Buzz Killers

For all the uproar over 96.5 FM’s format change a couple of weeks ago, one might have thought the switch to a modern rock format killed the classical music stalwart that previously occupied the space.

But whether Entercom, KXTR’s owner, “killed” the station by moving it to 1250 AM is a matter of opinion. The decision has the city’s classical music fans howling over the new frequency’s poor reception and inability to broadcast the classics in all their stereophonic richness. From letters, articles, and editorials in The Kansas City Star to discussions on radio call-in shows and posts on Internet bulletin boards, the switch seems to have elicited an even more passionate protest than when Lawrence’s KLZR 105.9 abandoned its modern rock format for Top 40 last year. As one melodramatic KXTR fan noted, “I feel as though someone very close to me has died.”

Some classical music listeners are even reportedly considering a boycott of KXTR — which is a great idea if they do want to kill it. In all the commotion, KXTR supporters seem to have forgotten one thing: The station isn’t dead, and for that they should be thankful.

Classical music fans all over the country are experiencing the complete loss of their classical music stations. Last year classical music lovers in Denver, for example, united to collect 4,500 signatures imploring their classical music station’s owner to return the station to FM after it was moved to AM. But the station has since gone through a change in ownership, and it’s rumored that a new format might push the classical station off the air completely. Now the group is just happy to have the station at all — regardless of whether it’s on AM or FM.

In the ever-fluctuating Kansas City radio market, KXTR’s switch was precipitated by a large-scale acquisition by Entercom, which has been working for the past year to acquire Sinclair Broadcast Group’s 46 radio stations across the country. (The deal was slowed by federal regulations that required Entercom to divest three stations in the Kansas City market, where it already owned seven. That resulted in the sale of KCFX-FM, KCMO-FM, and KCMO-AM to Susquehanna Radio Corp.) That billion-dollar deal included KXTR.

Bob Zuroweste, vice president and market manager of Entercom Kansas City, says the company’s estimated investment in 96.5 as part of this deal was roughly $15 million to $25 million — although KXTR reportedly was generating only about $1 million a year. “And therein lies the decision,” he says. “Because there’s no way that we ever, ever could have come out from under water on that investment with what KXTR was doing financially.” So the company saw a solution in replacing KKGM “The Game,” a sports station occupying the 1250 AM frequency, with KXTR. There the classical station could more easily recoup the $2.5 million investment involved in purchasing the AM frequency. “When you look at these things, you have to say, ‘Okay, what’s going to be our upside, where are we going to make more people happy, and where are we going to fill a niche?’ And it certainly appeared to us that 1250 could fill a better niche playing classical music on AM than it could as a sports station because there already was another 24-hour sports station in Kansas City. So we gave up that format to put classical on 1250. And we really didn’t want to just take classical music away from Kansas City.”

Zuroweste calls the situation “a sad thing,” but his sincerity is more convincing when he explains that it all comes down to business. “What’s happening all over the world is consolidation, and Wall Street has become much more involved in our day-to-day lives. The classical stations that you see on a commercial band FM around the country are either in very big markets, where they’ve got a bigger revenue base, or they’re owned by a nonprofit organization.”

Although Zuroweste says Entercom is committed to keeping classical music in Kansas City, that commitment stays strong only when his company doesn’t lose money. That’s obvious given Entercom’s offer to give away the station’s intellectual property — the call letters and programming — to anyone who wants it. While there has been some interest, Zuroweste says, so far no one has stepped forward with the technical facilities. But Zuroweste claims that even if no one takes him up on his offer, KXTR will stay on the air — on AM.

And while classical music listeners hear the move to AM as the station’s static-laden death rattle, local modern rock fans are hoping the format change on 96.5 provides them with a sanctuary from the proliferation of Top 40 stations in the market. In the last couple of years, four stations — 95.7 Channel Z, 102.1 The Zone, 105.9 The Lazer, and 107.3 The X — have switched from modern rock formats and left those listeners with few options.

When Entercom set out to make money on 96.5, it didn’t specifically plan to replace classical music with modern rock. Instead the company conducted market research to find out what format would attract its desired demographic: 18- to 34-year-old women. Through the research it became apparent that modern rock was a niche that needed to be filled. “One out of every four people said they were upset about stations that had changed formats,” Zuroweste says. “When we asked them what stations those were, almost all of them had to do with one of those four radio stations. A couple of years ago there were four radio stations playing some sort of this kind of music … and if you would have added all of that up, it would have been a sizable market share.”

And so “the new 96.5 The Buzz” was born. (Entercom has applied for the call letters KRBZ, which were pending federal approval at press time.) The station is now in the midst of a 5,000-song marathon, free of chatter and commercials — except of course, for the station’s own promotional spots. Zuroweste says the station will hit the 5,000 mark around Labor Day and probably will throw in a few bonus songs before the commercials and jock talk begin after the holiday.

The marathon, however, consists not of 5,000 different songs but rather a tight play list of about 100 songs, with some of the more popular tunes, such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” and Train’s “Meet Virginia,” played several times a day.

As one listener observed, “Sounds like the station that plays already-overplayed songs.”

Zuroweste explains that though the play list will broaden once the station begins operating at full steam, the plan is to play “the hits over and over.”

“The format is what we call a Modern AC (adult contemporary),” he says. “It is Goo Goo Dolls, Matchbox 20…. Even though there was a radio station playing that kind of music, they were also playing a lot of songs that this group of listeners (18- to 34-year-old women) didn’t like. They didn’t want to hear the rap, they didn’t want to hear the boy bands; they wanted just a radio station focused on their kind of music, and that’s what drove us into this musical style.” That’s one of the points the station’s promotional spots drive home, specifically describing 93.3 The Mix’s programming as “your little sister’s music.” Some of the other promos, however, don’t yet seem to gel with the programming. Shortly after the station’s August 17 birth, the station promised “music you won’t hear anywhere else,” followed by Blondie’s “The Tide Is High.” No, we wouldn’t expect to hear that anywhere else — particularly because it’s from nearly 20 years ago. And R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” — also more than a decade old — was introduced by a promo heralding “new music first.”

The promo causing the most confusion, however, touts the station as playing “your hometown music,” which understandably was interpreted by local music fans as the answer to their prayers. Since KLZR — which had once been a strong supporter of Kansas City’s scene and wasn’t adverse to putting local bands in heavy rotation — switched formats last year, local music has been relegated to one show.

“I don’t think that was the intention, to say that we were going to play hometown music,” Zuroweste explains, adding that though he has no plans for local music programming, as the station develops the possibility of a local music show is always there.

So it turns out that local music supporters have a lot in common with classical music fans: Neither represents a big enough contingent to warrant its own radio station in the world of commercial radio. If those 4,500 classical music lovers in Denver are any indication, here in Kansas City, those listeners demanding the return of their beloved KXTR probably number only about 3,000. At that size, they’d have better luck if they each ponied up $5,000 to buy a new FM frequency.

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