There was a time, during the lengthy period when terrestrial radio cornered the market on introducing music to the masses, where cities would benefit on a regular basis from concerts sponsored by corresponding radio formats. The top-40 station would promote live performances by pop acts; country and rock would do the same.
But in Tucson, those days are long gone. KIIM 99.5 FM, the city's top rated station, abandoned its Fourth of July Freedom Fest country music concert affiliation years ago. KRQQ 93.7 FM, the city's top-40 juggernaut, got clobbered when it entered into a concert promotional venue for a number of pop acts at Arizona Stadium.
There are a variety of reasons for the change in dynamic: the lack of arena talent, changes in tour structure, the perception that Tucson, 30 years ago a destination for popular acts, long since lost favor to Phoenix as support dwindled and its reputation for quirky cool wasn't enough to coax promoters.
While those are issues that can be debated more in-depth in other venues, radio's lack of involvement in the Tucson concert game is pretty simple to ascertain.
"The bigger companies don't do this anymore. It's so risky," said Lotus Tucson GM Ken Kwilosz. "It's like a budget for a small city. It's so extensive and there are so many expenses that there's a small margin of error when you're booking these bands based on what's coming in, and it's very easy to make mistakes and lose money. There are two full pages of very small print with expenses, from the port o' potties to security to Kleenex, water bottles, sun tan lotion, and I looked at the bottom line and said there's no money left."
Obviously, there remains enough money to make it viable, and as such Lotus has bucked the trend and continues to promote viable acts that draw good numbers. Moreover, new rocker KFMA 102.1 FM does it twice a year, for May's KFMA Day and Fall Ball, which occurs this Sunday with headliner Godsmack. The concert, like most of KFMA's major events, will likely draw somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 live music goers to Kino Stadium.
"For us, we do it because it's great promotion and great for the community," Kwilosz said. "Nobody does it anymore, and people who go to these concerts appreciate the fact we do it. As long as we can make a little bit of money doing it, we'll keep doing it."
KFMA's new rock format has also proven ideal for the ventures. Of Lotus' three FM signals, KFMA consistently ranks third in the ratings, but because it skews to a younger demographic than legacy classic rock sister KLPX 96.1 FM, it can cater to those still willing and able to invest some time in the live music experience.
Furthermore, the success of the KFMA events has helped showcase Tucson as a still viable concert stopover. KFMA's numbers have been so good, they consistently top similar shows sponsored by Phoenix radio stations.
"There's a lot of things we do better than Phoenix, and concerts is one of them," Kwilosz said. "My whole career was in Phoenix. I know how Phoenicians think about Tucson. The very first thing Phoenicians think about Tucson is that it's a small, little place, and we'll think about that another day. We have too much now to think about Tucson. When I go to Phoenix and talk to these ad agencies, I have to let them know when KUPD does a concert, they have about 6,000 people. And they know that. When we do our concerts here with KFMA, which is similar to KUPD, we'll have 12,000 to 15,000 people, but if I don't point that out to them, in their mind if Phoenix is 6,000 Tucson is 2,000. It's totally the opposite."
Fall Ball isn't the only Lotus sponsored concert this weekend. Lotus learned some time ago the multiple-band festival approach has serious legs within the region's Spanish language listenership. With that in mind, Lotus Spanish language music format, La Caliente 92.1 FM, is gearing for this Sunday evening's El Baile Mas Grande del Ano. It's the 11th year Lotus has sponsored the event. Last year's show drew 6,000 fans. It anticipates similar numbers at this weekend's Rodeo Grounds festival, with a ticket price of 20 bucks a pop.
"There are eight really good bands here," Kwilosz said. "It's a great promotion, but if nobody's doing it, especially in the Spanish language world, it's a great way to serve the community. For Spanish language listeners, music is such a big part of the culture. Someone needs to do it, and we do it really well."
It's also the second year in a row Fall Ball and KCMT's premier concert event have landed on the same day. That's a trend Kwilosz would prefer to nix.
"We did that a year ago, and we vowed we would never, ever do it again. And we're doing it a year later," Kwilosz said. "And the reason we're doing it a year later is we tried like crazy to route the bands for different dates and it didn't work out, so rather than say we won't do one, we're going to do both. Hopefully it's only two years in a row."