Part of a Rhythm Nation

| November 13, 2012

By Mike Kinosian
RadioInfo
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief

LOS ANGELES It was becoming more and more apparent circa 1995 that all contemporary hit radio outlets were not necessarily created equally.

Some, of course, were in the traditional framework of mainstream top 40, while others had a texture that seemed best described as “rhythmic.”

Continuing to have stations with diverse approaches of playing contemporary hits categorized under the same umbrella format description (“CHR”) was certainly counter-productive, so publications such as the venerable Radio & Records (R&R) isolated “CHR/pop” outlets in one grouping and “CHR/rhythmic” facilities in another.

Programmers of two of the country’s most successful rhythmic-leaning contemporary hit radio properties explain the nuances of that facet of the format in the second of our multi-part CHR special.

Powerful Steal

Even though Emmis will never capture any awards for most extensive radio portfolio, it has historically done something far superior.  The Indianapolis-based firm maintains a positively pristine, impeccable industry-wide reputation, stemming from the very definition of a quintessential forthright leader – chairman/president/chief executive officer Jeff Smulyan – who masterminds Emmis’ vision.

Part of the company’s tremendous success is the result of noteworthy continuity of Smulyan – one of radio’s most fervent cheerleaders – and his long-tenured Radio Division president Rick Cummings, who for 14 years, was executive vice president of programming.

When Cummings was elevated to his present position in 2001, it proved to be the perfect opportunity for the group with such a vaunted image to advance another gem on its roster: Two-year regional vice president/programming Jimmy Steal succeeded Cummings as vice president of programming and has adroitly performed those responsibilities ever since.

Among Emmis’ properties are two of rhythmic CHR’s crown jewels – New York’s WQHT (“Hot 97″) and KPWR in Los Angeles (“Power 106″); Steal functions as day-to-day programmer of the latter.  Back in 1995, Clear Channel – today’s behemoth – owned 36 stations in 12 markets; Houston (then #9) was its largest.  Meanwhile, Emmis operated eight stations in five markets.  It was a monumental coup when Emmis rhythmic CHRs WQHT (6.6) and KPWR (5.3) were simultaneously the #1-ranked stations (12+) in their respective markets in Arbitron’s summer 1995 book.

Although finding it difficult to be the self-appointed spokesperson for the entire format, Steal is more comfortable speaking on behalf of his particular station yet actually theorizes that it might be applicable for many other rhythmic CHRs espousing the same core concepts when enthusiastically proclaiming, “It is the ‘real thing.’  By their very nature, CHR stations intrinsically play the hits of whatever is the sub-genre of the day, whether it is ‘boy bands,’ power ballads, and the ‘tween’ stars.  ‘Power 106′ is an authentic station that does not waiver from hip-hop.  For a matter of consistency, we use a name like rhythmic CHR, but Power is flat-out a hip-hop station.”

Generations have grown up with hip-hop, basically a part of the culture since the 1970s, and Steal equates it to rock when that format began.  “It was something on the fringes that became smack down in the middle of the mainstream,” he recounts.  “One competitor in Los Angeles sold against us by saying we played ‘all that ghetto music.’  Depending on what week you make a musical comparison that station can replicate up to 80% of our playlist.  It has been pretty amusing to see how CHRs are cyclical in their presentation.”

Other programmers and perhaps even some other radio companies think hip-hop is more of a niche than it actually is, but it does not focus exclusively on one ethnicity.  “There is nothing narrow about the presentation, personalities, and imaging of ‘Power 106,’” Steal emphasizes.  “When I hear rhythmic stations in other markets, some do sound narrow.  Perhaps they mistake that authenticity for narrow appeal, but I do not see it that way.  The widest we can be in our particular lane has certainly fueled the success we have enjoyed over the years.  I absolutely do think there are some operators out there who have a preponderance to – and specialize in doing – certain formats.  They would rather do those than others.  It is hard to blame anyone for having on that set of glasses.”

When the hip-hop format is well-executed, it breeds a much more loyal core constituency, Steal maintains, and it is multi-cultural.  “It is hard to compete against pure CHRs on a cume basis in PPM,” he remarks.  “As we have seen around the country, PPM tends to favor [mainstream] CHRs, but when it comes to TSL, with four-hour-a-week listeners who give us the majority of our AQH, we are banging it.”

Piercing comments

Electronic ratings measurement has made programmers such as Steal rethink numerous elements.  “Under the diary system, we had the notion that people had a painfully short attention span – PPM has certainly confirmed that,” he declares.  “We would talk in terms of phantom cume, where we thought more people listened to the radio station than were being reported.  That is true in PPM, but what we did not realize what went with that is that someone listens to more stations – but for a shorter amount of time.  Cumes went way up in PPM but TSL went way down.  I am the steward of a very big brand and it is all about the loyalty.  You have to bring them back for another occasion of listening.”

