When it comes to radio sales, there aren't too many stats that catch my eye, much less surprise me. But when I saw the ranker of the U.S. commercial radio stations with the highest billing totals for 2021, I was blown away.
Part of the reason was that the top revenue producer for all of radio wasn't a station in New York, L.A., or Chicago. It wasn't a San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, or Atlanta station. Nor was it a radio station in Florida.
Nope it was Hubbard's WTOP in Washington, D.C.
And the data is no fluke. It's the sixth consecutive year WTOP has enjoyed #1 status on this list of monster billers. So, before we get any further, let's give kudos to Joel Oxley and his entire team for this accomplishment.
But what's even more impressive than WTOP leading all radio stations in revenue is their margin of victory. At 62 million dollars in billing, no other station comes close.
WTOP has a 55% lead over the #2 biller, iHeart's KIIS-FM in Los Angeles. Over the tenth best revenue generator in the country, Audacy's legendary WFAN, WTOP holds an edge of 121%
And while the news cycle these past six years has played into WTOP's favor, WSB, WINS, WCBS-AM, WBBM, and other similarly formatted stations aren't even in the same conversation sales-wise.
That would make WTOP the “flagship” All-News station in the U.S. It's the one the others will be compared to, steal from, and emulate.
In broadcast radio, there aren't many of these obvious leaders – stations that define their formats, their genres, their categories.
But for decades, that's what KROQ in Los Angeles represented to the Alternative format. Interestingly, KROQ also led the pack decades ago during the days when the music was known as “Modern Rock.” And it was the first station to hold the position of “Rock of the 80's” back when Rick Carroll was first hanging out his shingle as the format's first consultant.
KROQ took the handle – “World Famous” – and they leaned into it, deserved it, and owned it.
Jacobs Media introduced its version of the format – “The Edge™” back in the late 80s. We struggled in the early years, but were well-positioned when Grunge exploded out of Seattle. Soon after, we hired Tom Calderone and then Dave Beasing as format Sherpas – and we thrived. We still own the “mark” and consult stations in the format. But these are very different times for Alternative – or as it has now morphed into, ALT.
A common conversation in the 90's and well into the 2000's with our Alternative clients often went something like this:
Client: “How come KROQ does so much better than we do in the ratings?”
Us: “KROQ? Seriously, KROQ?! They're in a different league than us and everyone else in the format. They've been around for decades, they have a world class morning show in Kevin & Bean, great jocks all day long, iconic festivals and events, and they're led by Kevin Weatherly and his amazing programming team. It's not even fair to compare us to KROQ. They're in a class by themselves.”
And they were. A few years ago at Joel Denver's “summit” in Los Angeles, Weatherly had won yet another “Alternative Program Director of the Year” award – for the umpteenth consecutive year. One of our clients had done a sensational job at her station, and could have walked away with the honors – but not competing against Kevin.
I suggested Joel rename it the “Kevin Weatherly Program Director of the Year Award” so that others might actually have a chance to win it. In 2022, that's no longer an issue.
Clients are now asking “What's wrong with KROQ, and what does its fall from grace say about the state of the format?
KROQ is no longer that station in L.A. Regularly in the top five in the all-important 25-54 adult demographic, their ratings today are very mortal. In just a few short years, they've lost their morning show, their “showrunner,” and most of their airstaff. And their mojo.
And remember that BIA chart featuring the country's revenue leaders? KROQ was a regular on that ranker, back in the day when Trip Reeb was the manager and Weatherly handled the programming duties. I'm hard-pressed to think of another station in the Alternative format that ever performed its way onto that lofty list of revenue juggernauts.
Admittedly, I have no inside knowledge about KROQ. I have never worked with the station in a consulting capacity, nor have I ever had the chance to be behind the scenes, in a position to look under the hood. And having consulted some truly great radio properties, Marconi winners, and other amazing stations, I can't even begin to tell you chapter and verse what happened to KROQ. You just don't know unless you're on the inside – in the room where it happened.
Nor can I tell you they won't get better in 2022, or in the years after. There's enough institutional value in the brand that even with a different team behind the mic and behind the scenes, KROQ could easily make a comeback.
But to be the “flagship' of the format again? That's much less likely to happen.
And that begs the question about the format's health. Does KROQ has the flu, does their slide signify that most other Alternative stations are – or will soon be – on life support?
And what, if anything, can be learned about KROQ's travails, now going back several years? There are the obvious issues, many of which I've noted – staff personnel shuffles, a change in ownership, strong competition, and a global pandemic.
But to suggest KROQ was just another great radio station in the upper echelons of American radio does it and its former employees a disservice. When KROQ had it all going, it was a tribe – a movement you wanted to be a part of. In America's hippest mecca where success is fleeting and there more has-beens than big stars, KROQ's run was especially impressive. Los Angelinos wanted to go to “The Weenie Roast,” wear the station's logo, and be a part of a very special radio brand.
Their fall from the stratosphere means more than if a once-famous radio station in Miami, St. Louis, or Chicago fell on hard times. Getting an “add” on KROQ was a huge deal for a band, an artist, a label, a promotions team. And the intangibles of movie stars and other movers and shakers waking up with Kevin & Bean, and tuning in the station while driving in L.A. was a special thing.
And that served as a reminder. Yes, KROQ – and other great Alternative stations over the decades have definitely been tribal in their appeal and loyalty. But much of that has been driven by attitude. The stations that truly mattered had one – or developed a vibe not just around the music, but around the lifestyle, the community, entertainment, and even politics.
