The Most Intriguing Stations of 2008

It didn’t start out as a bad year for format innovation at terrestrial radio. In fact, 2008 started out as the year that major group broadcasters gave both New York (WRXP) and Los Angeles (KSWD [the Sound]) full-signal Triple-A stations, and a hard-rocking, eclectic one in New York at that. It started out as the year that New York got a current-based dance station again, even if WNYZ-LP (Pulse 87) had to find its place on the FM dial via a TV frequency. It started out with an actual new CHR battle in Houston and a challenger (KKHH [Hot 95.7]) playing powers as close as 45 minutes together.
By year’s end, however, format change activity had gone into slow motion. Global economic meltdown undoubtedly figured into it. So, perhaps, did the retrofitting required by Arbitron’s further deployment of PPM, which effectively turned every format into a new format and made it less likely that somebody would champion any new niche format that had to make its living from Time Spent Listening instead of cume.
Then there was radio’s deployment on to new platforms, as radio on the iPhone brought us closer to The Infinite Dial than ever. (I wrote this column while listening to CBS’ Taylor Swift Celebrity Radio on my AOL Instant Messenger.) The move was necessary. It was overdue. But the effort that went into new platforms was at worst a brain drain for creating innovative programming on AM and FM and, at best, still managed to show up the relative dearth of terrestrial activity.
So as we take our annual look at the year’s Most Intriguing Stations – not just the biggest successes, or the author’s favorites, but those that influenced radio programming and cast tentacles beyond their market – there is no shortage of things to write about. There are long-running stations that became heroes in a PPM world. There are other stations that found innovative ways to create an extra FM signal in their market, specifically the five to date that have combined HD-2 multicast stations with FM translators. There are a surprising number of Canadian radio stations. There are many new platform initiatives. There just aren’t a lot of terrestrial U.S. success stories to talk about.
And that’s why the most intriguing station of 2008 has to be Pandora . On the desktop, Pandora’s user-customized stations had undeniable appeal, but it was still “the other.” On the iPhone, it was suddenly reaching an audience that wasn’t necessary looking for musical exotica or interactivity. Some of its new listeners were instead responding because it happened to be one of their first and best choices for radio on the new platform. (And, oh yeah, it was commercial free.)
Some broadcasters will undoubtedly take this choice as a shot across terrestrial radio’s bow, but the majors were clearly thinking along these lines themselves. Besides showing up on IM, CBS Radio had its new Play.It media player and its deals with Last.fm, AOL Radio and then Yahoo LAUNCHcast. Also significant: the broadcaster started offering more HD-2 multicast channels that had potential as national brands (the throwback station WNEW.com, the NASCAR-related At The Track Radio, All Number One Radio, the “somewhere between Radio Disney and Top 40″ Amp Radio) and had launched some that weren’t tethered to signals at all (I Hear Dead People Radio).
Clear Channel, for all its national and regional programming initiatives over the years, had largely resisted national brands on HD. But this year it rolled out eRockster, a national indie rock platform, and used its iHeartRadio iPhone app to give greater prominence to gay-themed Pride Radio. The most telling move, however, was that the Smooth Jazz station on the initial version of CC’s iPhone app, iHeart Radio, was not WNUA Chicago or KKSF San Francisco, but an apparent feed of Broadcast Architecture’s syndicated Smooth Jazz Network that was branded only as “Smooth Jazz.” It was an indication that the march to national programming on multiple platforms wouldn’t be led only by the exotic, but by the established. And just as it was easier for an established band like Radiohead to enter the marketplace without a record company, it may be easier for an established, understood format to exist without an FM signal.
New Heroes Of PPM
In 2008, the arrival of PPM in a market thrust stations that had never gotten a lot of attention into the spotlight – Classic Hits KOLA San Bernardino, Calif., and Christian AC WGTS Washington, D.C., among them. Was it suddenly the case that Urban WVEE (V103) Atlanta was a viably programmed station and the equally entrenched and long-admired WPGC-FM Washington, D.C., was not? (Before you answer, consider that the two stations shared the same program director around the time the first data was made available.)
PPM spawned many “absolute programming truths” in a short amount of time – many of them contradictory. Urban AC was thought to be vulnerable because of its dependence on personality in afternoons; Alternative KROQ Los Angeles, on the other hand, added an hour of its morning show to afternoons. All of which highlights just how much figuring out of the PPM world is still taking place, exacerbated by ongoing changes in the way listeners use radio overall, and how likely some success stories are to change by next year. But those stations that deserve a mention for 2008 include:
