There is nothing this newspaper would like more than to celebrate the downfall of Dave Pratt.
Over the years, New Times has feuded gloriously with Pratt, the KUPD-FM morning man who has ruled local rock radio for what seems like forever.
One Wednesday, when Pratt encouraged listeners to deposit stacks of New Times in the station's Dumpster, one of our executives chased Pratt around the interior of the trailer that then served as the station headquarters. When one of our music columnists tagged Pratt a "flaming asshole" and all but labeled his listeners racist louts, Pratt's comeback was to write a musical ditty titled "The New Times Rag," which ridiculed the newspaper for, among other things, accepting Romance ads from gays.
When his fame as Arizona's beer-swilling, babe-chasing bad boy grew too great, we reported that Pratt was a regular attendee at local Young Republicans meetings.
The enmity between us is long and rich. (Enmity," for KUPD listeners, means "deep-seated mutual hatred.")
Imagine our delight, then, when the last quarterly Arbitron ratings "book" (released in late April, covering January through March) showed KDKB-FM's morning "team"--Tim & Mark," of course--slightly ahead of KUPD's Pratt. That kind of thing hadn't happened in years--years in which Pratt's ratings among local rock stations were godlike, and his tire-squealing, party-as-a-verb listeners were legion.
But the recent ratings gave us hope.
Hope that Pratt's reign as the all-powerful Mayor of Palookaville, as well as his supernatural hold on the hearts and minds of our youth, had ended. Imagine our disappointment, a few weeks later, to discover that Pratt's demise had been greatly exaggerated. There is strong evidence that KDKB's overall ratings jump last quarter was a fluke, a glitch.
It is also likely that Pratt will rebound in the next ratings book, which will be released in a few weeks, to regain his morning-rock lead.
Pratt's overall ratings have dropped some over the last couple of years, especially among listeners in age groups outside his core demographic, 18- to 24-year-old males.
Within that group, though, he remains the comparative king of the local rock-radio universe.
"As far as him doing his job, he's killing," says one insider. "For what he was hired to do, he does it better than anybody."
A glowing profile of Pratt was considered, briefly. But the idea was dropped when Pratt, who makes a handsome living shooting his mouth off, refused to shoot his mouth off to us.
Meanwhile, the sock hop, tentatively scheduled for Dave Pratt's radio grave, was canceled. @rule:
@body:But a funny thing happened on the way back from the boneyard. While we were looking for ways to dump on Dave, we discovered something else hidden in the ratings figures, something really worth celebrating. KDKB, the Valley's original great album-oriented station, did not ride a huge ratings surge to pull even with KUPD; its ratings progress has been gradually upward in recent years, but not spectacularly so, and has yet to translate into a full-scale ratings victory. (Arbitron Ratings Company, the service that provides stations with ratings, won't allow the media to reveal specific ratings figures beyond the most general scorekeeping data--the overall ratings for all listeners.) KDKB won in morning drive, barely. KUPD still leads the full-day ratings race. But KUPD's full-day, all-listener ratings have dropped, from a high of a 7.4 "share" in 1990 (an explanation of Arbitron ratings is coming) to 4.7 in the most recent book. The ratings gurus who claim to understand Arbitron say most of that drop is attributable to defecting listeners in older age brackets. "It's men 25 to 34 that aren't there anymore," says one. The decline of KUPD, once the market's dominant rocker--the big hammer," in the words of a competitor--all but signifies a new era in local rock broadcasting.
Local broadcasting executives, already troubled by overpopulation (few markets of this size match our station total, which, at last count, was 39), wonder where those listeners may be headed. Equally curious are the car dealers, beer distributors and grocery stores whose advertising dollars fund all the fun.
The Big Question--What Happened to the Big Red Radio?--logically leads to the Big Follow-up Question: Where Did All Those Listeners Go? There are lots of theories. A few of them follow.
The conclusion these theories lead up to, though, may surprise you.
