ALL PRESETS ARE OFF Radio stations and formats are changing hands rapidly

Demographics help target specific format selections

By Vera H-C Chan and Laura Orella

Easy listening doesn’t just mean Chuck Berry, Luther Van Dross or Barbra Streisand. It means listeners who can rest at ease knowing that, in the wake of the merger flurry that has left some audiences stranded and confused, their radio stations not only survived the turmoil, they’ve remained on top.

Several of these formats are lumped under the catch-all “easy listening” umbrella: “lite rock, less talk, ” “quiet storm” and the outright declaration “KFRC means oldies.” On the AM dial, the resolutely reliable KCBS 740 AM not only vows “all news, all the time, ” but also promises “traffic and weather every 10 minutes, sports at 15 and financial news at 25.”

KNBR 680 AM started its adjunct KTCT 1050 AM last year, thereby expanding its enormously successful empire as “The Sports Leader.”

“The most stable, top-rated radio stations in this market stayed the same, ” says Brent Osborne, vice president/general manager of K101, which has been around since 1957.

The adult contemporary 101.3-FM features dance tunes and ballads. From 7 p.m. to midnight daily, “For Lovers Only” is a great success with gushing dedications and plaintive vocals. K101 also offers services such as a career hotline, astrology readings, and seasonal sport updates for skiing and more through its club line at 1-415-777-5101, Ext. 100. A Web site is in the works.

Format

If “stability in programming is consistency, ” as defined by Ed Cavagnaro, news and program director at KCBS for nine years, that station knows of what he speaks. KCBS has been unwavering in its all-news format since November 1990. KCBS, which also boasts a Web site at www.kcbs.com, traces its history back 99 years to the Doc Herrolds College of Engineering and Wireless in San Jose.

The broadcast changed call letters several times before its 1949 purchase by the CBS Radio Network. It became all-talk in 1968, the first to do so in San Francisco, and finally evolved to its current all-news format eight years back.

While losing a key personality or changing musical preferences would influence ratings and format in many stations, “in our kind of radio and news, it’s the format which is the consistent element, ” Cavagnaro says. “What we offer the Bay Area is news and information. Those kinds of tastes don’t change.”

Specialized talk stations like KCBS and KNBR can feel confident about their survival because, as a constant source of news and sports, people will tune in to them eventually. And the stations don’t need to feel threatened if the listener occasionally flips to a music station. As Cavagnaro sees it, “programmers used to program for the listeners. Now listeners program for themselves.”

A few privately owned stations continue to send their signals, despite being dwarfed by monster competitors. Pleasanton-based KKIQ 101.7 FM concentrates on adult contemporary music and the weekly disco flashback on its “Friday Night Fever.” It moved from Hayward, where it started in 1969, to the Tri-Valley area in the late ’70s. Owned by Tri-Valley Broadcasters in Santa Barbara, which owns no other radio property, the station retains a local flavor.

Even rarer is KBLX 102.9 FM, a black-owned station. Also known as the Quiet Storm, KBLX has been playing adult contemporary, R&B, jazz and soul since 1979. The New York Sutton family, under the company name Inner-City Broadcasting, owns this station as well as two in New York and one in San Antonio, Texas.

Besides being one of the few minority-owned stations, KBLX boasts a general manager, Harvey Stone, who has been there 17 years. The format is aimed at the lucrative 25-49 market and has remained consistent, “relaxing, intelligent, that’s got a hipness to it but a sophistication, ” as he describes.

KBLX is also spry when it comes to responding to audience needs. “As a small independent radio station we can move quickly, ” Stone says. Listeners won’t tune in here for negativity or blatant sexual commentary. “A safe harbor in a sea of violence, we feel we offer that.”

Gender focus

The observation that the more things change, the more they stay the same applies to radio and its rampant marketing research. For example, says K101’s Osborne, that station’s philosophy is “leave it alone” as it continues to be No. 1 in its target demographic of women 25-49. But the station continually does research to find out what its target audience wants.

So does stalwart KOIT 96.5 FM, whose soft, adult contemporary format not so coincidentally also focuses on women. Vice president/general manager Chuck Tweedle says its format changes have been “evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary.”

Besides the gender focus, these stations prefer more mature listeners over the volatile and fickle youth market. “The older the listener, the more slowly they change, ” says Tweedle, although naturally, “no one can assume they have an audience forever.”

KCBS continually refines its offerings as well. It recently added a John Madden sports commentary and a Martha Stewart moment.

What will be audible over soothing on-air tones or no-nonsense “news you can use” will be aggressive marketing. The CBS Radio Group for some time has done cross-promotional advertising on its sister stations and even on television. If you want to listen to music, suggests a commercial airing on KCBS, listen to Alice (KLLC 97.3 FM). If you want news, weather and other quick doses of reality, recommends an ad airing on KLLC, flip the AM dial over to KCBS.

“It’s not as if we’re being chosen instead of our sister station Alice, ” Cavagnaro explains. “It’s a matter of using both stations.”

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times

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