by Mike Corrigan

Radio waves are passing through you right now, traveling through every cell in your body. Even in the dead of night, when the only visible light falling on your snoozing form is the red glow of the alarm clock dial, you are bathed in radiation generated by a thousand transmitters, beamed from a thousand towers. There's no escape. Radio is as ubiquitous as air. And just as free. At least that's the way it's supposed to be.

The airwaves in this country are considered public domain. They belong to everyone. The FCC ("working to make sure the nation's communications systems are working seamlessly and competitively in your best interest," according to its Web site) is charged with the regulation of these airwaves. Ostensibly, it grants commercial broadcasters the privilege of utilizing them for profit only so long as they serve the needs of the communities in which they are allowed to operate. Broadcasters are therefore trustees of the public airwaves.

But radio is also big business. In Spokane, the wattage is concentrated in the hands of three major players: the seven-station KXLY group, the seven-station Citadel group and the six-station Clear Channel group. (Eleven other stations are independently owned.)

KXLY is owned by the Morgan Murphy Stations of Madison, Wisc., a relatively small player on the national scene, with daily newspapers, radio and TV stations sprinkled around Wisconsin, Minnesota and Washington.

Citadel ("Reaching across America one station at a time") is a large media and communications corporation that owns and operates approximately 138 FM and 61 AM stations in 41 markets around the country.

Clear Channel ("We believe the ultimate measure of our success is to provide a superior value to our stockholders") is a San Antonio-based multi-national that operates approximately 1,225 radio and 39 television stations in the United States and is a leading promoter, producer and marketer of concerts.

In this market, two out of every five radio stations is owned by either Citadel or Clear Channel. But believe it or not, that's not too bad. Many markets in the U.S. don't even have a third player, making Spokane's mix perhaps a bit healthier.

But not too healthy. How else can you describe a decision to sacrifice a perfectly good FM station as a defensive business move? In case you hadn't noticed, KAEP at 105.7 (part of the Citadel group) recently switched its format from "adult album alternative" to "classic rock." The former Peak -- now called "The Buzzard" -- wasn't just one of the most popular stations in the region (based on recently released Arbitron and Media Audit ratings), it was really the only true Triple-A rock station on the dial, and as such was serving a segment of the listening audience not served elsewhere.

Ever since it first started playing Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello and Counting Crows back in 1995, the Peak represented a kind of turning point for Spokane. No longer would local listeners be stuck in that Twilight Zone where Ted Nugent and Billy Squier are still blaring after all these years and "Stairway to Heaven" and "Freebird" continue to provide fodder for lively "best song of all time" debates. Spokane, long needing some form of cultural guidance on the musical front, finally rose up from second-class citizen status and got what residents of cities like Seattle, New York and Boston had for some time -- by my reckoning, better music, but at the very least more choice.

Here's what Peak GM Steve Cody told listeners who tuned in on October 20, 1995: "We're going to continue to bring you the kind of radio station that so many of you have told us you wanted. It's our promise; it's our passion. Today is the beginning of our futures together."

The station then broke into "It's the End of the World as We Know It" by R.E.M., one of the great bands of the '90s (although they might as well have been a band of pygmies for all Spokane radio listeners knew).

So after all that seemingly heartfelt rhetoric, why would they switch from a truly unique format to one so deeply entrenched? Does Spokane really need more classic rock? Or even (as KAEP's new mission statement seems to indicate) better classic rock?

"Well, does Spokane need more than one newspaper?" zings back Ray Edwards, general manager of Citadel Radio, which owns and operates KAEP. The Buzzard's target (it should surprise no one) is Clear Channel's big dog, KKZX -- the region's top station.

"The version of classic rock we're doing is different from what KKZX does," Edwards continues. "We share some of the same music, but we lean more toward the late-'70s, early-'80s rock tunes. We play a lot of the -- I guess the term is Butt Rock or Hair Metal -- that you're not going to hear on KKZX."

Kosta Panidis, vice president and general manager at Clear Channel Spokane, sees it a little differently.

"For 11 years, KKZX has been the predominant station in the market," he says. "And of course other people are going to look at that. It's like if you bring the best-looking girl to the prom, everybody's gonna want to dance with her, you know?"

