Friday, November 5, 2010

Media: Goodbye Hot Talk, Hello Greatest Hits

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week, Fisher Broadcasting in Seattle, Washington announced that it would be changing the format of one of its radio stations. KVI at 570 AM will no longer have the conservative talk radio format that it has aired since 1993 and instead will become a full service (yes, that means news breaks) station airing oldies music, not entirely dissimilar to the format that aired on the station before it became a talk station in 1992.

KVI is not just any radio station in Seattle. With roots dating back to 1926, the station has competed for top ratings in the market in several eras, most notably the 1970's and mid 1990's. It was once part of Gene Autry's radio holdings. The Seattle Mariners baseball team was broadcast on the station from their first season in 1977 to 1984--somewhere in my possession I have an old Mariners cap with a KVI logo on it.

My first memories of KVI were in its oldies era, when it went by the slogan "Solid Gold Rock'n'Roll, KVI." It had lost the Mariners to KIRO by then, but it ran the Unlimited Radio Network with unlimited hydroplane coverage, which was still reasonably popular in Seattle at the time (though those races would spend some years on KIXI and even KWYZ out of Everett before returning to KVI), so that drew me to the station.

Then, in 1992, the station went all-talk. Rush Limbaugh was aired live 9-noon, the first time the already-famous conservative talker aired on a significant Seattle signal (Seattle listeners had previously been best off listening to him on a midnight replay on KNBR out of San Francisco). I started listening to the weekend re-runs of Limbaugh's programs. Initially, there was some political balance to the station, but then, in 1993, KVI went to all conservative talk. It became the first major-market all-conservative talk station in the entire country. Now there are too many to count.

Despite the liberal nature of the Seattle area, KVI thrived, competing with KIRO and FM music stations KMPS and KUBE for top ratings in the market. Much of the competition centered around the 9-noon slot, where KIRO tried various local hosts to try to go head-to-head with Limbaugh, removing Jim French from his long-standing slot in favor of San Francisco transplant Lee Rodgers (from KGO, who would later return to KSFO) and eventually settling on their own homegrown talent in Dave Ross. KVI was so successful that it attracted copycats; at one point, KTTH "The Truth", KKOL 1300 AM, and KVI were all running exclusively conservative talk.

In 1994, KVI and KPLZ-FM were sold to Fisher Broadcasting, which already owned KOMO-AM. As time went on, KVI received less and less attention from its new owners. KTTH stole Limbaugh away, leaving KVI with Tony Snow in the morning. Ratings started to decline. Meanwhile, it also had fewer and fewer local hosts. KOMO increasingly received the best talent, with a final straw earlier this year being the move of "The Commentators" (Ken Schram and John Carlson), then airing on KVI, along with Carlson's former afternoon drive show, to KOMO. That left morning drive host Bryan Suits as the last remaining local talent. With syndicated programming repeating during the day, it was clear something would need to change before KVI was left with no listeners and advertising revenue.

On Monday, the change will occur with the beginning of the oldies format, this time not as "Solid Gold" but as "Seattle's Greatest Hits." Fisher is actually bringing back DJ's identified with the 60's and 70's music, with Tom Hutyler (KJR/KOMO, as well as the PA voice of the Mariners and a KVI news voice) and Marina Rockinger (KBSG and KOMO) in the mornings, Mark Christopher (KBSG) in the afternoons, and Ric Hansen (KJR) at night. The prospects of an AM oldies station garnering an audience in a market with an FM oldies station (albeit a rim-shotter, KMCQ from Covington at 104.5 FM) seems remote.

Still, I've been an advocate of full-service stations, and perhaps the element of adding news to the music will allow the new KVI to find a niche. Fisher was one of the last owners to re-format a full-service station in a major market (KOMO in 1995), and now it is the first to bring back a full-service station. It's certainly an interesting experiment.

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