Interestingly, the label, “Alternative,” has historically created pushback…from some of the format's biggest fans. Back in the 80's, the term, Modern Rock, was in favor. And while it was well-worn by the time Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, and Scott Weiland exposed the world to Grunge in the early 90's, the industry landed on “Alternative” – even if the audience was never enthralled with what it meant and what it signified.
Unlike Classic Rock, Country, Blues, Jazz, and other format labels the audience embraces and uses in their everyday speech, “Alternative” has always created some discomfort. “‘Alternative' to WHAT?” is an often-heard pubshback to the label.
It was a compromise, to be sure. No one had a better idea – including the audience. But if memory serves me well, KROQ never used it – or certainly avoided it. Their call letters defined them – not a radio format brand name.
When the term was shortened to just ALT and a frequency during much of the last several years, these stations had long ceased to truly engage or connect with audience members. Instead, they created a brand that while identifiable, did little to create an audience crusade of supporters.
Former Live 105 kingpin, Richard Sands (pictured), has published Alternative radio's definitive trade publication, “The Sands Report” for nearly two decades. Richard has kept his readership on its toes, especially since COVID, fostering a dialogue among the format's key players.
At the end of each year, he combs through 50 or so editions of his weekly report, looking for the quotes that sum up the year. It is always fun reading, because Richard chooses carefully. This year, I was proud to see Jacobs Media hit the trifecta – Mike Stern, Seth Resler, and I had our quotes highlighted in the year-end edition.
But after I got past that glow, I started reading the other contributions. And I came away with that feeling I have long experienced when hanging out with Alternative radio people. By and large, they are some of the cleverest, brightest people in all of radio. OK, and maybe some of the snarkiest.
Here are Richard's best observations about 2021, and the state of the format. Forget about our quotes, circled in red, and look at Robbie Lloyd, Sean Renet, John Allers, Dave Lavora, Garett Michaels, Gene Sandbloom, and even “Name Withheld By Request.” They are thoughtful “takes” on a format that once was a movement, but now has become a formula.
Of all the gems in Richard's end of year collection, the one that I've read and reread is from KTBZ/Houston programmer Elliott Wood (pictured next his quote above). Wood captures the essence of what made the format special in its 80's gestation period, and later in the 90's when it took flight.
Alternative done right is a lifestyle format, maybe even a tribal thing. Wood points to the music drifting too Top 40/Pop. I would argue that on many stations today, the presentation has become formulaic and predictable. When most of these stations were at their peaks, there was a certain managed sloppiness to them that made them fun, charming, and compelling. It's the “misunderstood weirdo” factor that Robbie Lloyd speaks of in the very first quote.
Thinking about the very best Alternative stations I've been a part of – and they include 91X, Live 105, The End, X96, KNRK, WHFS, WKQX, KPNT, and a whole slew of stations branded The Edge™, they all had those intangibles many of Richard's experts talk about, including programmers who knew how to manage the chaos. These stations were on “the cutting edge of”…something – whether it was the music, the morning show, the personalities, the productions, the contests, the events, or the merch.
A key was to not sound like every other station in the market – a tall order when you still need ratings to survive and prosper.
These days when many ALT stations are crushing 250-song “safe lists” in a box with canned-sounding production, you end up with a product that could just as easily be in Austin, Appleton, or Atlanta.
Is that attitude and that lifestyle achievable in 2022 radio? Or is it just another vestige of a radio past that cannot be recaptured in today's environment?
In the Sands' comments, Garret Michaels raises an interesting question about audience targeting. He maintains the traditional demo – 18-34s – is no longer attainable; that the core audience is now made up by consumers who are now Millennials and Xers fit perfectly into the 25-54 box. In other words, those who grew up with the music. That's a familiar trope to me, and my years in Classic Rock radio – in other words, listeners who “graduated” from Rock, and are more comfortable with music from their youth.
However you parse the debate over the health and future of the format, the more “paint-by-the-numbers” its gotten, the worse it has performed. I'm not suggesting I have “the answer,” but I do believe the opportunity for innovation is right now.
KROQ is regrouping, and the band will not be reunited. Bean's in England, Kevin's on KLOS with Sluggo, and Weatherly's at Spotify. There's no benchmark, curve, KPIs, or “best practices” for Alternative anymore. All bets are off.
Yes, there are things to be learned from the handful of stations experiencing success at the moment. But there's more upside in inventive, bright, tuned-in programmers and on-air talent figuring out a new path for this format.
If you talk to people on the public radio side of the spectrum, they might have a very different story about success with Alternative and Triple A formats. Jim McGuinn, Bruce Warren, and now our old friend and Jacobs alum, Tom Calderone, who's got something new going on in Buffalo. They would tell you that when ratings aren't the be-all-and-end-all, some very interesting things can be done with content, delivery, and engagement.
The loss of a flagship isn't the end of a format. Rather it's a clarion call for innovation, experimentation, and creativity – elements that have sadly been in short supply.
But that also means answering some important questions: who are we going after, what do we call ourselves, why do we matter, and what do we stand for? That last one may be the most central to this format's future.
Next year, I'm hoping those “famous quotes” in The Sands Report don't sound so aspirational; so shoulda, coulda, woulda.
Instead, they will be a reflective of a resilient format that's back on its feet and kicking ass.