Edison’s “First Look” Series On Innovative Stations Continues: Exclusive Interview With Ken Christensen
It’s been the ethereal soundtrack of hip bars and clothing stores everywhere since at least the late ‘90s. But when the author suggested in a spring 2000 Airplay Monitor column that chillout music, the laid-back hybrid of techno and jazz, might be the smooth jazz format of the next generation, the response was a collective “huh?” Just explaining chillout to programmers was difficult, at least until the “Buddha Bar” compilation CD series somehow began showing up in their home libraries.
Ambient music existed on Internet radio. It also drew a worldwide cult following to Paris’ Radio Nova. In Toronto, CHUM-FM PD Rob Farina began working chillout in to his late night show (although the station later decided against doing any special programming). By 2002, Nova was cited as an inspiration for San Francisco’s short-lived KKWV (the Wave), which might have done better to go full-fledged chillout than it did with its urban AC/world music/AC hybrid.
By this spring, something was clearly happening. Adult modern KBZT (FM94.9) San Diego launched a late night show called “Big Sonic Chill” which became the first wedge in its successful attack on rival XETRA-FM (91X). A few months ago, KKWV’s Infinity sister station, KLLC (Alice 97.3) San Francisco launched “Chill With Alice” on Sunday morning in which acts like Air and Zero 7 were heard alongside such mellower modern rockers as Coldplay, Radiohead, and David Gray.
There was also more chillout music (or at least more music influenced by it) in the mainstream. Ambient music had already become a favorite of Madison Avenue music directors, making it possible for Dirty Vegas’ “Days Go By” to transition from Mitsubishi commercial to top 40 radio. There was also more pop and R&B music with elements of chillout, from Dido to Madonna to Ashanti.
And on November 21, Blu Ventures’ KLBU (Blu 102.9) Santa Fe, N.M., became chill-out’s first full-time contender under the aegis of chairman/CEO Courtney Jones, COO Ken Christensen, PD Laurie Cobb, and consultant Frank Cody, who had been a key part of the last generation’s Smooth Jazz at KTWV Los Angeles.
Christensen credits Jones, and a sushi bar, with helping chillout become a full-time format. Jones “traveled around the world. He would be in Paris or Amsterdam and hear this sound in clubs and other places.” Jones eventually opened a sushi restaurant in Ft. Myers, Fla., also called Blu. “Everybody would come in and ask ‘what is that music? That’s an amazing sound.’ It was music that you could have a conversation to, but that had tempo and energy. Then he began thinking, they’ve sold millions of these records, but it’s not on the radio. When we get a radio station, we’re putting it on.”
It took six months for Christensen, the former GM of modern AC pioneer KYSR (Star 98.7) Los Angeles, to find an appropriate home, and a market that “was special and would be artistically accepting of the sound, because it’s so unique.” In Santa Fe, “art and music and creativity are all in the same place,” he says. It’s also a market that has a history of eclectic radio, thanks to triple-A KBAC.
“Our belief is that this is the evolution of smooth jazz. As smooth jazz’s demos age, this format [offers] listeners a younger sound. It can include Moby’s ‘Porcelain’ or songs that appeal to the mixing generation, but it also has a sound that’s palatable to young and old. It’s younger, hipper, a little more sophisticated, and not so formulaic. It’s people jamming. Certainly when you have artists who have mixers, you don’t hear that on the jazz station.
The new product is positioned as “Blu Music” with slug lines like, “You’ve never heard a radio station like this before,” and “A different musical experience.” Christensen says, “There’s some chillout, some lounge, and some world music. It’s not any one of those by itself.” The station is currently jockless, but plans to add an airstaff in 90 days. When a morning host materializes, Christensen says, that person will have to be “an early adapter person, who’s [upbeat], who likes discovering music and who shares it with people in a positive way, as opposed to ‘I found this song five minutes earlier and now I know more than you.’”
The new station is 70% instrumental and 30% vocal and has what Christensen describes as “pretty good tempo” without being “clubby or dancy.” What it doesn’t have is the smoothed-out pop and rock that you’d hear on KBZT or KLLC’s chillout shows. “You might hear Praful on a smooth jazz station. You might hear Moby on a modern rock station. Almost everything else is going to be music that won’t have come through the speakers on a mainstream terrestrial radio station.” (KLBU’s owners are involved in Internet music portal Radio IO and will eventually stream ‘Blu Music’ there.)
KLBU’s goal is to be top five 25-54. “What we’re getting on the phone,” he says, “is the 30-year-old who’s an early adapter, knows a little about this music, and might have heard some compilation CDs, or heard it in the club.” He’s also hearing from “businesses that are artsy and eclectic and want a sound that fits,” such as art galleries. The station, he says, is drawing listeners from smooth jazz and KBAC (which happens to have recently moved to a new frequency and become more eclectic, after an attempt to mainstream and target Albuquerque), but is, as one would expect, also luring listeners with “assorted other tastes, who kind of land on the station, for whom this music has struck a chord.”
Smooth jazz, of course, went through considerable changes before gaining traction with listeners on a scale that station owners could embrace. But Christensen likens the reaction he’s getting to the early days of modern AC, or to being at WKHX Atlanta during country radio’s early ‘90s boom. “It moves itself through the community pretty fast,” he says.
Blu 102 FM, 1 p.m.
S-Tone, “Rendezvous Minuet”
Mono, “Life In Mono”
Soul Rider, “Summerique”
John Barry, “Dances With Wolves (Remix)”
DaLata, “Distracted Minds”
Truby Trio, “Swingin’ Feelin’”
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 edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.