This article was supposed to hit your in-box in the first week of January. Having just looked at the most influential hit records of 2006, it seemed like a logical time to turn our attention to stations. Then WWFS (Fresh 102.7) New York signed on, and there was something new to write about, followed by other developments that kept taking precedence over a recap. That’s good news–radio should intrigue every week. But there was intriguing radio throughout 2006 as well and it’s time to acknowledge it.
In 2006, radio finally started to come to grips with those listeners who had grown up on Hip-Hop, not pop–even as Hip-Hop radio itself faced challenges Spanish language radio was publicly distinguished by its community leadership in the immigration debate, but its programming continued to grow and splinter in ways that might not have been expected a few years ago. And a handful of programmers tried to tackle longstanding formats that should work–from Country/Classic Rock to the Rock/Rap hybrid that included all things of interest to a 12-to-24-year-old male.
That there weren’t more hands on deck on the issue of making radio cool to our kids again remains the biggest challenge, and one that you wish more broadcasters had taken a swing at. Last year’s reggaeton movement was particularly gratifying because it brought a new kind of music to the radio, after a few years of Bob- and Jack-FMs, Modern Gold stations and the like. If there was a new musical movement this year, it was the bubbling to the surface of indie rock’s more ethereal side. That music could yet manifest itself in some sort of ’70s soft rock equivalent for the MySpace generation; so far it’s been covered primarily by Top 40 and Hot AC with a “Chasing Cars” here or a “How To Save A Life” there.
In a world where some long-time franchise outlets are being whittled down by changing format usage patterns, continuing to thrive in certain formats remained remarkable.
As is the case every year, this is not a wrap-up of the established brands that continued to do well. It’s new stations or resurgent ones, stations that best represented a changing format landscape, and a handful that defied it. And this year, there are a surprising number of heritage stations — enough that this column’s usual name, “The Most Intriguing New Stations of the Year,” had to be modified. In a world where some long-time franchise outlets are being whittled down by changing format usage patterns, continuing to thrive in certain formats remained remarkable.
You’ll also notice more offerings this year from The Infinite Dial, the world beyond AM 1700 and FM 107.9. The inclusion of a satellite radio channel, a national network, and an HD-2 channel doesn’t indicate that the action has shifted from terrestrial radio as much as expanded beyond it. And for all the experimentation now taking place, one hopes that 2007 will see more than a handful of non-traditional broadcasters who create something that is both novel and impactful, and even more terrestrial stations that step up in the face of increased competition.
After four years of writing this column, it’s safe to say that there will be unintentional sins of omission. In the last 10 years, whatever the state of radio, I’ve never wanted for something to listen to, and there was plenty that kept me intrigued in 2006, particularly with so many major groups streaming again. Your thoughts are welcome below. And this year, I promise to go through those “what about this station?” comments and choose one mea culpa station to add to the list around the time of the next Ross On Radio.
And now, the most intriguing stations of 2006:
- KQMV (Movin’ 92.5) Seattle – At this moment, not every Adult Rhythmic station is roaring out of the gate like KQMV. Some have gone into markets where the music was already being served. Some are not as well defined. And some are in the least appropriate possible markets. This was, after all, an elusive niche for several years. Broadcasters knew that AC would have to eventually welcome the listeners who grew up with rhythmic music; it was just hard to do that on the same frequencies that ultimately drew the older listeners alienated by early ’90s Rhythmic music. But Seattle was the right market for a format that tapped into both the KUBE “Churban” legacy of the early ’90s and into the moms/daughters appeal of today’s rhythmic music. And if you insist on bringing up how much TV they bought, you’ll only be arguing that Movin’ 92.5, like some of the Bob- and Jack-FMs before it, further reintroduced radio to the power of outside marketing.
- WBLS/New York – It’s Steve Harvey in mornings, veteran personality Guy Black playing Urban AC in middays, Wendy Williams in afternoons, and the Quiet Storm at nights. If “the show,” not the music format is indeed the future of radio, WBLS has been there for several years now. But what few predicted was that WBLS would again be the No. 1 R&B station in New York, tied with WRKS (Kiss-FM) and leading the once seemingly unbeatable WQHT (Hot 97). Or that its personality-driven format would end up being more valuable than the R&B hits position that WWPR (Power 105) usurped when it launched several years ago.
- Sirius Hits 1 – For its first few years, satellite radio’s Top 40 channels were among its least interesting offerings. In the last 18 months, however, both satellite Top 40s have become more adventurous. (So, for that matter, has Music Choice’s Top 40 channel.) Sirius Hits 1 is clearly different from the “fast on rhythm, slow on rock” template that defines so much of major-market Top 40; it finds reaction records everywhere from MySpace (early support of Hellogoodbye) to Country to TV (re-adding “The Grease Megamix” to tie in with “You’re The One That I Want”). While it’s still possible to name a handful of smaller-market Top 40s that take interesting chances on music (WIXX Green Bay, Wis., WZKL Canton, Ohio, KSME Fort Collins, Colo.), SH-1 is the station doing so with the most visible platform, except, perhaps for…
- Radio Disney – The template has been in place for a while now, but in a year when “High School Musical” and the “Hannah Montana” soundtrack topped the album charts, how can you not acknowledge the station(s) that actually played those records on the radio in the most significant way? And how can you not acknowledge anybody who wants to bring radio new recruits?