Thus, the native New Yorker who enjoyed listening to WNEW-FM, WABC and to Alex Bennett on WPLJ does not have sleepless nights over cume; however, he admits to “stressing” over the level of engagement of the product being pushed across on-air, online, and social platforms.  “The magic is to get people to come back day after day to hear a great new song and to hear what is new with our talents such as [5:00 -10:00 am personality] Big Boy.  Our radio station does not age with the listener.  We are very focused on 18-34s and tastes change instantaneously.  That phone in our back pocket is the conduit to all the music and information in the world.  If we are not reflective of that, we miss a step.  For something that is youth-targeted, we cannot afford to do that.”

An on-air personality before he segued into programming, Steal is particularly sensitive to people who can make a difference by connecting with people.  “As David Letterman says in reference to the medium of television – ‘pierce the screen,’” he advises.  “I have some ‘screen-piercers’ and I would not have it any other way.  We are programming in an age when anyone on the FM dial can replicate your playlist, and any IP-delivered service on the net can replicate your music.  We break records and we do ‘mixing’ on the air, which is artistic.  A large degree of what you put out there though is copied.”

It does not throw Steal off balance because he feels personality is a huge part of the station’s brand equity.

A little over a year ago, he was searching for a nighttime talent, owing to the fact that his afternoon mixer “just blew up so big” and was touring all over the world.  “He stepped down so I promoted Felli Fel from nights to afternoons, but I could not find a night talent to replace Felli,” Steal notes.  “I had to go to a smaller market and I found a morning person to do our night show.  In my opinion, night talents I found could not be the difference-maker to the degree that we needed.”

In the mid-1980s, hot AC KMGG (“Magic 106″) yielded to “Power 106″ with Jay Thomas becoming the station’s first morning driver, the slot now held by Big Boy.  “Rick Cummings found Big Boy – who had no radio experience whatsoever –   hanging out in a bar and holding court as he made people laugh,” Steal points out.  “Big Boy is a one-of-a-kind and we are fortunate to have him as part of our staff.  He is one of the funniest, most sincere, and ‘real’ people you will ever find.  He is warm but he can poke you in the ribs and say something that will stay with you for the rest of the day.”

Many “Power 106″ air talents started out as members of the station’s street team and Steal reveals, “One of our air talents was the parking garage attendant.  You can always teach someone radio but you cannot teach him or her how to be engaging.  KPWR has had a great heritage of turning people into engaging radio personalities.”

Cali-style Yuletide

Notwithstanding that they both fall under the same rhythmic CHR banner in the country’s two largest metros, New York’s “Hot” and Los Angeles’ “Power 106″ are actually, as Steal explains, two different stations.  “The target of ‘Hot’ is young African-Americans, while for ‘Power,’ it is young, English-speaking Latinos.”

Both play hip-hop and do bigger-than-life promotions but there are very discernable differences between the two Emmis-owned properties.  “Go into a market to look at the available listenership and see if there is an audience that possibly is being underserved,” Steal suggests.  “Find out their preference, rather than jam a format down a market’s throat.”

Approximately 60% of KPWR’s listenership is Hispanic but “Power 106 – Where Hip-Hop Lives” definitely has P1s and heavy listening across all ethnicities.  “Hip-hop is in McDonald’s commercials and is as mass appeal as can be,” Steal remarks.  “In a perfect world, all major product companies from P&G to Nike to soft drink companies would all love to have a spokesperson from the world of hip-hop.”

Mere mention of “Power 106″ generally leads to an instant uttering of cross-town Clear Channel CHR KIIS (“Kiss-FM”), but another Los Angeles contemporary hit music player exists in the form of CBS Radio’s KAMP-FM (“Amp”), which entered the fray via the format flip of FM talk KLSX in February 2009.  “I know that was a very expensive format for them to maintain,” Steal comments.  “‘Amp’ was on one of their HD channels before they moved it over.  It was not a surprise when they flipped [KLSX] – it was more of a transition.  Depending on the dynamics of a market, there can be room for a second mainstream CHR.  There are no two ways about it: ‘Amp’ has definitely impacted ‘Kiss.’  For us, it is always – ‘may the best person win.’  I don’t know if it has changed anything that we do because we focus on being the best we can be for our audience.”

