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'Rock,' 'Classic Hits': What's in a Name?

This is a personal confession piece: While I've worked in radio in some capacity for more than two decades--most of that in a news/sports/talk capacity--much of my casual listening has centered around the rock format.

So last month, while Citadel-owned KHYT FM 107.5 changed its identity from "Rock 107.5" to "Classic Hits"--which might sound like blasphemy to the baby boomer Led Zeppelin crowd--the songs remain the same, if not the name.

"That's pretty much all it is. The music hasn't changed since last fall. The music is basically the same as it was then," said Citadel operations manager Herb Crowe. "The name change is about trying to bring back some the familiarity of KHYT, which is how the station launched several years ago, and how it was known for a long time. We want to make the choices a little more obvious, with the name being different and how we're describing the radio station. If two or three radio stations are saying they're the same kind of radio station, and essentially there's a lot of commonality, we're just trying to clarify for the listeners the differences between us and any other station."

Even though Tucson is a growing community with an increasing number of transplants, there remains enough of a base to make it difficult for radio stations to usurp the grip of established stations. Clear Channel-owned KRQQ FM 93.7 is the Top 40 station, and when Citadel tried to cut into that piece of the pie with Star 97.5 FM (KSZR), it got hammered. KSZR, or BOB FM, is now a '70s/'80s/'90s lighter-edged hits format and acts as something of a complement to KHYT.

Conversely, Clear Channel-operated KWFM (now KWMT FM 92.9) tried to cut into Citadel-owned KIIM FM 99.5's country dominance with The Coyote. That disastrous experiment lasted less than two years. KWMT reformatted to adult album alternative and has carved itself a nice niche in the market.

In the rock realm, Lotus-owned KLPX FM 96.1 is the establishment station. Now billing itself as Real Classic Rock, it has endured numerous challenges, including 104.1 FM's The Hog more than a decade ago, and 107.5's recent push. However, while it stands as the only "rock" station in the market, the designation has greater separation than the music itself: 80 percent of the music libraries of Classic Hits 107.5 FM and KLPX probably overlap.

Once you get past the AC/DC, Metallica and Guns N' Roses, the rest of the lineup is about the same. And while KLPX has been "rocking" for more than two decades, if one were to match the song list from 20 years ago with the song list now, it would probably be eerily similar.

Music radio can be broken basically into two categories: modern formats that repeat hits every hour, then toss them out to make room for the next shooting star; and formats that play more established standards. They won't repeat the same song as often, but that's because the listener has been bludgeoned with the track over the course of three-plus decades.

In other words, break out the Centrum Silver, because classic rock is an oldies format.

"Song after song after song, you can sing right along," said Crowe. "It brings back great memories. Listening to music is supposed to be fun."

But in light of other entertainment options, how long can terrestrial radio ride the same train? The opportunity for listener variety is enhanced by satellite radio and technologies in the iPod realm. I've debated with friends over the issue of familiarity and variety on a number of occasions: It still amazes me that at concerts, fans cheer the loudest for the hit. I don't really need to see Deep Purple play "Smoke on the Water," but I think it's pretty cool when they delve into something off the Fireball album. Hey, "Smoke on the Water," great riff, but a song completely destroyed by radio's redundancy.

On the other end, it's clear that the free-flow album-cut approach of early '70s FM isn't a real moneymaker in the modern corporate model. Just because people might want to see Italian prog-rock band Banco play at the Baja Prog music festival in Mexicali in late March doesn't mean people want to consistently hear Banco on the radio.

To me, Nights With Alice Cooper balances it the best. Cooper's syndicated radio program plays nightly on KLPX. For five hours, Cooper makes wisecracks, tells great road stories about old (and often dead) rockers and plays a mixture of music from the very familiar to refreshingly unique. For me, it's what rock radio should be: a celebration of some great artists by someone who recognizes that bands like Pink Floyd, Supertramp, Dire Straits and, yes, even the greatest bad rock band of them all--Thin Lizzy--have more than three songs in their catalog. It's also a way to bring in disenfranchised youth, which appear to be gravitating toward a diet of classic rock/hits, because the newer music marketed at them basically sucks.

Video games Guitar Hero and Rock Star may save the format after all. Is radio ready to chance a lesson in change, or will they, and their listening lemmings, continue on the same Journey?

Hey, don't stop believin'.


ANOTHER AFTERNOON PAPER GOES UNDER, BUT NOT IN TUCSON

The Tucson Citizen watch continues in light of Scripps' decision to pull the plug on the 86-year-old Albuquerque Tribune. On the newspaper side, Scripps has struggled of late. It also recently closed the door on the Cincinnati Post and Kentucky Post.

It's important to note that Gannett--a company on much more solid footing than Scripps--operates the Citizen, whereas Scripps is finding greater success with its television ventures. However, there were consistencies between the two products that go beyond the demographic similarities of Albuquerque and Tucson.

The Albuquerque Tribune and morning competitor Albuquerque Journal were part of a joint operating agreement. Like the Citizen, the Tribune printed on a six-day-a-week schedule. And like at the Citizen, circulation at the Tribune had dwindled dramatically in the last decade. Tribune numbers were reported in the 10,000 range. The last reported numbers for the Citizen were in the 20,000 area. Numbers for the Albuquerque Journal and Tucson's morning daily, the Arizona Daily Star, top 100,000.

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