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War On The Airwaves

This article appeared on the Scene section of the Courier-Journal on March 29, 1980. It offered a snapshot of the state of "rock radio" in Louisville right before 1980's Spring Book kicked off.

Rock radio stations are saying 'Lend us your ears' - and they mean business.

By Laurice Niemtus
Scene Staff Writer

If you haven't noticed, the radio wars are on. And you - the one with the ears on the sides of your head - are the prize.

Local radio stations will ply you with "commercial-free hours." Or how about an album of your choice? Need a concert ticket? We'd like to stick to your bumper, soldier. Our specially made candy bar will tickle your tonsils and do good for someone, too.

The stations will give away hot (as in racy) cars, even $100 bills. They'll light up the Big Four Bridge. They'll stop at nothing - well, almost nothing.

These people want your ears - and all the money advertisers will pay to whisper into them.

Rock is king on the radio

But why all the fuss? Isn't this the age of television? Is there really much money in radio?

To answer that, let's take a look at the Louisville radio market.

Almost 70 percent of the AM and FM audience listens to one of four rock-oriented "formats." Religious programming draws about 1.4 percent; so-called "black music" accounts for 6.6 percent; and "beautiful music" - critics call it elevator music or Muzak - captures 9.7 percent of the audience. That leaves 12.5 percent of you folks tuned into "country" stations.

So when you talk about radio, rock of one kind or another is what most ears are listening to. The format may be called AOR (adult-oriented tock), P/A (pop/adult), R (just plain rock) or M (miscellaneous, including "adult contemporary," "top tracks" and "top 40," among other things), but it's still all rock music.

Lately, strange things have been happening on Louisville's rock-oriented stations.

One of the hot spots - down around the 100-megahertz neighborhood on the FM side of your dial - is a three-way battle between "the new" WKJJ (KJ-100), WLRS (LRS-102) and WZZX, near 101. Then there's WQHI - back up the dial in the vicinity of 95 - with its steady share of the listening audience, and the "new kid" on the dial, WRKA-FM (formerly WNUU) around 103.

There are also the AM guys at WHAS (840 kilohertz), WAKY (790) and WAVE (970) - each vying for its portion of rock's 70 percent of the listening pie.

If you take the rating service figures seriously - and local radio folks do - KJ-100, WLRS, WZZX and WQHI on the FM side share about 27 percent of the audience, and about 25 percent is shared by AM rockers WAVE, WHAS and WAKY. WRKA hadn't been on the air long enough to have any ratings this time around, but it is definitely in the fray.

WAVE, WHAS, WLRS and WKJJ each are getting about 10 percent of the total number of radio listeners, 12 and older. But if that sounds like a small slice, it isn't. Every radio executive in town would gladly accept, say, 15 percent and consider himself a huge winner.

In fact, that 13-14 percent position had gone to WLRS in the rock radio world until about a year ago. The something began happening. No one knows for sure what it was. Everyone involved has his or her ideas, however.

But let's go back just a bit.

The history of rock radio

For years, top-40 AM radio stations, with their 50,000-watt signals and their high-powered pitchmen, were the top dogs everywhere. The legends - Alan Freed, Murray "The K" Kaufman, Dick Biondi, to name just three - had incredible saturation among the young rock listeners and the all-day-listening housewives around the country.

Then along came stereo and FM - no static at all, as the Steely Dan song goes - and the rest is history. Rock moved to FM; the "youth market" that had gotten bigger and richer moved to FM; and then the housewives went back to work, deserting their daily AM habit. Finally, the power in the music business and the ad dollars moved to FM.

Louisville Times TV/radio critic Vince Staten explained the evolution of the local radio war last May when he reported that 33 percent and them 46 percent of radio's audience had tuned to FM by 1976 and '78, respectively. By that time, WLRS-FM had become the rock station in Louisville, up against WQHI-FM and AM rockers WAKY and WKLO (now "The New KJ-100's" AM side). WHAS brought back "personality" Gary Burbank, and the "radio war" started looking serious.

Staten quoted country station WINN-AM's general manager Max Rein as saying, "I've been in radio here for 15 years, and I've never seen anything like it."

But that might be partly because the stakes have risen so dramatically over the last 10 years.

Billions of dollars - instead of paltry millions - came into play as rock rose to the top spot in the entertainment business nationally. Finally, rock outstripped movies and all other forms of entertainment in the early '70s. For several years, those billions just kept doubling, and suddenly, all forms of rock radio became important again.

