TODAY, BOULDER. TOMORROW, THE WORLD
So you're an affluent young professional. You're smart, attractive--a doer, not a couch potato. You never forget to separate your recyclables, and you make sure that your Lexus is in perfect tune to keep air pollution to a minimum. You may be in your late thirties now, but you're still hip, still cool, and you still want to hear music that exemplifies the qualities you like so much about yourself.
So what kind of radio station makes you feel best? Odds are good it's a new-style outlet scientifically designed just for you--an outlet that's on the leading edge of a Boulderization of the nation's airwaves.
Whether it's called A3 or Triple-A, Adult Album Alternative is the hottest, most market-friendly approach to radio since classic rock. It's warm, fuzzy radio that, according to Ray Skibitsky (co-founder of SBR Radio Company, a Boulder-based radio consulting firm, as well as general manager of 96.5 FM/The Peak), "is almost as much sociology as radio programming." A3 is meant to attract the allegiance of well-off sorts between 25 and 49 years of age who wear as a badge of honor their knowledge about current rock music--or at least the current rock music that's not all that much different from the stuff they dug in 1973. Grown-up music. Music with understandable lyrics, strong melodies, modest guitars and none of those nasty profanities.
If this description sounds familiar, it should. Radio historians trace the ancestry of A3 directly to Boulder's KBCO-FM/97.3, which has been broadcasting variations of the format since the late Seventies. But now, suddenly, A3 is everywhere. Approximately fifty stations across the country, many in major markets, have embraced A3. Record companies are signing artists and releasing records specifically designed to appeal to A3 outlets and their listeners. And trade publications and music magazines have been touting A3 as the next big thing. Says Kent Zimmerman, progressive-music co-editor for Gavin, a San Francisco-based tip sheet and bible of the radio industry: "To say the least, there's a lot of excitement about this."
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The next stage of this mellow revolution is the Gavin A3 Summit, set to take place August 25 through 27 in Boulder. Organizers expect the "anti-convention" (as Zimmerman calls it) to attract nearly 500 registrants from radio stations, trade publications and record companies. While in Colorado, they won't be bored: They'll be entertained by a slew of the biggest-name performers in the A3 universe, including Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Freedy Johnston and Sara Hickman. Because three shows at Boulder's Fox Theatre featuring these and other performers sold out almost instantly, and because a number of others have been designated as invitation-only affairs, most members of the general public won't have a chance to see the stars or hear them speak at A3 seminars prior to showtime. But these musicians aren't coming to Boulder to meet and greet the paying customers. They're making the pilgrimage because A3 is buttering their bread.
At the same time, they are supporting A3's move into more and more parts of the country. Judy McNutt, program director at KBCO, as well as what she calls the "unofficial hostess" of the Summit, isn't too wild about this prospect. "I don't want this radio station to be cookie-cuttered out all over the United States," she says. "There's no way that we could meet the needs of people in, say, Schenectady."
McNutt may not have any choice. After all, there are untold millions of moneyed adults out there who need to feel good about themselves--and plenty of others who see a profit in helping them do so.
At its birth, KBCO didn't seem like a harbinger of things to come. Instead, it resembled a financial sinkhole.
The station's beginnings can be traced to KADE-AM, which went on the air in late 1973 with a middle-of-the-road format, a puny 1,000-watt signal and a license that required it to go off the air at sunset. "In the wintertime, you'd be listening when the jock would say good night," remembers Ray Skibitsky. "And you'd look at your watch and it would be 4:30 in the afternoon. And you'd be like, `What?'"
Skibitsky was hired to work in sales at KADE in August 1974. The station was losing scads of money, and the owners were ready to put it on the block. However, Skibitsky convinced them to keep the station afloat and institute a progressive-rock format. The switch was a popular one, but KADE's owners still wanted out. About a year later they sold the outlet to Bob Greenlee, a former director of an advertising agency who retained most of the KADE staff and immediately began shopping for an FM station. He soon discovered KRNW-FM, a small broadcaster that, Skibitsky says, "was a very free-form, progressive station that was operating out of downtown Boulder. It didn't have much of a signal, because its antenna had been melted into the building's roof."
The man chosen as program director for what would become KBCO-FM was Dennis Constantine, a KBPI-FM vet who soon stamped the station with his wide-open musical vision. "It's eclectic," Constantine says about KBCO's sound. "But it's consistently eclectic."
