It may not be immediately noticeable to casual listeners, but all the local rock radio stations have been quietly tweaking their formats, trying to reposition themselves in the changing radio landscape. Each is targeting new territory and surrendering old ground, hoping to woo specific demographic groups. The corporate maneuvering is like an audible chess game but instead of pawns and knights, they're playing with 30-year-old Rolling Stones hits and whiny Coldplay singles.
One of the most obvious shifts can be heard on KROX-FM (101X), Austin's "new rock alternative." Since taking over in January, new program director Lynn Barstow (on the air as "Lynn Lawless") has been slowly dropping the harder, guitar-crunching thrash alternative and adding more mainstream alternative (you can't tell the adjectives without a program). The station "had drifted away from its alternative base," said Barstow, who in the early Nineties helped launch Austin's first alternative rock station, KNNC-FM. "It felt like a station that could be very successful in San Antonio, but not necessarily in Austin."
As a result, KROX is playing less Linkin Park and Drowning Pool, and more White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, and Modest Mouse. It's also playing more older hits from the alternative rock catalog, often coming across like an alternative oldies station. "Alternative isn't different from other formats," Barstow said, "in that there is a sizable chunk of the audience who wants to hear what they know." Alternatively, of course.
By diving into the oldies of artists like Red Hot Chili Peppers and U2, the alternative station is playing songs that (alternately) can be heard on at least four other stations competing for the hearts and souls of Austin rockers KLBJ-FM ("Austin's Rock Classic"), KGSR-FM ("Radio Austin"), KBPA-FM ("Bob") and KPEZ-FM ("Austin's World Class Rock") not including public broadcasting outlet KUT-FM, which also has been known to slip a few White Stripes tunes into the lineup. Although there's plenty of overlap, in theory each commercial station is trying to woo a specific segment of a key target audience for advertisers, the 25- to 54-year-old rock crowd.
Clear Channel's Austin unit started a domino effect last year, when it switched KPEZ from Z102 to "World Class Rock." Although to many listeners it still may still sound like "classic rock," the station dramatically shifted its playlist, dropping such classic-rock staples as Boston and Led Zeppelin in favor of a less hardcore, more eclectic lineup, ranging from Bob Dylan to Los Lonely Boys. "There was a huge hole" in the market, says Mac Daniels, operations manager for Clear Channel's Austin stations. "There was a good portion of the music that wasn't being exposed."
Internally at Clear Channel, the format is often called "rock without the mullets," a thinly veiled shot at the perception that KLBJ's classic rock listeners are nothing but low-rent beer-guzzlers. By abandoning the Seventies and Eighties classic rock ground, Clear Channel is hoping to attract more advertisers with a swankier, slightly wealthier breed of hard rockin' fans. A station can't survive on strip club ads alone, the theory goes.
In response, KLBJ has been redubbed "Austin's Rock Classic," and it's been retrenching among its beloved mullet-heads, playing more Van Halen and Led Zeppelin than ever, as well as heavy doses of Edgar Winter and Pink Floyd. "We felt that [Clear Channel's move] opened up some territory for KLBJ," said Scott Gillmore, Emmis' local market chief. "KLBJ has been around for 30 years, and we want to get some credit for breaking these artists and playing them" for all these years.
With KLBJ focusing more on the Seventies and Eighties rock, Clear Channel's "World Class Rock" is more directly competing with Emmis' KGSR-FM, the much-beloved local icon, which, in the industry, is broadly labeled as an "Album Adult Alternative" (Triple-A) format. At Emmis, World Class Rock is often called "Triple-A lite" for its attempt to sprinkle such AAA staples as Van Morrison and Lyle Lovett into its playlist.
But a competitor is no joke for KGSR. It may be an Austin institution, but it's not necessarily a ratings powerhouse. In September, Emmis launched a TV campaign promoting KGSR, its first TV campaign for the station in years. Spots feature such artists as Lovett and Bob Schneider expressing their love for the station. "The basic message is that the station is a local station, unique to Austin," Gillmore said.
Plunked into the middle of all the competition is Emmis' Bob, which bills itself as "playing anything." Launched a year ago, Bob is the new ratings gorilla of the Austin market, attracting more listeners in the 25-54 age group than any other local commercial station, according to the spring Arbitron ratings. Bob is a pop hits station, more than a rock station, but it liberally sprinkles in the Beatles, Dylan, Rolling Stones, and ubiquitous Los Lonely Boys heard on the rock stations.
If nothing else, Bob has "stirred the pot," Daniels said. "They've kept the rock audience shuffling around and landing in different places." Of course, Daniels and Clear Channel wish a few more of those listeners would be sampling World Class Rock, which continues to lag in the ratings. In the spring, the station's 24-54 listenership actually went down in many day segments, according to Arbitron. "We haven't effectively gone out and mass marketed the product," said Daniels, who expects to launch a promotional campaign for the station in the next few months.
Earlier this year, Clear Channel reintroduced live disc jockeys to 102, but Daniels says the station is committed to less talk and a more diverse playlist, the new mantra of corporate radio. The success of Bob-style formats, satellite radio, and the proliferation of iPods is making programmers more focused on music, albeit the proven hits. KROX, which posted big gains in the spring book, has been offering "shuffle" weekends, trying to create a whiff of the iPod experience. "We've made some nods to the fact that the Bob concept and iPods might be a good idea," Barstow said.
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