These stations didn't necessarily deliver the huge mass audiences TV promised, but they could deliver specific, younger, richer, rock folks in ways TV couldn't even attempt. Advertisers, realizing this trend, diverted more and more dollars to rock radio, hoping to capture some of these listeners, most of whom also had the most "spendable income" - they weren't paying off mortgages, supporting kids in college or saving for retirement.

Getting dollar figures on what stations make is nearly impossible; the Federal Communications Commission does not release them station by station. But Louisville Area Radio Stations (LARS), a local trade group, keeps its own figures. And part of the reason today's war is on is because the stakes have been rising.

Revenues for all Louisville stations in 1978 totaled $11.8 million. That was a rise of 17 percent over 1977, according to LARS.

So far, 1979 looks pretty good, too, despite a declining economy. All of the latest figures are not in yet, but based on 90 percent of the stations reporting, Ed Henson, president of LARS in 1979, said '79 revenues would show another 12-13 percent increase. In dollars, that means all stations here combined took in between $12.2 million and $13.1 million. Naturally, every station wants as much of that pot as it can grab.

Louisville used to be such a nice, quiet, steady kind of place for radio. So did most other "markets" in the country. But with the decline of the economy, the rise of FM radio and more money passing into the hands of people between 18 and 34, "steady" became an obsolete idea.

What's more, a whole new army has entered the radio war. These troops spend lots of time on airplanes, studying research and demographics - the figures and charts that break "the audience" down by age, sex and listening habits. These folks are the consultants, and they form the "game plans" for the stations they advise.

It's called 'the book'

American radio is a product of American business! It is just as much that kind of product as the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine, the automobile and the airplane. - George Storer, Storer Broadcasting Network

The mail is in, and there it sits, its shiny red-and-white cover beckoning. It's called "the book" at most radio stations, and its gritty newsprint pages are crammed with numbers. It's the latest Arbitron survey, considered the Nielsen ratings of radio.

No matter how it comes out, the ARB survey will cause headaches and handshakes, grins and grimaces, and it will affect what you hear over your airwaves during the coming months.

The numbers will help determine not only who's "Number 1" and with whom, they will determine how much radio stations can charge for their airtime.

If this sounds more complicated than just "playing the hits" for any chosen segment of the audience, you're getting the idea.

And now, Arbitron has said in New York magazine that it will begin "sweeps" 48 weeks of every 52 instead of just during the "critical" periods of April-May and October-November. But the new system will take a while to sink in - with both programmers and listeners - so it's that April-May 1980 book that's got everyone's attention. It begins in two weeks.

You may already be noticing the changes if you dial around a lot. And, the new book isn't the only reason. John Page Otting, president and general manager of "the new KJ-100-FM and AM" (which replaced WKLO-AM and "beautiful music" WCSN last year), looked at the last Arbitron book with consultant E. Alvin Davis and came here full of confidence.

"People get really mad when I say Louisville is an easy market," Otting said. "But QHI was automated and had no numbers and LRS had them all; it was obvious from our X-ray of the market survey that there was no good rock station here - not for that lucrative 18-34 (age) of the market."

But Otting thinks of radio as "non-existent theater," and he's proven in last October-November's book that his formula works. If you take just the "total persons 12 and older" Arbitron figure, which used to be "the magic number," his KJ-100-FM beat LRS 10.2 percent to 10.1.

That 12-and-over number isn't so important anymore, though. It's specific categories and groups, usually those between 18 and 34, that the advertisers want to see on "their" stations.

Battle of the gimmicks

Drivin' over canyons, singin' to my soul
'Cause the people out there
Turn the music into gold.

John Steward, "Gold" from the LP "Bombs Away Dream Babies," 1979 Bungle Publishing/Stigwood Music Inc.

Gold used to be the name of the game in records and radio. Now the word is platinum, of course, but Stewart's point is well taken. The only problem with it is that for the people to act and make the music "gold," they must hear it first, and mostly, they get that first hearing on the radio.

How that happens - and the listener gets to hear something new on his radio - is a fascinating sequence of events. It's part glamour, just like you've been led to believe. And it's part bottom-line, down-to-the-nitty-gritty business, complete with cutthroat competition, special sales and gimmicks and a whole grab bag of promotional tricks.

