Urban Renewal

How could an R&B outlet become the most popular radio station in Denver? The little girls understand.

African-Americans account for just a 5.1 percent slice of the Denver radio audience, according to figures used by the Arbitron ratings service -- and while this demographic is far from the only group whose members listen to hip-hop or rhythm and blues, its traditional loyalty to the music suggests that local broadcasters focusing on the style don't have a helluva lot of pie with which to work. So most observers would probably expect Cat Collins, program director of KS-107.5, an urban-leaning contemporary hit radio (CHR) outlet, to be crowing about his baby topping the spring ratings book among listeners aged twelve and over -- a first-ever for a station of its type in Denver radio history.

But publicly, at least, Collins reacts with all the enthusiasm of a rave fanatic at a Johnny Mathis concert. "We don't really focus on twelve-plus, so it doesn't mean that much," Collins says. "It's never happened before here, so I guess it's good that we did it. But it's not something we really sell."

Collins's honesty is refreshing. His main job is to convince advertisers to give KS-107.5 boatloads of cash, and in today's niche-oriented marketplace, commercial-buyers are more interested in reaching narrowly defined consumer groups than the teeming, undifferentiated masses. As a result, the station's supremacy for the third consecutive ratings cycle among 18- to 34-year-old females, the primary group it targets, and 18- to 34-year-olds in general for three of the last four are much more important achievements.

These accomplishments have helped Jefferson-Pilot, the Greensboro, North Carolina, corporation that owns KS-107.5 and four other Denver radio signals (of a modest seventeen nationwide), regularly outbill AMFM, a Texas company with six radio properties here. (Published reports hint that the Federal Communications Commission is close to signing off on AMFM's merger with Kentucky's Clear Channel, the billing leader in Denver.)

But the question remains: How has KS-107.5 managed to do so well in a place overwhelmingly dominated by Caucasians who've historically been fondest of rock and often vocally hostile toward rap? And the answer is: By tinkering with its format so that it appeals to pop fans without alienating the young urbanites who've always gravitated toward its type of music.

In this regard, Collins and company have been aided immeasurably by existing trends, which argue that -- thank goodness -- people are finally becoming more color-blind, at least when it comes to contemporary music. A glance at any recent Billboard magazine confirms that hip-hop-influenced sounds rule the hit-singles world: Of the ten biggest sellers on the current chart, only one (matchbox twenty's "Bent") is a rock song, while most of the rest are by R&B-friendly acts such as Sisqó, Destiny's Child, Janet Jackson and Aaliyah. KS-107.5 programs this material in Top 40 fashion, with seemingly endless repetition of a couple dozen or so songs per week and no day-parting -- meaning that there's no more variety in the middle of the night than there is during drive time. Collins acknowledges that folks sometimes gripe about this redundancy, but he defends it from a business perspective.

"If you look across America, stations with large playlists usually have very mediocre ratings," he says. "So I'd rather play 25 or 30 huge home runs than 50 or 60 so-so records. I know there will be complaints, and I accept that, because less really is more. Our weekly audience is about 280,000, which is like four Mile High Stadiums full of people. Now, can you imagine having to turn on the loudspeakers and play songs that all 280,000 of them are going to like? That's why we try to play people's favorite songs, and there really are only about twenty of those out at a time."

Of late, that list has included plenty of hardcore hip-hop, a subgenre that's been vigorously reaching out to crackers via overt crossover artists -- most notably Eminem, who was at the center of the Up in Smoke tour that stopped at Fiddler's Green on August 20 and 21 (see review, page 98). The mainstream media uproar over Eminem is laughable, but there's no denying his popularity. Less than three months after its release, his latest CD, The Marshall Mathers LP, has already moved more than five million units, and his single, "The Real Slim Shady," has become a true format-hopper, winning spins on alterna-rock stations such as the Peak.

Yet KS-107.5 is second to none in its hyping of Eminem. An article in the August 17 edition of Rolling Stone about how the controversy over the rapper's lyrical misogyny and homophobia wasn't slowing his gathering momentum singled out the station for playing Eminem tunes more frequently than any other outlet in the entire United States. Not only is KS-107.5 pounding on "The Real Slim Shady" and "Forget About Dre," his collaboration with producer/tour mate Dr. Dre, but it's also power-rotating an edited version of the album track "Stan," in which an Eminem obsessive ultimately kills both himself and his girlfriend. (What goes around comes around: In July, Eminem's wife, whom he'd slain in narrative fashion on his previous album, was hospitalized following a suicide attempt. He recently filed for divorce.) In addition, "Stan" is far and away KS-107.5's most requested song, with "The Real Slim Shady" in the number-three slot.

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