It was also financially strapped. In June 1977, when KBCO started transmitting, Constantine, officially the station's program director, was making $12 for each four-hour shift. It was six months before he could afford to hire his first full-time staffer. Another six months later he brought aboard Judy McNutt, who returned to KBCO as program director this past summer after time spent in cities such as Sacramento and Nashville.
At first, the FM station's power--610 watts--was too low to make any impact on the Denver market. But as ratings began to grow and advertisers realized that KBCO listeners were young and had lots of disposable income, that situation changed. By the mid-Eighties, around the time that its power was increased to 100,000 watts, KBCO was the most listened-to station in Denver. The outlet hasn't been able to hold on to that position, but in recent years it's almost constantly been among the market's top seven.
In the meantime, KBCO's programming took on a life of its own. By the early Eighties, Skibitsky says, "we started thinking that this format should definitely be around the country. When we'd get calls from people who'd just moved to the area thanking us, or letters from people who'd moved away and were complaining that there wasn't anything like KBCO where they were living, we were amazed that other stations weren't picking up on it."
The word was finally starting to spread when KBCO was purchased by Noble Broadcasting. Once the deal was completed (in January 1988), Skibitsky pledged to stay at KBCO for at least three years under the new owners in order to learn as much as he could about operating a station under these conditions. Neither current KBCO management nor anyone at SBR will describe in detail the hassles of working together during that time period. The most Skibitsky will say is, "I think over time a corporation may not understand the individual station's needs as compared to the group's needs. Some of our philosophies felt like they might be compromised."
In 1991, as his three-year commitment was coming to an end, Skibitsky and two other KBCO staffers, John Bradley and David Rahn, left the station to form SBR Radio. Today SBR is a consultant to fifteen A3 stations around the country, including KFOG-FM in San Francisco and WXRT-FM in Chicago. Dennis Constantine recently followed the SBR lead. Although he continues to hold down one air shift at KBCO--a Sunday night program called KBCO Underground--Constantine's focusing on consulting work at ten reconstituted A3 stations. Among them are outlets in Los Angeles, Austin and Minneapolis.
The majority of the commercial A3 stations nationwide fall under the Constantine or SBR umbrellas. It's no wonder, then, that Gavin's Zimmerman says the Summit's Boulder setting is "an homage to KBCO and Dennis Constantine and SBR. And the Flatirons."
So what does an A3 station sound like? Either the experts genuinely can't describe it or they believe there's cachet in being purposefully vague--the if-you-don't-understand-it-already-you-never-will method. "I don't really consider what we do a format," says KBCO's McNutt. "It's so unique to me, and always will be. These stations take root in their communities and reflect what's going on there--and since no two communities are exactly the same, I would expect that no two A3 stations would be exactly the same."
Indeed, there are differences between A3 outlets in different parts of the country. Some lean more toward folk and acoustic artists, such as David Wilcox and John Gorka, who make music that sounds for all the world like it was released in the early Seventies, at the height of the singer-songwriter boom that foisted James Taylor and Jackson Browne on an unsuspecting public. Others tip their hats to contemporary country artists such as Nanci Griffith, who is something like a Linda Ronstadt who writes her own songs. Chicago's WXRT has a fondness for blues, San Francisco's KFOG plays more classic rock than many of its contemporaries, and KBCO tosses a potpourri of genres at the wall, including reggae, worldbeat, blues and new-age.
That doesn't mean that just any musical style works at A3. At the mention of modern R&B and rap, A3 proponents--aware that they might seem to be targeting a mainly white, upper-crust audience--get distinctly nervous. "If you're talking about R&B or black artists, that music has to be brought to the table and fit with the sound, the texture you're trying to create," SBR's Rahn says. "I don't think there's anything exclusionary about it. [African-American singer-songwriter] Seal, for example, has been a big artist for us. And if Public Enemy had the right record, it might work for us. But if it was too hard, we'd have to ask, `How well does it fit with Seal?'"
"We've tried a song or two with some rap content, like Us3 and MC 900 Foot Jesus," KBCO's McNutt reveals. "Those are good examples of high-quality music that's different, but it was over the edge. I didn't get a very good reaction from the community on those, but I don't regret a single note we played. We're not going to play them every day, and we may never play them again, but I don't regret that we played them once."
