By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
A week before the trip, her bosses at Susquehanna Radio Corp. had broken the news to staff: Merge was gone, and in its place would be The Bone, spinning "classic Texas rock that rocks," or so the new slogan went. Merge listeners had no idea of the change in plans. Until, of course, some of them met Yvonne (whose full name is Yvonne Monet) at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for a weekend of swooshing down the slopes with a jock from their favorite radio station. Except it ceased to exist by the time they arrived at the terminal.
"They're all like, 'What happened? What's happening to the station?' And I couldn't say it," says Yvonne, who now works the 10 a.m.-to-3 p.m. shift. "I had to keep my mouth shut until we got on the plane. 'OK, now I can tell you. Merge is no more.' It was weird. I couldn't even hear the station's take on it. I wasn't around. I wasn't in town. I got home and there are all these messages from my friends, because I couldn't tell anybody. 'Oh, my God, are you fired? What's happening? You're not on the air. The station's changed. I'm so sorry.' So it was an interesting weekend."
If the listeners were surprised, most radio observers were not. The format change was the third in less than six years for the troubled 93.3 frequency: It signed on October 31, 1996, as the adult-alternative KKZN-FM (a.k.a. The Zone), then made itself over as the "cool rock, smart pop" Internet-savvy Merge in August 1999. Many thought that The Bone, feeding listeners a steady diet of AC/DC and ZZ Top and pretty much anything with amps that go to 11, would not be its last incarnation, only the latest one.
Then the first Arbitron ratings book arrived April 26: During its first three months on the air, The Bone ranked No. 11 in the overall ratings (which estimate the amount of listeners among people 12 and older) and No. 1 in its target demographic--and the one advertisers covet--men 25 to 54. The turnaround? In its last ratings book as Merge, 93.3 rated only 24th out of the 40 or so ranked stations in D-FW and No. 20 with men 25 to 54. Meanwhile, KZPS-FM (92.5), The Bone's classic-rock competition, fell from No. 11 into a tie for 16th, and KEGL-FM (97.1), another rock rival for the prime 25-to-54 demo, dropped from No. 9 to No. 22. Everything old, it seemed, was new again.
Yet The Bone's success in its first seven months on the air goes beyond the numbers. In less than a year, the station appears to have awoken the sleeping giant that is the Dallas rock-radio fan, the listener who dozed off when Q102 went silent in 1998, or maybe when The Zoo signed off more than a decade ago. At Merge, the phones never rang unless one of the jocks was giving away R.E.M. tickets; at The Bone, the phone bank in the studio is permanently lit up, with guys calling, for example, to tell nighttime host Channing how their ex-girlfriend used to "deep-throat a Twinkie." At Merge, they couldn't give T-shirts away; at The Bone, fans offer to buy them off the backs of the DJs at appearances. Merge was a ghost town, and The Bone is a 24-hour party, led by the on-air talent and, as program director Scott Strong puts it, the station's "hell-yeah attitude." (Cynics would suggest, however, that the attitude amounts to little more than lowbrow allusions to the station's name, such as, "We'll rock your Bone.")
"One thing that we're always looking at when we're critiquing The Bone: Are we having fun?" Strong says. He was lured away from his job as a radio consultant at Colorado-based SBR Creative Media to program Merge and was a driving force behind the switch to The Bone. "Every jock on air should be having a great time. Yeah, there's pressure. You have to get numbers; advertisers have to spend money on you. But at the same time, the audience can tell if you're having fun. I tell the jocks that they should be like, when they're on the air, like at a bar. Pick your favorite bar. And they're just sitting there talking, having a couple of beers, having a great time. That's what the audience wants, not some guy dictating to them, or pushing down their throat that this song was from 1969 and here's what I was doing then. Who cares?"
The current skirmish between The Bone and KZPS and KEGL is more than just a simple radio war. It's a testament to the cyclical nature of the radio business. Five years ago, when Chancellor Media Corp. pulled Q102 off the air, it did so because the company's research had revealed that the station's demographic was not "desirable," according to George Toulas, Chancellor's regional senior vice president of operations. And yet, now, by doing almost exactly what Q102 used to do--whether it's "Texas' Best Rock" or "classic Texas rock that rocks," it's all the same--Susquehanna and The Bone have proved otherwise. In the process, Susquehanna has exposed the dangers of cookie-cutter corporate ownership, and they've done it by using one of Clear Channel's own weapons: intensive market research. Thanks to those studies, Susquehanna knows that Tom Petty and Stevie Ray Vaughan are still more popular here than anything post-1990 on MTV, that Dallas does not easily fit into a countrywide formula.