An executive at a Spokane advertising agency says the shuttering of the Peak was a little puzzling, but then again, he says, he hadn't been buying spots on the station for some time. He says the radio market has been shaken up in recent years, with the impact of 9/11 magnifying any weaknesses. The Zoo (KZZU-FM), another of the region's traditional top stations, has lost market share as upstarts like the Mix (KIXZ) and Wild (KYWL), which skew younger, have nibbled away at its listenership. Even country stalwart KDRK had been trending down until the most recent Arbitron rating book came out last week.

"Radio is great for niche buying," the ad exec says. "The perfect station is one that owns its niche, but is also broad enough to reach into other demographics."

In this analysis, reprogramming a station to take on KKZX may not be designed to win -- just to keep KKZX from "owning" its niche. In this three-way game of chess, individual stations don't matter -- it's all in how you play all the pieces you have on the board.

Sure, the battle between the Buzzard and KKZX will be waged over the raw number of listeners attracted -- something the Buzzard has already worked on by hiring former KKZX DJ Victoria Fredericks away for their afternoon slot and putting potty-mouthers Bob and Tom on in the morning. But the real fight will be over the sale of airtime to advertisers. While 30-second spots on KKZX can sell for anywhere from $55 to $100 each, the Buzzard is offering all takers spots for just $10 or $15.

If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it's because Citadel went through the same exercise just a few years back when it launched the Hawk to compete with KKZX. After about a year, they pulled the plug on it (the station switched and became KYWL 103.9, The Wild). Ironically, after it switched formats, the Hawk had its best-ever Arbitron ratings book.

As these two media giants duke it out for ratings, advertising dollars and market control on the local front, what becomes of the listeners? Are we being served here? Or have we been relegated to the sidelines to watch in dismay as Godzilla and Rodan beat the crap out of each other, trashing Tokyo in the process?

The change at KAEP came just before this year's Arbitron's rating book was published. The new numbers revealed that the Peak was actually quite popular.

"The Peak just scored their best numbers ever," says KXLY Marketing Director Brian Paul. "Though who's to say how well they were converting the good numbers into revenue?"

Panidis sounds a similar note. "Judging by the numbers that just came out this week, they had an awesome radio station with the Peak. They were No. 3 in the market, according to Arbitron [in the 18-34 demographic]. It's kind of weird that they would dump the format and then find out that they had one of the best ratings periods they've ever had."

Edwards agrees that the Peak's numbers were indeed good this time around but insists it simply wasn't enough to save the format.

"The station was not doing poorly," he says. "We were making a profit. But the share of the market that we were fighting over with KCDA [Clear Channel's 'The Mix'] was very small -- we're only talking about 5 to 6 percent of the total radio listening audience that was displaying a preference for that music. On the other hand, with a more focused rock-based format like classic rock, there's a much bigger piece of the pie."

"It's a business decision," adds Paul. "If you can make more money being the No. 2 classic rock station in the market than you can by being the only Peak in the market, you become the second favorite classic rock station."

There has to be a point in radio, however, when too much "business" is actually bad for business, when program quality takes a back seat to marketing concerns, when broadcasting becomes nothing more than an advertising tool. In the greed-is-good grab for dollars, there comes a time when the needs of listeners are lost.

Elsewhere in the music business, it's the same story. The recording industry is currently up in arms over mp3 file sharing. But what kid can afford $20 for a CD? Broadcast radio is feeling the pinch, too, from Internet, cable and satellite music sources because many listeners have become fed up with traditional radio's narrow formatting. Talk to radio people and you hear the same buzzwords and catch phrases over and over: Ratings. Advertisers. Market share. To live and die by the numbers. The one word you'll rarely hear mentioned is music.

But there's no need to fret, former Peak listeners. There are plenty of listening options out there for you still. On the radio -- and elsewhere.

"I remember when it first came on," says Paul reminiscing about the early days of the Peak. "It was definitely different than anything that had ever been on the dial in this market. But what usually happens in any business environment is if something goes away, eventually, somebody fills the vacuum."

So in the chess game that is local radio, perhaps one player will turn in one of their weaker stations and take another stab at the AAA format.

Ted S. McGregor Jr.

contributed to this report.

Publication date: 05/15/03

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