Does this feel like the golden age of rock radio in Phoenix? The KDKB Got Better Theory
KDKB's "sound" has varied little since Chuck Artigue took over as the station's general manager in 1986. Listeners get a solid combination of classic-rock hits mixed with some new music (mostly by classic-rock artists), with no heavy metal.
Yet KDKB's ratings have increased from a 3.5 "share" to 4.5 in the last year.
Artigue says his station's gains can largely be credited to his morning men, Tim Scott and Mark Derringer, whom he imported from Baltimore four years ago. They offer "an entirely different approach" to morning radio than the often lewd n' crude competition, Artigue says. A typical Tim & Mark air shift is a fast-paced gag fest fueled by regular blasts of politically incorrect humor accompanied by uproarious laughter from studio guests and production assistants.
One of the duo's best-known bits, "Rump Ranger," is a running serial populated by lisping characters who exist to emit double-entendres. The bit's theme: He's Rump Ranger
Turns his back in the face of danger
Puts his courage to the test
A flaming queen in the Wild West. Morning Edition it isn't, but Morning Edition doesn't sell Budweiser or jet-skis.
"I think they come pretty close to pushing the envelope at times," says Artigue. "That's probably what makes them interesting."
A veteran of Arbitron vagaries, Artigue also says he's cautioned his employees not to do too much chest-pounding over the results of the latest ratings period. "I don't think the battle is anywhere near over," he says. "I think, quite frankly, it's just beginning."
Artigue knows that the market is in flux just now, because of unusual factors playing havoc with ratings up and down the dial. The Phoenix Suns' KTAR-AM broadcasts have wildly skewed nighttime listening habits, say various ratings watchers. And Rush Limbaugh's popular syndicated show, broadcast locally by KFYI-AM, is doing to daytime what the Suns do to nights.
Not to be discounted is the huge country-music boom, says Artigue.
Also not to be discounted is the near doubling of stations playing rock music of some kind. "There's a lot of competition out there," says Artigue, adding that KUPD's own changing music mix--the station seems to be playing more classic rock, and less newer hard stuff--should be factored into any analysis of rock-radio ratings. "But is that why we're beating them?" says Artigue, referring to his morning show's recent win. "Hell, I think we got lucky." The KDKB Got Lucky Theory
Radio ratings are based on diaries kept by listeners. The Maryland-based Arbitron company disseminates the diaries on a random basis every week, and compiles a baffling array of statistical breakdowns from the results. The statistics stations are most interested in are "share," a station's average percentage of the total listening audience over a period of time, and "cume," the number of different people who listen to a station over a period of time.
Radio executives say the system isn't so great. Everybody suspects the diary system likely measures couch-potato types who have time to fill out the intricate forms, and only the executives who do well in the "books" place much faith in the demographic breakdowns, which purport to tell stations just how many women age 25 to 34 are listening on weekday afternoons. "Arbitron is pretty much a dinosaur," says John Clay, program director at KEDJ-FM (The Edge"), the new alternative-rock outlet in town. "They happen to be the only dinosaur around." Every quarter, Arbitron publishes a book of statistics derived from three months of diaries. Though not all stations subscribe (the service can cost more than $100,000 annually), most station execs live and die by the Arbitron numbers, which are used to set advertising rates.
Deejays live and die by the ratings, too. Ask John Giese, former member of the morning team at KSLX-FM, the classic-rock outlet that should be the third player in the KDKB-KUPD ratings dogfight. KSLX had a bad winter book, another installment in a generally flat or declining recent ratings history for the station. Giese, a Valley radio fixture since the late 1970s, was fired because station management apparently believed it had to do something to reverse the trend.
"Tenths of a share make a big difference," says KDKB general manager Chuck Artigue, who estimates that his station's recent share increase, sustained for a while, could translate into a gross revenue increase of several hundred thousand dollars per year.
Only the most general quarterly ratings are released to the media. But ad hoc ratings analysts who have access to more intricate statistical breakdowns say KDKB's victory last quarter seems to be the result of a near-supernatural showing in January diaries.
