Does KGSR-FM Still Sound Like Austin?
KGSR-FM (93.3) sounds different. Can they still say it “Sounds Like Austin” “Where the Music Comes First?” Some 765 longtime listeners have formed a Facebook page entitled “I love KGSR, but Please Bring Back the Old Format”. It wasn’t that long ago that Rolling Stone Magazine proclaimed KGSR as one of the ten radio stations in American that don’t suck.
Now, these listeners beg to differ, saying things like:
“First KGSR and now the Cactus? We're Austinites - we can change this! Don't mess with our music!”
“I thought it was just me. I noticed lots of older music that KGSR never played. Sounds more like a frustrated college radio programmer got control of the station and is now running wild. IT SUCKS!!!”
“I don't think the old format is going to return. They are saying they couldn't keep the doors open playing the music we love. I wish they had made a plea to loyal fans before changing things. I surely would have gone out of my way to support their sponsors if it meant saving a unique station.”
Chris Edge, KGSR program director is open about the changes. After looking at slipping ratings, changes to the format were initiated last fall. Then, folks slowly started coming to the realization that the KGSR-FM that used to play everything was shifting its playlist. Edge argues, however, that KGSR still sounds like Austin, although “Sounds like Austin” is not a phrase they are currently using on the air.
“We are the most Austin Centric station there is,” Edge says. “Nobody else plays the music that we do.”
Edge challenges listeners to name another station that plays the following artist in regular rotation: Spoon, Lyle Lovett, Iron & Wine, Willie Nelson, Ryan Bingham and Bob Schneider, to name a few. [We are] continuing to play the best Adult Alternative records available to us. We also continue to play the music that made 107.1 what it was (just in smaller doses) It’s all still there.” Edge says KGSR is still playing around 1,000 songs.
“I would add what makes us Austin is not just our music it’s what we do. We raised close to $150 thousand for HAAM this year through our Broadcast CD. We are one of the most community focused radio stations in Austin.” Edge says.
There are still many familiar voices on KGSR, even though the man who started it all, Jody Denberg, is gone along with Susan Castle, former music director, and some others. DJs are talking less and playing more music, Edge says. “It’s the number 1 reason why people listen and we are trying to deliver on that.”
Here’s the problem: For several years even loyal listeners have referred to KGSR as K-Geezer. The demographics were aging. Well, that would be OK if they were still listening in droves, but it’s not OK when you’re operating a local radio station and not attracting new listeners. “We are trying to perform in the 25-54 demo [demographic category], we have performed poorly here for many years and we finally had to make a change,” Edge says. Bottom line: It’s a business.
The shift from 107.1 megahertz from a transmitter located in Bastrop to 93.3 from a tower in Cedar Park was to increase audience with a bigger footprint. Edge says they are hearing from new listeners as well as the old.
The original local radio station of which it could be said that it sounds like Austin took the air in early 1970s. Billboard Magazine reported that KRMH-FM (known to fans as Karma) was going on the air with a footprint that covered Austin and San Marcos with studios located in Austin. It broke the mold.
According to the program director Richard Gembler, KRMH-FM would feature better rock music. The traditional “easy-listening” and country music selections from the Billboard “Hot 100” would be thrown out.
“The playlist will consist of 250 records, 150 of which are albums. An average of four cuts per album will be cleared for play,” Gembler told the magazine.
With great specificity in the November 1, 1971 issue, Gembler broke down how many “oldies”, how many “Hot 100” singles, how much blues, folk, and jazz would be included. “Progressive” was the term used to describe the sound. At least two KRMH-FM veterans are still here, including recording guru Joel Block whose father was called the first DJ in the 1930s, but that’s another story.
Would that I could hear a station like that again. They were pioneers.
The other pioneer radio station that would sound like Austin was KOKE-FM, where they coined the phrase “Progressive Country”. In 1974 KOKE-FM received the "Trendsetter of the Year" award from Billboard Magazine for its Progressive Country format. Joe Gracey is said to have first approached the country station with a Willie Nelson :45 rpm record. It was redneck and hippie “Outlaw Country” music all at the same time with a little bit of rock, and it sounded like Austin at least until 1977.
Both of these radio stations and their formats went away. KGSR’s original mix outlived both KRMH and KOKE, but tweaks were made along the way. “When we first started, we were way out there, and we didn’t succeed enough in revenue and ratings to make our station profitable,” Denberg told The Austin Daze magazine in 2005. “It’s a commercial radio station, so it’s a balancing act, and it’s a tightrope act.”
It was a different age when KRMH and KOKE went away. It was a time before the Internet. The Internet lends a different meaning to local when one is talking about local radio. Since 1986, KGSR has become a part of the fabric of Austin—an ethos that extends beyond the city limits through Internet radio. It is a new “local”. Unfortunately for listeners, they do not figure in the cold, hard, empirical facts—the Arbitron ratings. At least they aren’t counted yet.
© Jim McNabb, 2010