- KKWF (The Wolf) Seattle – PD Scott Mahalick was there in the early ’90s when Citadel’s Country stations helped alter the sonic threshold of Country radio, so it’s not surprising that this is a particularly aggressive sounding Country station, even by the standards of its many new lupine brethren. And in the best year for major-market Country launches in recent memory, the Wolf has currently clawed its way to a draw with a station that wasn’t particularly vulnerable.
- WRIF-HD-2 (Riff 2)/Detroit – It’s only one of several attempts to do an “all things that appeal to young males format this year , but “Riff 2″ is the among the best-publicized, best-realized HD-2 multicast channels and one of the few truly delivering on the medium’s self-proclaimed goal of being the logical successor to early FM radio, 35 years later.
- WVEE (V103) Atlanta , KMEL San Francisco – It wasn’t a great year for Hip-Hop and R&B radio. First there was all the publicity about the new primacy of pop, not Hip-Hop. Then there were fall book declines around the country. So it’s worth noting that Atlanta and the Bay Area are two markets with flourishing Hip-Hop scenes at the moment. (V103’s two competitors, WHTA and WBTS were up this year as well.) And while Atlanta was a scene that could support three Hip-Hop stations, you also can’t ignore what happened in Boston where WJMN (Jam’n 94.5) again found itself alone in Hip-Hop and leading the market. As observers debate whether Hip-Hop is in decline or merely overcrowded on the dial, WJMN is encouraging evidence for the latter.
- The resurgence of Spanish-language pop radio: Fifteen years ago, it was the only flavor of Latin music available on FM in those markets that had any Spanish format on FM. Then Spanish pop was overshadowed by fragmentation. This year, it intrigued on multiple fronts. The Mainstream AC powerhouses like KLVE Los Angeles and WPAT New York have become much more ’90s-and-now driven than their pop AC counterparts. The Spanish-language Top 40 format continued to get traction at XAVO (Digital 101.5) McAllen, Texas and Clear Channel launched an edgier version at KCNL San Jose, Calif. And Latin Urban KLOL (Mega 101) Houston added pop and bachata, proving that Reggaeton was not the only Spanish-language music that younger Latinos would listen to.
- CHUM-FM/Toronto – It makes perfect sense that former WXKS-FM (Kiss 108) Boston programming coordinator David Corey would end up as programming manager at CHUM-FM. In the last few years, CHUM-FM has sounded a lot like the old Kiss 108. It still finds its own records–some of them imports. It’s an Adult Top 40 that somehow manages to double as its market’s Urban AC. And while the only Hot ACs that get away with something like that are those with no Top 40 competitor, CHUM-FM has held its numbers even as top 40 CIDC (Z103.5) becomes more viable.
- WBTP (the Beat) Tampa, Fla. – Longtime Rhythmic powerhouse WLLD (Wild 98.7) isn’t a radio station that was particularly vulnerable either. And many programmers would not have expected it to be overtaken by a more adult leaning, more R&B-driven outlet. And while the Hip-Hop/R&B battle for Tampa can still bounces back and forth, the Beat has led in three out of the last four books. As Urban radio looks for the right balance between R&B and Hip-Hop, The Beat proves that being younger and edgier doesn’t always mean being dominant.
- KFRG (K-Frog 95.1) Riverside, Calif. – Even without cracking a 1-share in Los Angeles in the wake of KZLA’s format change, a Country all-format leader in a market that is 42% Hispanic deserves some mention. So does …
- KSON San Diego which fought and marketed its way out of a war-of-attrition in 2006, in a market where Country’s traditional strength might have been ceded to changing times and demos.
- KMXB (Mix 94.1) Las Vegas – Mix 94.1 has managed to keep the triple-functionality that made Modern AC a force a decade ago–also serving as the market’s Mainstream Top 40 and its most mainstream Alternative outlet.
- WXXM (the Mic)/Madison, Wis. – Portland, Ore., and San Diego were the best-known success stories for liberal talk, but Madison joined them this year when listener demand kept WXXM in the format after a previously announced change to Sports-Talk. In a year marked by the loss of so many seemingly viable stations (KZLA Los Angeles, Gospel WENN Birmingham, Ala., Classical WGMS Washington), the decision not to turn away an established audience was a bold move as well.
- KQQL (Kool 108) Minneapolis – This one snuck in under the wire at the end of the year. Having already made the move to a mostly-’70s format like so many other Clear Channel Oldies stations, Kool 108 morphed again to “Super Hits That Move,” a more tempo-driven approach that allowed for anything from the ’50s to the ’80s. While the format is still shaking out–I’ve heard stretches that sounded very much like Classic Hits–it was only a matter of time until somebody tried the “all-ages party songs” format that has existed on Music Choice for many years now.
- KBON Lafayette, La. – If “Northern Exposure” had taken place on the Gulf Coast, this “Louisiana Proud” outlet would have been its radio station–an eclectic, locally owned outlet for local music, particularly Cajun and zydeco,that went 5.0 – 6.2 – 7.5 over the last year. Like the equally quirky WLNG Long Island, N.Y., KBON may look like exotica to the rest of the world, but in its own backyard, it’s also the local full-service station.
Those are my nominees. Now tell me your most intriguing stations of the year. And remember to check back for my choice of Top Reader Pick.