Instead of calling his station’s talent “on-air personalities,” Steal prefers “multi-platform personalities” and he feels social media and rhythmic CHR mesh particularly well.  “A lot of interaction and deeper parts of the relationship have morphed over to social media because we have tightened up our air sound,” he notes.  “Our personalities are communicating with – and hopefully engaging – their Facebook and Twitter followers.  There is a whole world out there for increased relatability and I really believe that ‘social’ is the marketing arm of ‘digital.’  All of my personalities know that they are assigned to maintain and deepen relationships to bring people back to the radio station via social media.  We have full-time videographers on our staff and, as everything moves to the phone, we want to be everywhere that people can consume our brand.  We have the greatest distribution in the history of the medium.  It presents some daunting challenges, but it sure is fun.”

One of KPWR’s two benchmark events of the year is its “Cali Christmas” and the rhythmic CHR is in the process of giving away tickets every hour to that concert.  “It reminds people why they like ‘Power 106′ because it is hip-hop-based, it is new music discovery, and it is an experiential event,” Steal opines.  “It incites some additional occasions of listening.  Whenever you can serve those goals, you have a good chance of having a successful promotion.  Any promotion that thrives on brand-enhancing, image-building, and moment-to-moment execution that will hopefully be impactful to meters would probably fit those criteria.”

Reality trumps escapism

Self-described “music geek” Steal just went over 22,000 songs in his iTunes.  This rock, pop partisan could be a superstar programmer in virtually any format but the University of Central Florida graduate emphasizes, “I am so happy with the cool people I work for.  People such as Jeff Smulyan, [KPWR] vice president/general manager Val Maki, Rick Cummings, and [Emmis executive vice president/chief operating officer] Pat Walsh totally get it and they are fun to be around.  The crew I work with drip with passion and they make it fun to come to work every day.  I could point to a plethora of friends who are working at stations that play their favorite music but they are not so crazy about their ownership and/or the people around them.”

In times of natural disasters though, such as what a sizeable percentage of the country endured with “Sandy,” there is an expectation of making listeners aware and possibly helping to direct them to safety.  “We take that very seriously,” asserts the amiable Steal, whose past success stories include stops in Dallas (KDMX), Cincinnati (WKRQ), and Orlando (WXXL).  “In most cases, ‘Power 106′ is used as a dose of escapism.  It is an oasis from the day-in/day-out routine.  We are very careful in the way that we position ourselves in the real world.  Formats are what they are because they work in the formula of PPM and daily consumption habits, but when the daily is disrupted, ignoring something that transcends Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety and survival certainly trump entertainment.”

As Emmis’ vice president of programming, Steal helps Rick Cummings with the company’s other markets on an as-needed basis.  If that and programming “Power 106″ were not enough though, within the last year, Steal was named national program director of Emmis Digital.  “We have an amazing, brilliant vice president of digital – Angie May Cook,” he remarks.  “I help her and the Emmis digital crew roll out all our digital initiatives and make sure they are on-point.  That is a tremendous amount of fun for me.  I pinch myself every day for that and having my hands on the ‘Power’ steering wheel.”

Inside-”The Box”-thinking

Contrasted to mainstream CHR, which can be broader in scope, rhythmic CHR speaks to a certain tempo and variety of the contemporary hit genre.  “Rhythmic takes things into a specific focus,” comments Terri Thomas, operations manager of rhythmic CHR KBXX, Houston (“The Box”).

Mainstream CHR programmers and their rhythmic CHR counterparts would most likely have consensus that 18 -34s represent their target audience.  “When you are trying to win in your marketplace, all of us – regardless what music we play – want to garner the greatest share of audience,” Thomas states.  “You hope the music, attitude, information, and entertainment will [accomplish that].”

A critical factor to which Thomas credits Radio One-owned KBXX’s success is reflecting the market’s ethnic makeup.  Ironically, there is another “18-34″ at play, as Houston’s ethnic composition is 18% “black” and 34% Hispanic, according to Arbitron-noted percentages in the market’s monthly ratings report.  “We have Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, and Caucasians,” points out Thomas, a member of the St. Jude Children’s Hospital Radio Advisory Board.  “We are the #1 station in the market because, for us, it is more about the people who happen to love the music.  It cuts across all race lines.  We super serve African-Americans.  We attempt to do the same with English-speaking Hispanics, and anyone else who is a lover of the music that we play.  We try to super-serve them in any way possible.”

Regardless of a station’s musical slant, program directors constantly tweak the format but Thomas stresses that when a station is targeted to younger-ended demos, its programmer must be even more mindful to stay on pace with the audience.  “I do not view this as a change but as an evolution,” she states.  “This particular 18-34 rhythmic CHR audience is progressive and it is on the cutting edge of technology.”

Among the most significant “evolutions” involves integration of social media into radio and the resulting need to elevate everyone’s job description.  “If the only thing you can do is crack a microphone, you are not going to make it,” Thomas flatly declares.  “My on-air personalities have needed to become experts in a variety of different areas in order to stay on a competitive level.  That means with other stations, as well as competitive with the audience.”