* WLS-FM and WDRV (the Drive) Chicago – As PPM set off a frenzy of tune-out avoidance, two of the biggest success stories when PPM came to Chicago were variety-based approaches to Oldies and Classic Hits respectively. Bonneville’s long-innovative WDRV is more broad than deep these days (Seals & Crofts’ “Diamond Girl” and Aerosmith’s “The Other Side” in the same hour). WLS-FM flouts radio law on a regular basis. It’s Scott Shannon’s True Oldies Channel in middays and market veteran Dick Biondi at night, and in either daypart, you’ll hear plenty of the songs that Oldies, er, Classic Hits stations have spent the last five years distancing themselves from. And True Oldies Channel has had a pretty good year itself.
* KBXX (the Box) and KMJQ (Majic 102) Houston – The Urban/Urban AC combo that consistently fared best in PPM in 2008. The contrast between Houston and other markets proved both that Urban radio was neither helpless nor merely a poor sport about accepting the truth.
* WKHX (Kicks 101.5) Atlanta, KSCS Dallas – They weren’t Country’s only PPM successes (KPLX Dallas and KKBQ Houston also deserve a mention), but in a year of an increased rift between mainstream and new Country, WKHX and KSCS were musically aggressive stations that gave a hint of the format’s possible future.(WUSN Chicago was less aggressive in terms of new music, but could also be heard casting its lot with new generation Country.)
* WXYT-FM (The Ticket) Detroit – At year’s end, Sports on FM was clearly the format enjoying a building boom. This station proved (in the diary, then again in PPM) that it was happening for cause, and not merely because FM sports was easy to sell, cheaper to run, or the favorite format of decision-makers.
* KLOL (Mega 101) Houston – The story of Spanish CHR nudging itself out of Spanish AC’s sway took place across Texas in 2008, and includes not just Clear Channel’s KLOL, but also stations owned by BMP and Univision. Austin getting two such stations this fall was a landmark moment as well.
Heroes Of The North
In a year when economic meltdown slowed format changes to a crawl at home, there was also a lot to talk about in Canadian format launches. Not all had gained traction by year’s end, but all were intriguing in some way:
* CIGY (The New 97.7) Calgary – It’s billed as “the best pop, rock, and Country,” and at night when it’s satisfying some of its license requirements, there’s a considerable singer/songwriter/folk component as well; (Canadiana, for lack of a better term);
* CHIQ (Curve 94.3) Winnipeg – CHUMRadio’s CHR/Alternative hybrid recalled WHTZ (Z100) during a similar phase 15 years ago, combining a CHR presentation with music that ranged (at least at the outset) from Pink and Kanye West to Canadian indie rock.
* CKPK (the Peak) Vancouver – Nominally Triple-A but heavily vested in Alternative, particularly Canadian indie rock. A different take on some of the things that Emmis’ WRXP New York is attempting.
* CBC Radio Two – The much maligned but not uninteresting attempt at Canadiana in mornings and a Canadian version of L.A.’s beloved indie/eclectic showplace KCRW in afternoons.
* CKFM (Virgin Radio 999) Toronto – The first of several Astral stations (spanning several formats) to try Richard Branson’s “Virgin” brand in North America. Rival CHUM-FM had already recast Canadian Hot AC as rhythmic-leaning (in a way that American Hot AC stations are still grappling with), but Virgin has added a personality/showbiz component.
* CFZM (AM 740) Toronto — The longtime Adult Standards outlet’s tenacity alone qualifies it for a mention, but new owner (and Canadian broadcast legend) Moses Znaimer shuffled the deck this year, adding the format’s likely first-ever R-rated late-night show.
* CFXL (XL103) Calgary and CKRA (Capital FM) Edmonton — Newcap gave us the first two Oldies/Classic Hits FMs in English-speaking Canada earlier this year, finding a way to work within regulations that had effectively kept the format on AM (and headed for likely major-market extinction) for years. Others in Vancouver and London, Ont., soon followed.
It was interesting to see that Curve, the Peak and CBC Radio Two perceived an opportunity in the same Canadian indie rock scene (a Broken Social Scene, in this case), but parlayed it into three very different approaches. Does that mean Canadian Indie Rock is the next Bob- or Jack-FM? Well, it might at least mean that there’s still a format waiting to manifest itself here from the entire body of indie rock and singer-songwriter music that occasionally reaches into Triple-A, Alternative, or even AC. And the launch of eRockster and WNEW.com this year proves that even the big guys aren’t unaware of something happening here.
Beyond that, it is always gratifying to see any new formats coalesce around a new body of music, particularly in as stingy a year as 2008. Recently, new formats have often sprung from reintroducing a new generation of listeners to the music of their high-school years. (The closest thing to it this year is the melding of Classic and Active rock at stations like WYSP Philadelphia and WRXK Fort Myers, Fla.) It’s not a straight upward trajectory for any format. As this article was being written, Bonneville shut down its indie rock iChannel, while Entravision took its Super Estrella Latin pop format out of syndication. But in Indie Rock (Canadian or otherwise), Latin Pop and New Generation Country, you have three movements worthy of further development in 2009. And now the question becomes where (and on which platform) it will happen.
Okay, now the part where you tell me what stations you found most intriguing in 2008. Comments below, please!

1 reply
  1. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    hey Sean, great post as always, love seeing the focus on Canadian radio. My friend is the MD at the Peak. Vancouver is making lots of changes in formats, new stations, some heritage announcers changing or retiring… maybe a future article for you would be a feature on Vancouver?

    Reply

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