Well maybe it's still rock 'n' roll to Billy, but not to the station, which dropped its Rock 107.5 label in favor of a classic-hits format, throwing in the towel in its battle for rock supremacy with the more established, Lotus-operated KLPX FM 96.1.
As far as FM signal strength goes, KHYT is one of the best in the market, but the station has been underperforming ratings-wise for quite some time. KHYT has undergone a number of tweaks in the last year or so in an effort to improve its overall standing. It reunited Mike Rapp and Tim Tyler, who had made their names nearly a decade earlier as a formidable morning-show tandem at KLPX. However, despite generally strong ratings, that morning show was jettisoned in favor of Opie and Anthony, a syndicated disaster that never caught on in Tucson. O&A were banished to 3 a.m., when KHYT ran the show live to fulfill contract obligations.
It also toyed with minor format adjustments. For a while, it included '90s grunge acts as part of its classic-rock lineup, and that approach appeared to garner some success. In the summer ratings book, KHYT closed the gap with KLPX by half of a ratings point. But then grunge gave way to occasional lighter fare--it wasn't uncommon to hear AC/DC followed by Boz Scaggs--and the fall book reflected a dramatic ratings drop (from 3.8 to 2.3--half the listenership of KLPX).
Many of the songs and bands featured in the classic-rock format remain in the classic-hits rotation, but with its rock edge removed, KHYT now sounds a great deal more like its Citadel counterpart, adult-hits KSZR FM 97.5, known as Bob-FM.
While station officials say they're mostly pleased with the station's viewership, the Fox tag has caused a backlash among some in the community who confuse its connection to the Fox TV network with the cable Fox News Channel. In Pima County, where registered Democrats far outnumber their Republican counterparts, any guilt by association with the conservative Fox News Channel doesn't bode well.
"That's an ongoing challenge, and I guess it would depend on the market as to whether it's a controversy or problem," said KMSB general manager Tod A. Smith. "We are Fox. We're a Fox affiliate, but the thing we always try to impart is that our news is independent of the Fox News Channel. Sometimes, viewers get confused, because they see Fox, and they think Fox News.
"For us, the challenge becomes one of presenting a local face to our news. We work very hard at being balanced and impartial. Folks look at the Fox News Channel and some of the things they do, and make the assumption we're going to reflect the views of Fox when, really, what we do is present the news as objectively as we can and let the viewers make their own decisions. That's always a challenge."
KMSB is in something of a unique marketing quandary. CNN doesn't have any local affiliates, so it's not like conservative viewers can boycott its Tucson news product because of its alleged liberal leanings. KVOA Channel 4, the local NBC affiliate, doesn't appear to be negatively impacted by a perceived media agenda from MSNBC or its network-news offerings.
But Fox News gained prominence largely by positioning itself as the conservative alternative to a liberal media bias. The accuracy of that message aside, the move was effective, and it turned Fox News into a cable-news ratings player. But unfortunately for KMSB, the local newscast is often mistaken as a Tucson version of Fox News.
"As a local-news provider, we present the news of the day," Smith said. "We go out; we actively try to promote and present the news in a balanced fashion. What you don't find a lot in a local newscast is opinion, which you do find a lot on the Fox News Channel. Those outlets spend a lot of time with shows that have a specific opinion about things. We present as many of the facts as we can on the news of the day and let the individual decide the position he or she wants to take on a particular story."
How powerful is the Fox News image? The Arizona Daily Star recently erred by reporting that a debate among presidential candidates would be aired on KMSB. It was actually aired on the Fox News Channel, not on the local Fox-network affiliate.
"That didn't help," Smith said. "I called, and we talked about it, and they ran a retraction the next day. Even my neighbors sometimes will ask about Fox News, and I have to tell them, 'No, that's not me.'"
The impact of local television news in terms of the ability to impart a political agenda is arguably minimal, anyway. Consider KMSB's news product, for example: An anchor in Phoenix reads copy sent from Tucson, much of which is written over at KVOA. Two on-staff reporters, DeAnna Morgan and Delane Cleveland, put together two-minute packages on the day's hot stories--from photo radar to a fatal traffic accident to the day's latest school-closing concern. The first segment tends to be heavy with local news, followed by national headlines, weather and entertainment. It doesn't return to a local flavor until Vinnie Vinzetta and Brandon Nash close the newscast with their sports reports.
This is a lot closer to Headline News than the No-Spin Zone.
"It's funny: You look at Fox as a network, you have the Fox News Channel, an entity unto itself, and then Fox Entertainment, which we're more closely aligned with, and you have things that many Americans like to watch, like The Simpsons and American Idol," said Smith. "I wouldn't necessarily call American Idol conservative."