The station didn't do a great burst of marketing or advertising that month, which might have caused some increase, and did nothing different on the air. There were no giant contests, no cash giveaways. Yet the numbers for that month alone put it over the top for the quarter. "You get caught up in this ratings stuff, you go nuts," says Tim of "Tim & Mark." "I get caught up in this ratings stuff," says Mark.
The KUPD Got Worse Theory
Some observers discount both KDKB-related theories. Some observers, hearing a different mix of music coming out of FM 97.9, tend to blame KUPD's ratings slide on KUPD. "They've shifted to such a degree to an oldies-oriented station, they've gotten away from what they mean. Which is new, kick-ass rock n' roll," says John Sebastian, a radio consultant who programmed KUPD in the late 1970s--and who, in fact, claims to have coined the catch phrase "kick-ass rock n' roll" for the station in 1979. Observes Zia Record Exchange boss Brad Singer: "For the last ten years, they positioned themselves as a young, teenage, kick-ass kind of radio station. Over the past two to three years, they've kind of broadened their sound out. They've not gone to such an extreme to be young and rowdy. "Maybe they cut their own throats, maybe they lost their lead by not sticking with what they're doing. KUPD has shifted to be much more like a classic-rock station."
Without a doubt, some change in direction has occurred. The Federal Communications Commission last year forced Tri-State Broadcasting, the station's owner since the late 1970s, to sell the station because of programming-log irregularities, among other sins. Radio-biz workers say the management change may have something to do with the new sound. Curtiss Johnson, KUPD's longtime program director, admits that KUPD has "evolved," but says market forces have shaped the evolution more than any new faces in the corner offices have. "KUPD has never been a stagnant station," says Johnson, who also takes the afternoon-drive air shift for KUPD. "We've always made slight shifts and changes due to the competitive environment. "KUPD has become a little more focused, a little less broad-based than we were. I wouldn't say we're more classic. I think we're just a little more focused on what our target demographic is."
That demographic, says Johnson, is males age 25 to 34. "Five years ago . . . we had a lot more textures to us," he says. "But then there were only three or four rock stations in the market. Now that's not the case.
"This is 1993. You have to react and adjust to the available audience and what they're getting in the market."
The KUPD Got More Company Theory
There are more stations playing rock music in this market now than ever, and some of the newer stations have set their sights directly on pieces of what once was KUPD's huge audience. "We are probably one of the most rock-radioed markets in the United States," says Johnson. "If somebody's getting a part of what you do full-time on another FM station in the market, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to try to garner a lot of their audience."
Johnson refers to at least two stations currently positioned to make the biggest impacts on KUPD: KZRX-FM 100.3 (Z-Rock") and The Edge (FM 106.3), which program heavy metal and alternative, respectively. Both are owned by the same company, and both operate out of the same set of dumpy buildings and trailers on the west side of town. Jocks from both stations share the same bathrooms.
Which means that male staffers for both stations use the same urinal, the one that's decorated with a strategically placed KUPD sticker. Hard n' heavy Z-Rock (which suffers from a weak signal) is going after young rockers who've soured on KUPD's alteration to a moldy, Led Zeppelin- and Lynyrd Skynyrd-based format. "They play really heavy stuff, and their deejays are very wild," says Zia Record Exchange executive Mike Myers of Z-Rock. Myers says that the Zia stores know the station has added a new song when hordes of "young, white boys"--heavy metal's core demographic--start asking for it. "I think that's one thing that appeals to that crowd. The deejays are wild and they yell."
The Edge, by programming skinny-tie, New Wave chestnuts mixed with some modern alternative music, is going after listeners who are still pissed that KUPD never played most of that stuff when it was new.
The Edge's on-air staff seems tailored toward status quo-hating Generation Xers and hipper, trailing-edge baby boomers (the exact audience once coveted by KUKQ, the AM alternative station owned by KUPD, which almost everyone agrees is now doomed). If that irony-loving, disaffected demographic exists, The Edge is going after it.