WKJJ's program director, C.C. Matthews, for instance, is proud of a pre-Kentucky Derby promotion that is to climax with the giveaway of a new Trans Am.

WRKA's Johnny Morgan was supposed to immerse himself in a tub of catsup yesterday afternoon to prove he's a big U of L fan.

WLRS recently gave two listeners a trip to New York to see Pink Floyd's concert version of its album, "The Wall."

LRS also has begun commercial-free "half hour music jams," an attempt to keep people listening longer, because the ARB book also ranks stations by how long people keep listening to any station.

WZZX has "commercial-free" time, too, and even WKJJ has positioned itself as the station with the most "free" time, playing every third hour without commercials.

Other ideas to capture and hold listeners abound, too. Supporting local music is one, and both WZZX and WLRS, with its homemade album projects, have become the vogue again.

And WLRS, besides lighting up the Big Four Bridge every Christmas - and this week in honor of the U of L NCAA champs - has covered plenty of the bases as far as public service is concerned. After this spring's third annual "Walrus Walk" for the March of Dimes, general manger Louisa Henson noted the station will have donated $500,000 to the various charities in the last 2 years.

Consulting, research and marketing of radio plays a larger and larger role in the business as the slices of the available pie get thinner and a market like Louisville becomes more and more segmented.

What's more, the Radio Advertising Bureau in New York estimates that adults of all ages now spend five times as much time listening to radio as they do reading newspapers. More than 114 million radios have been sold since 1972, the RAB notes, adding that whereas 96 percent of U.S. homes have at least one television set, there is virtually no home without a radio. Most households have three or more.

Not only that, television watching has been dropping off in the last few years and, according to the RAB, always drops off about 26 percent during the good weather months. Radio, on the other hand, reaches 96 percent of the adult men and women in the country for an average of three hours each summer day, the RAB says.

So get those ears ready. The seduction as already begun, and if you listen to radio, you're already hearing some of the techniques.

Stay tuned. It's likely to be a hot courtship before the war is over.

Rock on the radio: How the stations see themselves

WAKY-FM (790): Mike McVay, program director at WAKY, is confident he's on the right track. He has "the Duke of Louisville," Bill Bailey, and "as the morning goes, so goes the day," he said. He also sees that "top singles and album tracks" get played for his pop-adult audience.

"Basically, we're a utility - always there in the background. We want to be a part of your life, just like the toaster, And we want people in the 25- to 49-year-old group to remember: 'We're the station you grew up with, and we've grown up with you.'"

Besides the music, McVay like to bring in celebrities - like Jerry Mathers, the star of TV's old "Leave It to Beaver" series - when they're in town. "We're in a period of transition, but we're getting back on track, going for the biggest slice we can get. We're playing Billy Joel and most of the 'top 10' artists with lots of soft rock."

As for the "real rock listeners," though, McVay has no plans to chase them at the moment.

WHAS-AM (840): "We are mass-appeal radio at WHAS," program director Jerry David Melloy said. "Right now, we're playing Kenny Rogers AND Pink Floyd, but the idea is to find out what the people want and give it to them. It's a total commitment to the community, not just the music, that makes us tops with those 25-34. Wayne Perkey is the top-rated personality in the market; we have the largest news staff and the best equipment; our traffic reporter has a presidential citation; we have the best sports voice in Van Vance. We say, 'You can depend on WHAS' because we really ARE the only station you can depend on for all those things. WLRS has been the image station among the young. They don't make many mistakes, but even kids today know that for news PLUS mass-appeal music, you depend on WHAS. There are always changes; we'll change too, as our listeners change. But if you're going to be THE radio station, you must have that total commitment, and there, we're safe."

WQHI-FM (95.7): Alan White, operations manager at WQHI, said his station's biggest change lately has been its switch to live disc jockeys in "prime" drive-time shifts. The station had been automated since 1974. Now, the station hopes to develop more "personality" with live jocks and still maintain its firm hold on the 25- to 49-year-old audience.

White doesn't see that as a big problem for QHI because, he said, the fracturing of the market would be split up and battled for by WZZX, WKJJ and WLRS. And QHI plans to keep its ratings stable with "good rock 'n' roll - Bob Seger, Tom Petty - the solid trustworthy mid-'70s stuff for our 25- to 49-year-old folks."

He's not worried about all the commercial-free promotions at other stations either. "That's a vicious cycle, you know," he said.

