Behind the rebranding of Hot 107.1 FM

If you've watched Gossip Girl, American Idol or any number of TV staples with large youth audiences over the past week, you've likely caught the new commercial for KONN-FM/107.1. The station hasn't changed its format -- a style known in the trade as CHR, or contemporary-hit radio. But it's got a new moniker, Hot 107.1, as well as a much higher profile. At times, the spots seem to be running on a tape loop.

The timing of this PR blitz has everything to do with a shift in ownership. As reported earlier this week by Radio Business Report, Max Media of Denver, the local branch of an operation based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, purchased a controlling interest in KONN and its sister station, KTNI/101.5 FM, better known as Indie 101.5 -- the outlet honored as the city's top commercial station in the 2009 Westword Best of Denver issue. The pricetag for the pair, which Max Media shared with Denver Holdings LLC? An $11.7 million credit bid directed at Denver Radio Company, which filed for bankruptcy last year.

Max Media didn't just roll into town yesterday. As pointed out in a January blog about Indie 101.5 music director John "Whip" Wilbur's campaign to save his idiosyncratic outlet, the firm started taking control of the properties earlier this year. And Max Media's Jeff Norman, who serves as general manager for both stations, is confident he can help build on ratings that are presently anemic in the extreme.

"Max Media own and operate TV and radio stations across the country, but we're still a small, privately owned group," says Norman, who points out that his firm is technically operating the signals on Denver Radio Company's behalf pending approval of the buyout by the Federal Communications Commission. "We're not a big corporation like Clear Channel or Lincoln Financial [the venture that owns Hot 107.1's primary competitor, KS-107.5]. We excel at working with local owners -- working with the little guy and helping them grow, helping them become better financially situated in their business. If, after that, they want to expand or sell or whatever, we're here to help them."

Norman sees the most immediate growth potential in KONN -- hence what he calls the "imaging flip" and the heavy investment in TV advertising. As for Indie 101.5, he refers to it as "an eclectic, underground-type station" that's been building audience via word of mouth, and that's likely the formula for the future. "We may do an outdoor campaign later, but we won't be mass marketing like we're doing with Hot 107.1," Norman says. "It's such a niche format...."

That means the onus will be on KONN to increase listenership to the degree that national advertisers pay attention. "Right now, 107.5 dominates the market, and our ratings aren't high enough to attract national buys," Norman notes. "We're doing phenomenally well working with local businesses here in Denver, but the Clear Channels and Lincoln Financials are getting those big national dollars. Their revenues may be off, but we're not seeing any of those dollars."

And they probably won't until more Gossip Girl fans start turning the dial their way.

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