COMMUNITY CLEAR CUTTINGNoncommercial radio usually plays music that appeals to about as many people as are fluent in Aramaic. It's not bad music; it just doesn't draw enough of an audience to make a station attractive to advertisers.
Then there's community radio station KXCI, 91.3 FM, which during the past six years has been so successful at grooming an audience for the "adult album alternative" format that it's now facing competition from a commercial station--one that's built a strong following in its first six months.
Clear Channel-owned KWMT "The Mountain" (92.9 FM) launched in early December with a mix of singles and album cuts by the likes of REM, the Dave Matthews Band, Santana, Sarah McLachlan, Lyle Lovett and Sheryl Crow--a slightly more mainstream version of what KXCI was already airing. The most recent Arbitron ratings ranked The Mountain eighth in Tucson in terms of listeners per quarter hour--a remarkably strong start.
But some people associated with KXCI are grumbling that The Mountain is merely piggybacking on the community station's own efforts, and indeed has stolen one of its DJs (Jenny Grabel, who pulls The Mountain's 5:30 a.m.-3 p.m. weekday shifts), imitates KXCI's folk block with its Sunday-morning "Acoustic Sunrise" show, and is ripping off KXCI's "Live From Studio 2A" program with its own live show, "Studio C."
"On the one hand, it's a big compliment to KXCI that a version of the music format that we pioneered is now on a commercial station and attracting a large audience," says KXCI station manager Larry Bruce. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say. On the other hand, having a big Clear Channel signal vacuuming up potential listeners with TV advertising and big promotions creates its own problems."
Tim Richards, The Mountain's program director, admits that he's a big KXCI fan and that he recruited Jenny G to his station after hearing one of her KXCI shifts.
"We don't harbor any ill will toward them," Richards says. "We wish them all the success they can have. But the nature of our business is for people to go where they can make some money doing what they love, and that's how we got Jenny."
As for the live concert show, Richards points out that he picked up the "Studio C" title and concept from Clear Channel stations with similar formats in Denver and Minneapolis. Those stations, rather than KXCI, serve as The Mountain's primary inspiration, he says.
"Some stations do very well with tighter, more focused playlists," he says of The Mountain's commercial competition in Tucson, including the six other local stations in the Clear Channel stable. "KRQ and Hot 98 focus on making things very exciting; it's a hypefest like Hollywood. But The Mountain is about enjoying the music, appreciating an intellectual conversation and feeling like you've got a radio station in your backyard plugged into where you live."
The Mountain even devotes substantial air time to guests talking about progressive political issues, such as the recent bond election. It's a less radical version of what community stations like KXCI do all the time.
Clear Channel, as a corporation, is not known for its liberal politics, and Richards knows he'll have to tread carefully.
"The music comes first; that's our foundation," he says. "But the supporting walls have to be about the community and contributing positive things to it. You won't hear things coming out of your speakers that are offensive, or conflict with our good will with the community."
So, while KXCI can safely continue and even expand its fist-shakingly liberal public-affairs programming without direct competition from The Mountain's more polite efforts, it may be more difficult to maintain a music format and playlist that listeners will stick with through pledge drives instead of switching to The Mountain.
"KXCI has always been the station that cares about the community and about the artists we play, and we will continue to produce creative programming for Tucson," Bruce says. "We have an unequalled commitment to local music, to independent artists and to the people and organizations in this community who need access to the media and who are not served by corporately owned stations. That commitment will never change.
"KXCI has always evolved creatively, and now may be time to sharpen our creative tools. The thing to remember is that KXCI has been here for more than 20 years, while commercial stations change formats regularly."
But if The Mountain really is in Tucson for the long haul, as Richards insists, it may be KXCI that must consider its own format change.
READER DISREGARDOne of our informants attended a meeting last week of the Public Relations Society of America, featuring panelists Arizona Daily Star business editor Jill Jorden Spitz and her Tucson Citizen counterpart, Irwin Goldberg. Said informant was distressed to discover how thoroughly the dailies have insulated themselves from routine public input.
"During the presentation," he reports, "we learned that TNI (Tucson Newspapers Inc.), the Star and the Citizen get so much spam that they've installed a filter system that automatically kicks out e-mail messages with many addressees or with certain words in the subject line like 'breast' (as the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure folks found out re: their breast cancer event). ... Both admitted that they only have time to check the rejected e-mail once a week or so to see if they missed something usable.
"What about faxes? Too much of a chance that they get lost or thrown away in the newsroom, they said.
"And regular mail? Not for timely stuff, they warned, because it first goes to a separate building where TNI checks all envelopes for anthrax and other bad things. That takes two or three days sometimes.
"And everyone is pretty busy, so you should hold the phone calls and personal visits to a minimum."