WAVE-AM (970): Jim Markham, program director at WAVE, said he doesn't consider his station to be in the rock wars. "We're more pop-adult or bright MOR (middle of the road), and we want those people from 30 up - until they die. We stay out of that 18-34 battle because we're strong on news, weather and sports. The young people don't want news, but our listeners do.

"Basically, we're doing what we've done forever - serve the people. And we get results for our clients (advertisers). There's going to be more and more emphasis on the older people, so we're not worried about any race to get the young rock listeners. Older people are spending the money now, instead of saving for their kids and homes.

"And as you grow up, the old rock station you loved so much just doesn't work anymore. You want the traffic copter reports, the news, the sports.

"There'll be superficial changes; right now we want to get into more lifestyle information for our listeners. But basically, we're right were we want to be," Markham said.

WKJJ-FM (99.7) and AM (1080): "Radio is marketing. It's simple," said E. Alvin Davis, consultant to WKJJ-FM and AM. "It could program a radio station if I were deaf, and I believe I could deliver what people want.

"I was on the air at 18 and felt I could be anything I wanted to be. I didn't know you had to special to get into radio; I just did it," said Davis who swears his first initial stands for "Everlovin'" and that he created the "Paul is dead" rumor.

John Page Otting, president and general manager of KJ-100 AM and FM, is proud of his stations.

He said the combination of the two stations, offering listeners the added attraction of "lateral replay," is a winner of an idea. He said he thinks KJ-100 is first in the nation with the concept, which involves listeners catching their favorite song on the FM side, then being told exactly when they can turn to KJ-100-AM and hear it repeated.

Otting hopes both stations can become one, simulcast over AM and FM, "at some point." Then, he figures, that 15 percent slice of the listener pie that means success in Louisville will be his.

WZZX-FM (101.7): "There are so many followers and no leaders," said Randy Davidson, music director at WZZX-FM. "Research is so cold, and music is emotion. But there's something in the air, all right, a new movement. AOR (adult-oriented rock radio) has become so commercial, and we want to make it fun again - but without the problems."

Program director Mark Thomas stressed the lack of commercials on ZZX as a solution to one "problem" listeners mention. Another plan, not yet permanent, is a "Homegrown Music Hour," with local groups, on Sunday evenings.

"It's just one little thing, but Louisville is ready for a whole new thing. We hope to make it a sophisticated music market," Davidson said. "I think we're the most progressive station in town.

"We play Genesis, Gentle Giant, Toto - plus all the standards - Ronstadt, Billy Joel, the Doobies. We won't play the Knack or Blondie, and probably not Devo or the B-52s. But we may get into danceable new-wave stuff. It's just that so much of it is too contrived, too vicious. With me, the music comes first."

WLRS-FM (102.3): Mick Dolan, program director of WLRS, said: "After '71, the mentality changed. High ideals lost out to practicality - the 'me generation.' But moods are coming back, mood listening, and what we really need is more research.

"I've never been one of those 'I know" gut-reaction types. I believe in choice, and if radio can help a person feel good about making that choice, they'll be loyal, Music is the biggest part of it, but they've got to trust you.

Drake Hall, music director at WLRS, said, "If you believe in something, go for it. If you don't, don't waste your breath. That's how you build credibility. Imagine you're talking to one person, and if you touch one person, you've done your job. At least that's what I've been told."

He's apparently learned well, having been voted "best AOR personality" in a medium market at National Music Report's convention in Atlanta recently.

He and former LRS program director Lee Masters have added more "old" records to the playlist, plus "new rock." There's no question in his mind, Hall said, that he and WLRS have what it takes to "blow the doors off" anyone.

WRKA-FM (103.1): WRKA (formerly WNUU and, before that, WSTM) is the new kid on the block in Louisville FM rock.

Program director Johnny Morgan said he has no worries at the moment and that he is confident the station was on the right track with its "progressive-oldies-adult-contemporary" mix. Morgan favors the label "oh wow music," because WRKA's format is designed to cause listeners in the rich 25- to 34-year-old group to say exactly that when they hear a memorable song.

"Radio changes constantly," Morgan said. "I'm sure there'll be adjustments down the line - we have only two of the original air people we started with now - but there are no new ideas. And we won't run scared; we won't counter-program. My feeling is that you get your thing together and run with it. I'm not saying there's nothing we won't play, but our research tells us we're giving people what they want," he said.