful WPGC extended its reach older at a time when every other R&B station felt the need to hyper-focus on hip-hop. Adult Modern KBZT (FM 94.9) San Diego and “deep cuts” Classic Rock KQMT (the Mountain) Denver were more traditional coalition splitters, but “anti-radio” elements were key to both.

If these were traditional “station of the year” awards, you’d see a lot more of radio’s usual standard-bearers mentioned here. These were stations that helped take radio in different directions.

KBZT (FM 94.9) San Diego—Gold-based, adult-targeted Modern Rock didn’t have to be a boxcar numbers format. It just had to take a big enough piece of rival XETRA-FM (91X) to leave Clear Channel doing something it was hardly known for: playing defense. And 91X was hardly a station that had written off its upper-end. It also helps that in 2003, rap/rock shriveled further, grunge titles rose to the top of the page again in music tests, and most of the great new music sounded retro. (KBZT, significantly, also found some success in attacking “corporate radio,” although it did stop bashing Clear Channel by name after a few months.) In any event, at year’s end, the Adult Modern franchise was looking sufficiently potent that heritage Moderns KNDD Seattle and WNNX (99X) were covering it and KNDD’s rival KYPT decided to launch the format anyway.

CKLG (Jack FM) Vancouver—It’s taken American programmers all year to pay attention to Canada’s Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrids (the first, CFWM [Bob FM] Winnipeg was on last year’s list), but by fourth quarter, there were stations trying the format in Honolulu (probably not the right market) and Oklahoma City (a more likely candidate). Jack FM, Rogers’ answer to CHUMGroup’s Bob stations, initially felt a little too male, but the TM “You” ‘70s jingle package ultimately gave them a more accessible feel. In the end, both templates reflected both an increasing trend toward “anti-radio” and a hole for early ‘80s pop/rock (the latter also filled, in a much different way, by Emmis’ classic hits KIHT St. Louis). It also suggested that the best way to program the ‘70s or the ‘80s could be by playing them both (as KVMX Portland, Ore., is now doing).

KQMT (the Mountain) Denver—The presentational inverse of Jack/Bob, but another manifestation of the audience’s appetite for more (carefully managed) variety. And evidence that there are, perhaps, a lot more songs that will test if PDs were only willing to find them. And while Triple-A was fragmented on the young end by the Modern Rock and Modern AC revolutions, KQMT’s success also suggested that there were some older Triple-A listeners who didn’t have as much appetite for new music as perhaps thought.

KLBU (Blu 102.9) Santa Fe, N.M.—Chillout has been shaping up as this generation’s Smooth Jazz, or Easy Listening, for the last 3-4 years. By early 2003, some stations, including KBZT, had discovered its specialty show potential, but this was the station that got it on the air full-time in the U.S.

Heart FM London—When this rhythmic-leaning Bright AC overtook Capital FM as the market’s No. 1 station, it was confirmation that rhythm, not rock, was the new sound of the U.K. Of course, the same change had long taken place in the States, seemingly under the radar of most American program directors.

WPGC-FM Washington, D.C.—If you haven’t looked at WPGC’s music lately, you might think I’m breaking my own rule here by including this perennial powerhouse. But in a year when most mainstream Urban stations got narrower, WPGC PD Jay Stevens used the adult-targeted music that scares other PDs to make an already formidable station even bigger.

WOLI/WOLT (the Walk) Greenville, S.C.—We’ve already seen a recent crop of better-executed Christian AC stations on better frequencies become major players. But, by and large, they still exist in a separate musical universe, sharing very little music with the secular world. So this new Christian AC/secular country hybrid will be a test of whether the boundaries between the music that comes out of the Christian music industry and all other spiritually inclined music are significant to the audience, or just to programmers.

Some format trends have to be expressed in terms of multiple key stations (many of them taking their trend from a station that debuted in 2002 or earlier):

In 2003, a handful of Urban ACs grappled with the fact that the listener who was 12 when “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979 is now squarely in the middle of their demo.

The building boom in second or third R&B stations, particularly at Clear Channel, that hit its stride with the previous year’s launch of WWPR New York, but rolled into markets like Tampa, Fla., Hartford, Conn., Knoxville, Tenn., and Omaha, Neb., this year.

The continued rise of Gospel on FM—big enough at the beginning of the year that Clear Channel was willing to blow up an oldies FM in Memphis and big enough by the end of the year that CC was willing to get out of top 40 in Jackson, Miss.

The ongoing growth of Country Oldies and yesterday-and-today Country stations, two genres that had been (to paraphrase a country oldie) taking one step forward and two steps back for a while. Having KKNG Oklahoma City lead two mainstream competitors might have been easy for some to write off. Having KTHT (Country Legends 97.1) be the No. 1 Country station in Houston, if only for a book, less so.

The move, at year-end, to more pop balance on Mainstream Top 40 stations that had previously been fast on rhythmic product and ultra-conservative on pop balance. Clear Channel’s WAKS (Kiss 96.5) Cleveland typified the changes, but you could as easily cite sisters WHTZ (Z100) New York or W-I-H-T (Hot 99.5) Washington, D.C.
Then there are the format experiments that didn’t quite get traction in 2003, but were fascinating nonetheless, and may yet have long-term programming implications:

WNEW’s short-lived Blink 102.7 incarnation was an easy target for the pundits, but there was certainly merit in the concept of a hot AC that reflected a rhythmic-driven market, took advantage of a (then) aggressively current top 40 competitor, and tried to reflect listeners’ lifestyles.

KHHT (Hot 92.3) Los Angeles and WFOX (97.1 Jamz) Atlanta: In 2003, a handful of Urban ACs grappled with the fact that the listener who was 12 when “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979 is now squarely in the middle of their demo. For some, the experimentation went no further than playing Nelly’s “Dilemma” (only nominally a rap record) or letting some early ‘80s rap infiltrate the mix shows. But these were chief among the stations that played the most adult-friendly hip-hop without a lot of traditional softer Urban AC music. At year’s end, Hot 92.3 had gone back to a more conventional Adult R&B format and WFOX was regrouping under a new PD, but the question of what (if anything) the hip-hop generation wants from Urban AC still has to be answered.

WSAI Cincinnati and the other pre-Beatles Oldies AM stations that proliferated this year in an effort to redefine Adult Standards for the next generation. It’s with some reluctance that I include this trend in this section of the article. The genre, so far, has given us only one real success story, WKAP Allentown, Pa., which has the advantage of no oldies FM competition. Otherwise, the demos for pre-Beatles Oldies may be better than Adult Standards, but so far, the 12-plus numbers are nowhere close. That said, you wouldn’t realistically expect boxcar numbers on an AM music station. And the format did put Larry Lujack and Tommy Edwards back together in morning drive at WRLL Chicago.

Super-soft AC: When WSNI (Sunny 104.5) Philadelphia tapered off after the winter book, the building boom that finally looked like it was going to take place in this format came to a halt. At year’s end, though, it was on again, as Charlotte, N.C., and Columbus, Ohio, got new Oldies/AC hybrids. And even after its numbers leveled, WSNI was still in considerably better shape than the station it replaced.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or EMR clients include KQMT, WOLI/WOLT, and KKNG.