The prototypical A3 artist, then, isn't Ice Cube, but John Hiatt. He's not a new performer--his long-forgotten, hard-to-find debut album, Hangin' Around the Observatory, was released way back in 1974. By the late Seventies, though, Hiatt had reinvented himself as an angry, Elvis Costello-style songwriter, and the rapturous reviews that greeted the LPs Slug Line and Two Bit Monsters began his love affair with music critics. More changes ensued during the Eighties: By late in the decade (just as A3 was in its germinal stage), Hiatt began making intelligent rock with sometimes humorous or poignant lyrics that took an adult look at adult concerns such as relationships, families and pop culture. As Hiatt told Westword in 1992, "I was bumping along in the middle Seventies, wondering what had happened to music in general--certainly popular music. Between your too-sensitive singer-songwriters and your overbloated, overproduced big superband kinds of things, there wasn't much shaking. I guess by trying to do neither of those things, I wound up somewhere in between."
In many ways, this middle ground is where A3 stations choose to operate. The typical outlet--if there is such a thing--embraces artists beloved by classic-rock broadcasters (Eric Clapton, Dire Straits) and alternative stations (R.E.M., U2), while at the same time giving meaningful airplay to new performers who hark back to traditional rock or pop music. Counting Crows, a group that sometimes takes its fondness for Van Morrison to extremes, got its biggest early push from A3 stations, while rising star Sheryl Crow, whose music is often reminiscent of that made by Seventies-vintage Valerie Carter and Rickie Lee Jones, was a smash at A3 long before her work began crossing over to other formats.
It is for their willingness to play songs by unfamiliar artists (albeit ones who rarely challenge the status quo) that A3 programmers have earned the most praise. While all too many formats simply regurgitate hits of bygone days (listen to KRFX-FM) or refuse to spin anything new until it's already a smash (like KS-104), Dennis Constantine says, "At my stations, we definitely challenge people with the music. We play 50 to 60 percent brand-new stuff in our mix."
Adds KBCO's McNutt, whose station was named by Billboard, the music industry's most prominent trade publication, as station of the year in its market size from 1991 to 1993, and is nominated again this year: "We really do as much as we can to support new artists that you may never have heard of, and maybe never will, like Soulhat, Hootie and the Blowfish, Paula Cole. You have to come to this station with an open mind." KBCO also invites artists into its Boulder offices for so-called Studio C sessions, which consist of interviews and live mini-concerts broadcast to the station's large listenership. Participants over the years have included Hiatt, Squeeze and the Freddy Jones Band, which was on the bill of this year's H.O.R.D.E. festival that featured Boulder's Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Many performers coming for the A3 Summit are also planning to drop by Studio C while they're in town.
Unsurprisingly, this attitude has thrilled major record labels, which previously had found it difficult to get airplay for critically acclaimed, mature rock music. "The companies had learned to exist without radio," Gavin's Zimmerman claims, "so now that they're getting some radio exposure--boom--it's icing on the cake. It's something extra for them." Following Gavin's institution of an A3 chart and section in May 1993, Zimmerman notes that Columbia, Atlantic, MCA and Island Records have all started A3 divisions of their own, as have medium-to-small-size independents such as Discovery, Imago, Mesa and Rounder.
"The record companies are starting to realize that they need to make records instead of just singles nowadays," SBR's Skibitsky says. "Because now there are stations that will play them."
But A3 outlets don't rely solely on music to attract listeners. Programmers, consultants and managers also delve into the cosmic, the ethereal, the psychological. "One of the things I enjoy most," Constantine reveals, "is picking up the feeling of the city and putting that feeling on the radio."
"The feeling of the city": You hear that sort of comment a lot from A3 types. KBCO's McNutt says, "The common ground is the vibe of the community." According to SBR's Rahn, "Each station takes on different shades, depending on where it is." Skibitsky says, "A3 is progressive, tapping into lifestyles, being very involved with their listeners and the places where they live."
In KBCO's case, that means that the station identifies itself with issues perceived as important by its target listeners. So in addition to co-promoting concerts and live events throughout the area, KBCO is actively conservation-friendly, featuring news updates about environmental issues (and decorating some of its billboards with green recycling symbols). It directs the proceeds from the four volumes of Live at Studio C, a collection of CDs that preserves Studio C sessions, to the Colorado AIDS Project and similar AIDS-prevention organizations (and adorns other billboards with red AIDS ribbons). And under the assumption that its listeners think of themselves as recreational sorts, it sponsors the annual Kinetic Sculpture Challenge and outdoorsy benefits such as the annual AIDS Walk. "We know that our listeners are extremely likely to become involved in anything we suggest to them," McNutt says, "because it's in their nature to do it."
