Aug. 1 2012 10:37 AM

How poor numbers sunk San Diego's alt-radio experiment

Illustration by Adam Vieyra

It's number-crunching time for Kevin Callahan, the new program director at FM 94/9. Since taking the job in June, he's been wading deep into the data muck to figure out what listeners want to hear.

In weekly meetings with the station's music director, Jeremy Pritchard, they examine music from every angle: national trends, album sales, singles sales and downloads. They look at a song's popularity with men, women and different age groups. Occasionally, they'll also run new songs by the college kids working in the promotions department.

"We really peel back every layer on every song," Callahan tells CityBeat in an interview in his Mission Valley office, a short walk from the alternative rock station's modestly sized studio. "We'll look at that gender split, as well as the demographic split, and the ones that perform the best among the biggest pile of people make it on the air."

Like any radio station, FM 94/9 has always relied on market research, but that's especially the case these days. Struggling with poor ratings, the once-revolutionary station has embarked on an effort to pull itself from the financial dumps. Rick Jackson, general manager and senior vice president at Lincoln Financial Media—which owns 94/9, KSON-FM and Smooth 98.1 FM—says the station's been losing money for several years.

In recent weeks, 94/9 has taken most of its specialty shows off the air, introduced new promotions and let go of Garett Michaels, the station's longtime program director. And with the changes comes a new personality: Where 94/9 once broke all the rules, now it resembles the kind of conventional station it once railed against.

"What it is now is nothing like what it was," says Michaels, who left in June after nearly 10 years on the job. "And it'll never be that again."

Not that long ago, FM 94/9 was perhaps the most radical radio station in San Diego. When it launched in November 2002, the local market was dominated by Clear Channel, the corporate behemoth notorious for streamlined programming—no different from one city to the next.

While Clear Channel-owned rock stations mostly stuck to the hits, 94/9 broadcast deep cuts by bands like The Clash and Nirvana, along with new material by the likes of Eels and Tenacious D. The DJs didn't sound like carnival barkers or talk over songs. The morning hours weren't occupied by the usual jabbering talk-show host. The station followed a novel motto: "It's about the music."

"The approach always was us against conventional radio," Michaels says. "Let's truly be an alternative to the alternative."

The idea for 94/9 came from Darrel Goodin, former general manager at 94/9, KSON and Smooth 98.1, three local stations owned by Jefferson-Pilot, which merged with Lincoln Financial Group in 2006. While the owner was a corporation, executives gave Goodin free rein to do what he thought best. He, in turn, gave Michaels and music director Michael Halloran the freedom to develop unique programming.

"The weekend before we went on the air, those two brought their CD collections in and they were running back and forth to the music store," Goodin recalls. "They were just going through racks and racks of CDs without any research, without anything. They were locked up in the radio station for four days."

For several years, Michaels and Goodin say, the station got high ratings and made a steady profit. They broadcast entire live concerts by The White Stripes and Pearl Jam in real time. Every year, they set up operations in a rented house outside the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. They won praise from the likes of NPR and Rolling Stone.

"I knew from the get-go that 94/9 was a really special place," says Owen Salerno, the station's former promotions director. "You'd see the insane amount of hours that Garett would put into the radio station, and suddenly I didn't care if I was at work at 7 o'clock on a Friday night and all my friends are calling me, telling me they're at happy hour. 'Cause I was just, like, ‘Well, he's here.'" 

Contrary to what some people think, traditional radio is still quite popular. Though Internet-based services like Slacker Personal Radio and Spotify have gained in popularity, the ratings agency Arbitron reported in 2011 that radio reaches 93 percent of all people age 12 and over in the United States each week.

"That percentage is virtually unchanged over the last decade, and it's not much different than it was two or three decades ago," industry analyst Jeff Pollack says in an email.

In San Diego, Lincoln Financial's stations have mostly been doing well. According to Arbitron, KSON is tied with Channel 933 as the top-rated station among Arbitron subscribers in San Diego, taking in 6.2 percent of the average quarter-hour share for people 6 and older. Smooth 98.1 FM, meanwhile, takes in 4 percent of the market share.

But 94/9's ratings have floundered. It only got 1.6 percent of the market share in June, down from 1.8 percent in May. By comparison, 91X, San Diego's other alt-rock station, has 2.3 percent of the market share.

After 94/9 made its recent cuts and other changes, though, program director Callahan (who's also program director at KSON-FM) says the station got a slight boost in listenership— from about 255,000 people per week to about 312,000.

"We're hopeful," he says. 

The past several years have been rough for 94/9. When the economic recession hit in 2008, it was among the local stations that lost advertising revenue. (Also that year, some stations suffered when Arbitron replaced its diarybased ratings system with the Portable People Meter, which takes far more precise measurements.) In late 2009, Goodin was let go as general manager and Halloran's contract didn't get renewed.

Jackson, Goodin's replacement, wasn't a fan of 94/9's anti-establishment principles.

"Frankly, I think from the moment they launched that radio station, it was doomed for failure," Jackson says. "They tried to be too cute—too small, too counter-culture."

With 94/9's losses reaching seven figures, Jackson says, he had to decide between taking on a brandname morning-show host and changing formats, which is a costly process. Jackson struck a deal with Rock 105.3's Mike Esparza, a shock jock turned born-again Christian who hosted The Mikey Show, one of the best-rated morning shows in San Diego. In February 2010, The Mikey Show came to 94/9.

But the move didn't go well. While the show initially got good ratings, many longtime 94/9 listeners felt the station had betrayed its "about the music" ethos. And Mikey's former co-hosts decided to stay at 105.3, splitting his fan base in two.

Esparza also started struggling with personal problems. He was taken off the air in March, almost a year before his contract was set to expire. In a recent post on his Facebook page, he explained that he'd sought in-patient treatment.

In a brief phone interview, Michaels, the former program director, declined to comment on The Mikey Show, as well as a number of other topics.

"I'm at peace with it," he says about his departure. "I'm moving on."

At Lincoln Financial's Mission Valley offices on a recent Tuesday morning, DJs at 94/9 were gearing up for another workday.

In the station's studio room, DJ Hilary Chambers was just starting out her midday shift. As the intro to M83's synth-pop anthem "Midnight City" played over the airwaves, she plugged a promotion contest for tickets to a Chargers game—part of a recent series of ticket giveaways.

In a newer studio down the hall, built for Mikey as part of his contract, the three members of 94/9's morning-show crew were merrily doing prep-work. One of them turned to a digital soundboard on a computer screen and started tapping. Sampled voices came over the sound system:

"That's crazy!" one voice cried. 

"That's sexy!" another said. 

The station still goes by its founding motto: "It's about the music." In recent weeks, 94/9 has stopped broadcasting commercials on Mondays. Tim Pyles' engaging local music show, The Local 94/9, now runs in a longer timeslot from 9 p.m. to midnight on Sundays.

Jackson and Callahan declined to say what other plans they have, but Jackson says 94/9 will generally stick to the rock genre. But what happens next probably depends a lot on market research. Lately, they've been looking at perceptual studies, focus groups, auditorium tests and daily surveys to see what people think.

Among the conclusions they've reached, Jackson says, one thing is clear: People just don't know what 94/9 is about anymore.

"The general public has no awareness of the brand," he says. "If you listen to [FM 94/9], you have an impression of what you think the radio station does and what kind of music we play. But the vast majority of San Diego has no idea."

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.


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