The Little Station That Could
KGSR, 10 Years Later
Finding someone to say something negative about Jody Denberg proves to be next to impossible. One person said he eats too much sushi. That's not really much of a vice, though, except perhaps in Lockhart. Someone else suggested that maybe he'd had a few too many the night of KGSR's recent birthday shindig when he joined Shelby Lynne on the Austin City Limits soundstage for a cover of the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down." That's forgivable, however, because it wasn't an ordinary soiree.
Austin's celebrated FM outlet, 107.1 on the dial, at which Denberg is program director, had added incentive to carouse that night: It was the KGSR 10th Anniversary. No easy feat for a radio station these days, much less one that isn't trafficking in Shania and Garth or dishing out the same steady diet of "Roundabout" with a helping of "More Than a Feeling."
Although for purposes of reporting to various charts KGSR is classified as a AAA radio station (that's "Adult Alternative" to you), it's about as loose a format on the right side of the dial as you're likely to encounter. Moreover, perusing the AAA charts you'll probably find only about half of KGSR's current playlist on them at any given time. Much of the rest comes from the Americana charts, otherwise known as roots music. Filling out the programming holes is everything from the Beatles to Olu Dara.
"It's pretty much a one-of-a-kind station," says Mike Morrison of HITS magazine, a radio trade publication. "I think precisely because they're unlike virtually any other commercial radio station in the country, KGSR has to be deemed a force."
Those sentiments are echoed by Nick Bedding, the senior director of adult formats at Hollywood Records.
"They have a reputation for being one of the most credible radio stations in the country," claims Bedding. "They are still very honest to the music and to their audience. And in this day and age of pop satisfaction, there's something to be said for that."
Sure, you can discount Bedding if you want. After all, KGSR is one of the stations he wants to play his label's artists. Then again, his assessment seems to jibe with what the rest of the industry thinks, since KGSR has won Gavin's Best AAA station award the past three years. And yet it's safe to say that almost didn't happen. Not the awards part, the station, and Denberg -- the whole 10-year run.
Prior to its current incarnation, KGSR had a New Adult Contemporary (NAC) format, which in non-industry terms, means they played soft jazz. In the fall of 1990, someone from the Besley Corporation, the ownership group with the keys to the station at the time, phoned up Denberg expecting to hear that he didn't want to be involved with any changes that might be taking place at KGSR. The call, however, was somewhat of a surprise for both parties, because Denberg didn't know he had even been asked to be a part of such changes.
"One of the representatives of the ownership said, 'Hey, I know our program director at KGSR approached you about mornings and being involved and you said, "No," but I just wanted to hear it for myself,'" recalls Denberg. "And I said, 'Well, no one ever approached me about anything. I don't know what you're talking about.'"
The station had been working with Dennis Constantine from KBCO, a station in Boulder, Colorado, where, curiously enough, Denberg had always wanted to work, because while KBCO was an Album Oriented Rock station, much like Austin's KLBJ was at the time, it was more freewheeling. As music director of KLBJ, Denberg had been trying to incorporate more "adult music" into the playlists. Those listening at the time might recall hearing John Hiatt's "I Want to Thank You Girl" or Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is" sandwiched between "For Those About to Rock" and "Livin' on a Prayer."
Still, it was somewhat restrictive, as the audience KLBJ was catering to grew up on Zeppelin and the Stones. Also around that time, there emerged a critical mass of artists who were selling albums, but weren't getting much airplay -- acts like Hiatt, Chris Isaak, k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett, the Neville Brothers, etc. When Denberg was offered a two-year contract as KGSR's program director, one with the increasingly rare "creative control," he took it.
That was in October 1990. He left KLBJ in November and was on the air at KGSR by the first week of the following month. Interestingly enough, most of the rest of what makes up the on-air staff at KGSR today was already in place. Susan Castle and Bryan Beck were both working at the NAC version of KGSR. Kevin Connor was hired away from another station, but it was local. Throw Denberg into the mix, and that's the same staff that mans the helm now, from the morning commute until after the evening slog back through Austin traffic. Connor did take a brief detour of some 18 months to Sacramento and was replaced by KLBJ-er Ed Mayberry before resuming his a.m. duties.
The staff spent the first few months trying to gradually steer the station in the direction they had mapped out, the programming an eclectic mix for reasons that had as much to do with circumstance as with the station they were trying to design. First, the station wanted to hold onto some of the NAC audience, which meant keeping Pat Metheny and even Basia in rotation. Denberg and company were also trying to find out who their audience was and what they would respond to.