Of course, this kind of listener participation is as advantageous for radio stations as it is for the causes for which funds are designated. "When you make sure that a station has a presence in the events and issues that concern listeners," Skibitsky notes, "they embrace it. One of the things you find with A3 is a high time spent listening and exclusivity--they don't listen to a lot of other stations, and when they do, they don't listen for a very long time. The audience is very loyal to the station."
Listener loyalty, A3 boosters claim, can be taken to the bank. "These are the 25-49-year-old adults that every station salivates over: active, upscale, very passionate and with disposable income," says Skibitsky. "Advertisers love them." Gavin's Zimmerman is a bit more cautious: "People have been after the BMW drivers for a while, and it doesn't always work. Look at KHIH," he says, referring to a defunct Denver station that failed with a so-called "acoustic-rock" format in the early Nineties. But because A3 stations are designed to appeal to the 25- to 49-year-old listeners most eager to consume whether they have truckloads of money or not, he adds, "It would be just as good a demographic if it cut across all income strata."
Whoever these folks are, Skibitsky is trying to attract them to his latest project, the Peak, based in Evergreen but with studios in Lakewood. Even though SBR is consulting the new outlet, which went on the air this summer, everyone involved agrees that it is not an A3. Thus far, the station is playing far more rock-based alternative music (e.g., Nirvana, Pearl Jam) than KBCO, as well as plenty of tracks from Tori Amos-style female vocalists. "We're not as broad as KBCO, and [we're] more focused," Skibitsky says. "We're also staying away from the softer folk." Responding to the persistent rumors that the Peak is meant to be Skibitsky's revenge on his old station, he adds, "Our intention is not to compete head-to-head with KBCO. We'd rather be the soundtrack for the Nineties."
In other areas, the Peak means to borrow some of the lessons Skibitsky learned at KBCO--and to lift some of KBCO's staffers as well. Most prominent among those who defected to the Peak is program director Doug Clifton, who spent eleven years at KBCO; he earned Billboard awards as music director and program director of the year during his tenure there. "We're looking to appeal to the adult alternative listener," Clifton says. "We looked at those bands that started to surface in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and [we're] using those as the foundation for this new sound we're trying to create."
Newness is clearly in the eye of the beholder. Among the features Skibitsky touts is From the Peak Lounge, which will broadcast live appearances, interviews and mini-concerts. In other words, then, these are Studio C sessions by another name. Among the performers to take advantage of this program thus far have been edgier alternative groups such as the Meat Puppets, as well the A3-esque acts Sheryl Crow and Harry Connick Jr.
Clifton also notes another similarity between the Peak and the granddaddy of all A3s. "Just like at KBCO," he says, "we decided on what we thought was right for this market mostly on our gut feelings."
The Gavin A3 Summit will give like-minded music professionals from around the country an opportunity to explore these feelings. And there are plenty of folks who wish to do so. Gavin's Zimmerman, the primary organizer of the Summit, says, "The first Summit we held in Boulder, last August, we expected 30 or 40 people, but we ended up with nearly 300. I think it was a great surprise for a lot of people, because they realized, `Hey, we're not alone.'"
Skibitsky's memories of the conference sound straight out of the men's movement. "Last year the experience was pretty incredible," he recalls. "It was almost like a bonding experience--like going out into the wilderness with a group of people and finding that you shared this passion."
But the Summit's seminars won't all be hugfests. Constantine says registrants will be attending panels on promotion, marketing and the like, as well as "a rate-a-record session where we'll play songs that haven't been released yet and decide whether it would be appropriate or inappropriate to play. And we'll be talking about musical boundaries--about just how far we can stretch this thing."
But mostly, summiteers will be networking, talking, commiserating, attending concerts and showcases and learning to get in touch with their innermost musical emotions, just like those A3 listeners who lately have been coming out of the woodwork in greater and greater numbers. It's a situation ripe for stereotyping, as KBCO's McNutt is well aware, but she'll have none of that. "These are not granola people," she says about her audience and, maybe, her peers. "Okay, some of them may be vegetarians, and some of them may be fond of granola, but a good many of them are just normal, hard-working, radio-loving people. Not that I have anything against granola, but geez...
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