KTFM's recent switch to a rock format has jammed San Antonio radio dials. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Airwave shakeup leaves little wiggle room in the crowded rock field

If there is truth in the old axiom that no one ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the American public, it's also likely that no one has ever gone broke by overestimating San Antonio's appetite for the rock. Every toupeed cod-piece rocker on the verge of Social Security knows that as long as you keep cranking your amp to 11, San Antonio will always welcome you with open arms and bleeding ears.

On the radio airwaves, the city's most consistently dominant music stations have long been KISS (99.5 FM) and KZEP (104.5 FM). KISS tends to focus on contemporary hard rock, while KZEP -as its call letters suggest, sticks to the classic-rock radio template established by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and AC/DC. Drawing a smaller, but equally local listenership is KMFR (104.1 FM), a station that bills itself as "Mighty Fine Rock."

In light of these stations' enduring popularity, it shouldn't be a big surprise that we recently saw a new entry in the SA rock-radio war. KTFM, most recently a Top 40, contemporary hits station, pumped up the volume on the morning of October 24, ushering in a new incarnation as a heavy rock station.

The new KTFM, now dubbed K-ROCK, has been a source of puzzlement for many listeners. For one thing, the station is - at least temporarily - operating without jocks, spicing up its song selections with listener testimonials, like the one by an addled male caller who proclaimed: "Thanks for getting rid of the old KTFM. No more rap music and no more Jennifer Lopez!"

The bigger mystery surrounding K-ROCK is why it stepped into SA's already crowded mainstream rock field, while the city continues to lack a so-called "alternative" radio station on the commercial end of the dial.

Even attempting to define what constitutes "alternative music" in 2003 is a futile exercise, but it most certainly can't be found at K-ROCK. Seemingly driven to bridge the gap between KZEP and KISS, K-ROCK willfully leapfrogs across decades, going from Billy Squier to Foo Fighters, the Who to Linkin Park, and Tesla to A Perfect Circle.

KTFM operations manager John Cook did not respond to the Current's requests for an interview, but the station's programming facelift looks like part of a radio shakeup for its owners, Infinity Broadcasting. In April, John Fullam, Infinity's Chief Operating Officer, resigned after the company's radio division - which constitutes 183 stations - reported disappointing first-quarter earnings. Infinity execs couldn't be blamed for seeing KTFM as a cursed, corporate albatross.

When Infinity bought KTFM in March 2000, the station was a ratings powerhouse. That summer, it recorded a 9.3 share in the Arbitron ratings (shares are the percentages of people in a certain market listening to a station during a 15-minute period). By the following spring, with its music moving in a more dance-oriented direction, it had plummeted to a 4.1 share. With the slide continuing over the next two years, KTFM clearly needed a dramatic change.

Although the new K-ROCK format aims for some of that much-coveted KISS money, KISS program director Kevin Vargas doesn't sound worried about his station's new rival.

"She caught the KT and left me a mule to ride." (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

"It's just another format tried by the KTFM frequency, another station playing a lot of oldies, and the audience will make a decision if they want to hear it or not," Vargas says. "We're not changing what we do, our goal is, as it has always been, to be San Antonio's rock station."

Early response to K-ROCK, at least based on the station's message-board postings, has been mixed at best. One recent posting reads: "If K-ROCK had switched to an alternative/college format, then not only would they be getting listeners from KISS, KZEP, and KMFR, they would also get listeners from Mix 96.1 and Magic. I think there are are more listeners looking for something completely different than there are looking for some of the same old repackaged music."

Even a more optimistic listener urges station programmers to drop its flirtation with classic rock: "If you want to listen to '70s and '80s rock, go back to KZEP. Bring the format up to date."

Filling the void created by KTFM's defection from the contemporary hits format is KCJZ (106.7 FM). Over the last four years, KCJZ has been known as "Jamz," concentrating on R&B and dance material. But the station recently switched to a broader pop format, with a playlist that includes current tracks by Pink, Matchbox 20, Santana, Fountains of Wayne, No Doubt, and Kelly Clarkson. In an odd footnote, KCJZ is owned by Cox Radio, the owner of KTFM's toughest competitor: KISS.

This game of programming musical chairs might be creating confusion at the moment, but when the fog clears, one fact will be evident: San Antonians can rest assured that they will never have to wait more than an hour to hear Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" on the radio. •


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