Music News


Two years ago, Phoenix's then-newest oldies station, KPSN-FM "Sunny 97," hit the airwaves playing Arthur Conley's 1967 hit "Sweet Soul Music." At noon on November 28, 1994, KPSN played it again for the last time. David Bowie's "Changes" followed, along with a new ten-minute station ID spelling out exactly what the big "ch-ch-ch-ch-changes" were going to be.

KPSN had suddenly become KHTC-FM--K-Hits--devoted exclusively to "the greatest hits from the Seventies!"

The ensuing succession of tunes by Fleetwood Mac, Chicago and Peter Frampton was nothing unusual--none of those cuts have been missing from the airwaves since they left the pressing plant nearly two decades ago. More telling was the symbolic slamming of the door on the music of the Sixties. After all, human ears can stand only so many listenings to "Wooly Bully," "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and "I Can't Help Myself." Moreover, the all-Seventies format is the signal from advertisers that the Big Chill generation isn't buying its share of soft drinks, cars and sneakers. Time to move on to the next demographic.

If there's one thing you learn about broadcasting after visiting K-Hits headquarters, it's that no music makes it to the airwaves anymore without clearance from volumes of research data. Ironically, this is a far cry from what radio used to be like in the Seventies, particularly "progressive radio," which is where Buz Powers, vice president and general manager of K-Hits and Sunny 97 before it, got his start.

Powers' first job was in Oklahoma City at KATT-FM, better known in those parts as The KATT. "That was freeform radio at its best," he says during an interview at K-Hits' Phoenix headquarters, a sterile office devoid of any Seventies decor other than the odd lava lamp. "I don't think any of our jocks went on the air unless they were stoned or wiped out. That was the sound they wanted back then." And how's this for market research: "You'd throw something on and wait to see if the phones lit up or not!"

Since those carefree days, radio has become a big-dollar business, and Powers has followed the medium through every permutation. All-news to all-talk, country to classic rock, big bands to beautiful music to alternative. Now, with the all-Seventies format, Powers is taking another bold step into radio's future. Sort of.

"What we're trying to do is identify with a generation," says Powers. "I think when you hear the testimonials from people who call in, that's exactly what we're doing. They say, 'Wow, I graduated from high school with that music, went through college, got married and had my first child to that.' Anything that gets you through puberty, you're gonna stick with a while."

All of those touching Kodak moments develop into dollar signs for the folks at K-Hits, and they're not the only ones cashing in. "All-Seventies" stations have spread like wildfire across the country; it all started at Los Angeles' KCBS-FM. "Theirs was more of a classic-rock version," Powers clarifies. "We call ours the pop version." Rather than utilize the same collected data at most Seventies-format stations, Powers and company researched Phoenix specifically. "Seventy-two percent of the marketplace came back and said, 'If somebody were to play this form of the Seventies, we'd listen to it.'"

And those listening are advertisers' dreams, the legion of "consumerholics," as Powers calls them, people who were brought up to spend instead of save. That, in case you didn't know, is every human from 25 to 54.

"That's the demo, which is really weird," shrugs program director Joel Grey, a member himself. "But the difference with KOOL and us is we're moving; with the Sixties format, you're not dropping off and adding new people on."

Brian Bieler, vice president and general manager of KOOL-AM and KOOL-FM, claims his stations are adding new people, those who mourn the loss of the Sixties music Sunny 97 used to program.

"I see their [K-Hits] station as a complement to ours, not a competitor," he says. "We're happy not to have to compete with another Sixties oldies station. Sunny was never going to beat us at our game. We've had this format almost 20 years. KOOL-FM is Coca-Cola, while Sunny was always going to be RC Cola."

Bieler says there's no overlap between what his station and K-Hits play now. "We play very little of the Seventies," he says. "Our cutoff is '71, '72. We've found through surveys that this demo doesn't cross over from Sixties to Seventies. It's like mixing gasoline and water."

However, the curiosity factor is bringing many alternative listeners from the Nineties into the Me Decade. "We've also found a lot of college kids are liking the Seventies," he says. Quite possibly, listeners born post-1970 are looking for an alternative to alternative radio, which in recent years has become yet another formula, playing the same R.E.M. and Cranberries songs as MTV.

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic