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
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
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
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
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 ½ 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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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
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.