Constantine brought in computer printout lists of what KBCO was playing from its library. At KGSR, they pored over those lists as a loose guide and tried to see what worked. Alan Parsons Project? Okay. Try it. Hmmm. Doesn't seem to sit too well with listeners. What about, oh, let's try Crowded House? Hey, better. Etc., etc.
Fast forward 10 years. Again, KGSR has essentially the same on-air staff as it did on day one (a small miracle in radio these days), a much better grasp on the listening pleasures of its audience, and from a business standpoint, the station is completing what Denberg dubbed its "Mark McGwire" year. For those that don't follow baseball, that translates as the station having its best year ratings-wise by a significant margin, and correspondingly, its best year financially by a significant margin.
So, the little station that could worked hard and now gets to enjoy the spoils of its effort. Nice story, happy ending. Actually, given how much radio has changed in the last half-decade, that KGSR still exists today as it does is the real story.
In the early Nineties, there was a slight relaxation in the number of stations a single owner could call its own nationally. At this time, the FCC also declared Local Marketing Agreements to be legit. LMAs allowed one owner to take two stations and combine the operations under one management team. By fudging two stations into one, an LMA was a way around the restrictions on the number of stations that a owner could have in any one market. As a result, the buying and selling of radio stations began to increase rather conspicuously.
"I thought we were going to get gobbled up," says Denberg of the period, "because we were a successful station out there on our own. And when we heard we were getting sold by the Besleys, who were the ones who had the vision to make us this type of station, when that was happening, yeah, we were really frightened."
For its first five or so years, KGSR remained a stand-alone station under the Besley Corporation. In 1995, the station was sold to Bob Sinclair, who also owned stations in Norfolk, Virginia. But major changes mostly involved the launch of KGSR's alternative rock sister station, 101X, not long after the sale. From a listener standpoint, there was little that would have indicated a sale had even taken place.
And yet, the changes that had been happening in radio were only the faintest hint of what was about to come. In 1996, President Clinton signed into law a piece of telecommunications legislation with enormous implications. It dealt with almost all things media and communications: telephone, cable, satellite, digital broadcasting, the V-chip -- you name it. What it did for radio, or rather to radio, was take almost all restrictions off of ownership. The limit on the total number of stations any person or ownership group could control nationwide was totally removed; and the limits on how many stations they could own within an individual market were relaxed as well.
As a result, ownership groups with literally hundreds of stations on their balance sheets sprang up almost overnight as there was a buying spree throughout the industry. Within a relatively short amount of time, an enormous percentage of the commercial radio stations across the country became concentrated into the hands of a handful of giant corporate owners. Prices for profitable stations also escalated almost exponentially.
Naturally, KGSR got scooped up in this wave of buying hysteria. Sort of. In July 1997, the Sinclair stations merged with Lady Bird Johnson's KLBJ stations (KLBJ FM, KLBJ AM, and what was then KAJZ and is now KLNC FM) to form the five-station LBJ-S group. It's not exactly a mom-and-pop corporation, but among the heavy industry concentration, the stations were lucky to have locked themselves up as part of a relatively small ownership group.
"If not for the merger, someone else would have bought us," Denberg avers. "We were a profitable station. And stand-alone stations, there's just not that many of them anymore. If LBJ and Sinclair hadn't gotten together, it's likely would've been snatched up by someone who wouldn't have given us time to prove what we felt was right in terms of programming.
"They would have just have said, 'Well, the station has a 2.5 share, let's switch it to Rockin' Oldies, or whatever.' The local people gave us a chance to prove our mettle."
It goes without saying that the only thing that matters in radio is profitability. Except for maybe Amazon.com, businesses that don't turn a profit tend not to stay around too long. But in radio, the pressure for ratings is so intense that if it isn't happening, the format can and will be flipped to something that market research says will make more money. If a station is producing modestly well, that property is still not safe from being sacrificed up to something that might draw even higher ratings.
That said, AAA stations aren't going to put your kids into Range Rovers. According to HITS Mike Morrison, "AAA topline [ratings] numbers tend to be in the low side, and the best way to sell it is to sort of pitch the qualitative aspects of the audience rather than the raw numbers and that's not easy for a sales staff to do. Nor is it as easy to program as other formats. There are some formats that are very formulaic, but AAA is one of the least formulaic."
Even though KGSR was profitable, if it had been snapped up by a Clear Channel or CBS-Infinity, and hadn't been deemed profitable enough, the station could have easily been turned into a VIVA! 107.1 or a MEGA! 107.1. That's a lot of "ifs" certainly, but as it was, the merger didn't come without new management ideas and changes from above that had an audible impact on the station.