While “The Box” does not have a direct rhythmic CHR rival, it does receive a double-barreled challenge on the mainstream CHR side from CBS Radio’s KKHH (“Hot 95.7″) and Cumulus’ KRBE – although the latter has not had its ratings data in print (owing to Arbitron-related subscriber issues) since March 2012 – the last eight monthly survey periods.  “Everybody is competition,” remarks Thomas, who has been at “The Box” for approximately seven years.  “They are great programmers at those stations and they have passionate people who work there.  I never walk into this building thinking that I have got it made because I do not.  I know that everybody wants to be successful.  We have to go up against some amazing competition, so I never sell them short.  They are working hard to get that #1, just as I am.  Those programmers make me better.  I do not take their talent for granted.  They are over there busting their butts to be great.  You have to give it your best on this field of battle.”

Talent trainer

Anyone who knows Thomas is aware that the Emerson College alum is an untiring advocate of on-air talent.  “I coach talent; I work with talent; and I love talent,” she stresses.  “When I say ‘talent,’ I mean the person because ‘talent’ is not enough.  You must have many other things to go with your talent to make you the best personality possible.  I do not like liner-card readers.  When I coach my team, my goal is to make each one of them the best personality – period.”

Great on-air personalities, she maintains, transcend the format.  “If this radio station went away today, an on-air talent with the right skill set could get a job quickly because he or she learned how to become a great personality,” Thomas states.  “The good ones have become an expert at the ability to connect with people and further the brand of the radio station.”

Any traces of a Boston accent are long gone for Thomas, who started in radio when she was 14.  “I have passion about being a talent,” she remarks and was around great radio personalities, including the late Sunny Joe White, notable for his on-air and programming time at Boston’s WXKS-FM (“Kiss”).  “I remember Dale Dorman [on Boston's WRKO, WXKS-FM, and WODS]; [present-day WXKS-FM wakeup talent] ‘Matty in the Morning’ [Matt Siegel]; and Kandi Eastman when she was on WILD in Boston.  I loved the fact that the talent could entertain me.  It is essential to evolve our talent to make sure they are giving their best so it keeps up with the audience’s ‘A.D.D.’  The right blend of music and promotions is super-important, but you cannot neglect the talent issue.  When you do, you are taking something extremely valuable off the table.”

In the long run, talent can help keep radio viable.  “When you only play music and commercials, you are not that much different from Pandora,” Thomas opines.  “Talent enhances the brand and can be the spice in the gumbo.  It helps build loyalty to the brand.”

Reflections of benevolence

As underscored and evidenced during Sandy’s widespread devastation, this medium’s unique capacity to make a difference in someone’s life every day is certainly not lost on Thomas who comments, “When you have real personalities on the air, you witness that all the time.  They get it and people are loyal to that.”

Countless times, listeners have adamantly told her that “The Box” has helped or inspired them.  “We make people laugh when they are having a lousy day,” Thomas comments.  “That is so valuable.  When I am 80 years old and sitting on a porch reflecting on my life, it will not be enough to look at the amount of #1 ratings books I had.  That is not a life.  I would rather it be how many people I helped to achieve their dream of success in this business, or how many people I inspired to take a left rather than a right when that left made a complete difference.  It is important to know about the number of people we have influenced in a positive way.  As an on-air talent, I would do that every day by interacting with listeners on a one-on-one basis.”

Once she became an operations manager, Thomas – who two years ago (2010) published her first children’s book “J Mac Is the Freestyle King” – began to have “the awesome gift” of being able to affect people through the radio station.  “For several years on ‘The Box,’ we have done ‘Hip-Hop for HIV Awareness,’” she points out.  “In that time, we have probably tested 75,000 people.  There are some who do come up as being ‘positive’ for HIV and they probably would have never known it.  I like to think that we have been able to educate people and to get them the help they need.”

Capacity to have others follow you into battle is one mark of a great leader, and the operations manager of Houston’s “Box” and urban AC KMJQ proudly states, “I am so grateful that this 5 foot two inch, Italian girl from Boston is their head coach.  I am blessed for that.  The things that live in your heart, long-term, are the ways that you are able to make a difference.  Without the people who believed in me and gave me really good advice, I certainly would not be in my dream job as I am now.  Some days I have to pinch myself.  So many people want to achieve their dream and I am living it.  I am very grateful, humbled, and never take one day of it for granted.”

 A superstar programmers’ roundtable is featured  in Part Three of our RadioInfo CHR special – click here. Part One includes insights from Clear Channel’s Guy Zapoleon and CBS Radio’s Greg Strassell; it is archived here at RadioInfo.com. 

Reach RadioInfo Managing Editor & West Coast Bureau Chief Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@RadioInfo.com or (818) 985-0244.

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Category: Features, The State of CHR