"Our perception is that an Edge listener doesn't want all the horseshit," says Sandy Gamblin, The Edge's general manager. "They're tired of the ninth-caller games, the juvenile approach. The listener says, 'Tell me what's going on, but don't insult me with this juvenile, yuks-for-bucks presentation.'" John Clay, who moved to the Valley to program The Edge, says his and Gamblin's theories about "psychographics" were confirmed on a recent morning while he was channel-surfing through the morning-show competition. "Pratt was talking about the size of somebody's penis," Clay says. "I went to KDKB, and they had a guy on the phone who had gotten a tattoo on his penis. I thought, 'Okay. I think we're doing the right thing. If this is what's happening in this market, we're fine.'"
A lesser player in the KUPD ratings dog pile is KZON-FM, the eclectic-rock station that took over KMXX's frequency (101.5) late last summer. Ratings analysts doubt that many KUPD listeners are jumping ship to listen to the thoughtful, introspective likes of Nanci Griffith or Cowboy Junkies, but KZON does seem capable of pecking away at every station playing album rock. Not that KZON would know. The station doesn't subscribe to Arbitron, yet seems to have quickly sewn up a highly desirable listener profile (station execs claim the annual household income of the average KZON listener tops $70,000), and is already digging deeply into the not-infinite pile of available local advertising dollars. The Country Is King Theory
On the subject of deep mining of advertising dollars, no discussion of local radio is complete without the inclusion of the two country giants residing at the top of the ratings heap. "I think the most significant thing to say about radio in Phoenix is, country rules," says consultant John Sebastian. When KMLE-FM (107.9) signed on in 1988, radio railbirds called station management crazy to try to compete with KNIX-FM, then, as now, considered to be one of the top country-music stations in the country. But the railbirds couldn't foresee the Garth Brooks-, Randy Travis-, Clint Black-led country-music charge of the 1990s, which has resulted in KMLE going from essentially last place to second overall in the market, trailing only KNIX, the perennial ratings leader.
"Camel Country," whose music mix targets a slightly younger demographic than overdog KNIX's, has acquired a huge audience where there once was none. And ratings gurus say that KMLE has taken only a fraction of the KNIX audience of five years ago. (Another Arbitron surprise: KMLE is second in town among teenagers. Rap-driven KKFR-FM is first.) Those older KMLE listeners came from somewhere.
"They took a little from KNIX, which still remains ultrapowerful," says consultant Sebastian. "But KMLE manufactured a lot of its own ratings, taking from all kinds of stations."
Some likely fled the hip-hop hell of Top 40. Some came from the many local stations programming the dreary sounds of adult-contemporary artists like Michael Bolton and Phil Collins. Some, no doubt, came from KUPD.
"The reason for country's success, as far as adults go, is that there is very little radio out there anywhere that deals with new music, other than country radio," says Sebastian. "Country is the place for adults to hear new music. Adults listen to country not because they're diehard country fans. It's because they don't want to be cast in the light of living in the past. There are so many oldies stations. Adults got fed up with thinking that the only thing for them is in the past. "You don't want to think that your life is over, and the only things you like are in the past. You want to be turned on to new music."
KUPD's Johnson downplays the country effect on his station's numbers. KUPD, he says, has long shared listeners with KNIX and KMLE, and besides, the country boom "is not really a new thing, in this market, anyway. It might be in the Cincinnatis of the world.
"I wouldn't think of it as a recent phenomenon here. A lot of our listeners go back and forth." The Golden Age of Radio Theory
In the realm of rock, there is now more diversity on our FM airwaves, a larger sonic palette, than at any time in Phoenix history.
Radio consultant Sebastian says the breakout into experimental or untried formats resulted from economic flatlining, and predicts that a continuing economic slump could lead to even further fracturing of the rock-radio audience.
"The available advertising dollars for this market have gone down significantly in the last few years," says Sebastian. "And the pie has been cut up. The top stations are still making lots of money, which they did before. The middle or bottom rungs are lucky to break even. . . ."
Clearly, KUPD is still one of those top performers.