Bob Sinclair had brought in a veteran radio man named Bob Chysler from outside the local market to oversee the five stations' programming. The impact on KGSR was a slight shift into playing more crossover Top 40 acts -- Hootie & the Blowfish, Smash Mouth, Everlast, Matchbox Twenty, etc. -- which not surprisingly elicited resistance, because, well, those aren't exactly the core artists that made the station what it was in the local market. Worse, as reflected in KGSR's ratings, it was turning off more old listeners than it was turning on new ones.
Denberg went to management and requested that Chrysler be taken out of his realm, and that he be given the chance to work with Jeff Carroll instead. Carroll, a longtime veteran at KLBJ, not only had a relationship with Denberg that went back to his earliest days at the station, but also had a better understanding of the local market. Taking over as operations manager, Caroll, in his own words, "helped set the course for the radio station" as it was "a little too unfocused." In Denberg's assessment, management's granting of that request was the best thing that could've happened to KGSR.
"Essentially, I said to the management, 'Look, I disagree with the direction this guy wants to take us in,'" recalls Denberg. "'If you're going to continue in that direction, I'm going to go find another job, because I think it's wrong.' So, they put me and Jeff in, but they were still being very forceful with their objections.
"But the first ratings we had where the ideas that Jeff and I put into play were represented, the station shot to third place for the first time in five or six years, and we've remained in the Top 5 in our demographic ever since and no one bugs us anymore."
It's somewhat ironic that after the merger, KGSR found itself with financial resources not available to it when it was a stand-alone. It was those resources that allowed the station to do some market research proving their core audience indeed wanted to hear Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, and Patty Griffin rather than Smash Mouth and Vertical Horizon. So, with the merger came the bizarre luxury of KGSR being able to defend themselves against the very changes that management wanted.
That's not to dis those bands, of course, even the ones who might deserve it, but it does take some chutzpah to think your audience wants to hear the people who might not be selling truckloads of albums over those who are burning up multiple charts, particularly when your business life depends on such assessments.
"The public does want Vertical Horizon, because there's a lot more people that want to listen to a pop song than want to listen to Steve Earle," acknowledges Denberg. "How many Bob Dylan records have gone platinum? Not that many. How many Patti Smith records have? I don't know if any.
"The public makes its choices. But because radio stations now buy and sell for such astronomical figures and there's not mom-and-pop operators owning them who are thinking, 'Well, we profited by X amount of dollars this year, that's great,' and instead the big organizations are looking at it like, 'How do I maximize profits? How do I make this station as potentially profitable as possible?' Corporations are not satisfied with small profit margins. The big groups want the big margins. This format has not grown, because it takes a lot of time to get to where KGSR is today."
That would be 10 years and counting, but even while the station's success has meant KGSR continues to do what it is they do, the biggest factor in the frequency's success might just be location, location, location.
Carroll: "It doesn't surprise me that the station works in Austin, because Austin is a very musically open-minded city."
Hollywood's Bedding: "The one thing that KGSR has done is not lose sight of where it's at and what it does for its audience in Austin. It's a musical city and they reflect that."
HITS' Morrison: "First of all, Austin is a unique place. And KGSR is, if nothing else, radio Austin."
Good radio is rooted in the community. That's no secret. But who are KGSR's core artists? Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Shawn Colvin, Robert Earl Keen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Earle -- all Texans in one way, shape, or form. Who puts more local artists on the air throughout the year? Not sure anyone's keeping numbers on this kind of thing, and while KUT might get the trophy on this one, at least in the realm of commercial stations, the safe money would probably be on KGSR. Who takes the profits from their annual Broadcasts CD and gives it to Austin's SIMS Foundation, which provides low-cost mental health services to local musicians? Right again.
KGSR didn't invent SIMS, but they help keep it alive. Before that, Broadcasts money went to the Austin Grammy program that provides emergency financial assistance to area musicians. Sure, almost all stations do local fundraisers or charity events and other promotions, but KGSR has a knack for singling out ones that really help make a difference in the community that helps make Austin what it is to begin with. And without solicitation, Denberg singles out his on-air staff and credits their wanting to be part of the community as essential to the success of what KGSR does beyond playing music.
Given the amount of turnover and mobility throughout the industry, it's fair to say that the same staff wouldn't still be here 10 years later (or return here in the case of Connor) if they didn't want to remain part of this community. Denberg himself has turned down better-paying jobs in larger markets to stay where he is, nor have the offers stopped. Yet even as the offers come in, Denberg, nor the station as it sounds now, won't be going anywhere anytime soon.
"I'm happy because I don't feel like it's being artistically compromised, and it's successful as it has ever been. So I don't think I'll go anywhere now. Now it's cooking."