But continuing economic stagnation might encourage middling competitors to choose a more daring format that could further divide the pie. How about, for example, a station that programs current hits from all formats, including country, rap and rock? Or how about a freeform station to tap into the college-rock crowd? A great soul or R&B station? The atmosphere resulting from an unsettled radio market provides headaches for station managers and advertisers trying to sort out the format scramble, and offers something resembling bliss for radio listeners. "You have some of the best stations in the country here," says Sebastian, who has seen the radio world, but is currently not affiliated with any local station. "KNIX is not only the best country station in America, it may be the best radio station, period, in America. "KDKB and KUPD are fine rock stations, they really are. KZON is doing something very unusual. Not many stations are doing that in the whole country. There are not many stations like The Edge.
"Radio in Phoenix is really getting interesting." Welcome to the golden age. The Dave Pratt Will Save Them Theory
"KUPD is by no means dead and gone," says The Edge's Sandy Gamblin. "It's still a monster radio station." And Dave Pratt--dammit!--is still a monster jock. Despite our best efforts (including our recent tactic--ignoring him), Pratt has remained a fixture on the FM dial since the early 1980s. His run appears far from over. In fact, he's working on his second or third set of core listeners--that teens-through-mid-20s mob that most appreciates Pratt's rowdy, just-one-of-the-dudes humor. He's also managed to retain lots of older listeners, who have otherwise begun to abandon KUPD during the rest of the broadcasting day.
Pratt's act hasn't changed much over the years. He's still the rowdiest kid in class, the one who moons the principal at the honors assembly, the detention-hall master of ceremonies. He has been destined since birth to have his very own FCC complaint file. According to an FCC spokesperson, Pratt's file--just a few pages thick five years ago--currently stands about a half-inch deep. The size of Pratt's file is not a big deal, says Sandy Bailey of the commission's Office of Public Affairs: "I've seen some three or four inches thick." A recent batch of listener beefs--dispatched by the commission as moot when the station changed hands last year--includes one complaint about a dirty song Pratt played on the air (the letter writer claims that the song, apparently about masturbation, "was physically sickening") and another complaint about some risqu dialogue between Pratt and Sue Cook, whose on-air persona can only be described as "stooge." The subject of the Pratt-Cook repartee? Penis size.
Thus a radio empire is built. Well, not just thus. Some of Pratt's biggest fans--and some of his most loyal defenders--are executives of Valley charities, the kind of nonprofits that typically depend on lots of do-gooder volunteerism and so tend to be overly sensitive about their public image. To many such careful groups, Dirty Dave is a genuine hero. The "Ugly Bartender" contest, an annual, statewide promotion heavily hyped by Pratt, has raised more than $1 million for Multiple Sclerosis Society over the past seven years. "We've never had a complaint" about the affiliation with Pratt, says Don McGilvray, MS director of development for Arizona and Nevada. "For all of his wild image, he has a certain boyish charm that kind of diffuses criticism."
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John Keating, director of fund development for Valley Big Brothers, says he gets checks from Pratt for fund-raising events that nobody at the office knew about. "The guy is good," says Keating, adding that Pratt had a Little Brother himself for two years. "He brings out the people." True enough. Pratt's band--the Assholes--was the best-received group at KUPD's spring music festival.
And he was the only participant at a recent celebrity bowling exhibition to draw a crowd. At the lanes event, a prelude to a professional bowling tournament, a pack of red-clothed supporters watched Dave bowl in a center lane, hooting at his every word. Pratt--also decked out in his trademark red--did shtick, cracked up his pro-bowler partner and signed his way through a stack of glossy photographs he brought for the fans.
Meanwhile, other celebs present, including big-league baseball stars like Matt Williams and Trevor Wilson, enjoyed their rounds in comparative anonymity. "He works hard; he is outrageous," says John Sebastian. "Maybe the most important thing is that he's been consistent. You know what you're gonna get with him.
"One of the keys to a good morning show is not how good you are--and I'm not saying he's not good, he is good--it's how long you're there.