By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In the words of one longtime radio observer: "This could only happen in Dallas."
In the months prior to The Bone's launch, Susquehanna Radio Corp.--the Pennsylvania-based company that owns The Bone, along with KTCK-AM (1310), KLIF-AM (570) and KPLX-FM (99.5)--studied the Dallas-Fort Worth market thoroughly, trying to find any opening it could. Like many other cities, Clear Channel dominates the local radio airwaves, especially when it comes to rock: The San Antonio behemoth owns KDGE-FM (102.1), along with KZPS and KEGL. Susquehanna just needed to pin down a weakness it could exploit.
Until the April Arbitron ratings came in, however, many in the radio business thought that if there was a chink in Clear Channel's omnipresent armor (even its slogan--"How many ways has Clear Channel reached you today?"--sounds like a taunt), 93.3 wasn't equipped to capitalize on it. Some even went so far as to declare that nothing would work at 93.3. The signal's too weak, they said. Can't even pick it up in Burleson. Anyway, the thinking went, the suits at Susquehanna were likely to give up on a new format before long, just as they did with The Zone and Merge.
Susquehanna had a new idea, though. They'd already had mild success in San Francisco, where they transformed KSAN-FM (107.7) from a rock-and-roll oldies station (or, "a weak classic-hits station," as KSAN program director Larry Sharp says) into a "classic rock that rocks" outlet, coincidentally called The Bone. Based on their mountain of research, Strong and Susquehanna guessed that the idea would work even better in Dallas-Fort Worth, an area that was known--in the 1970s and '80s, at least--as one of the best rock markets in the country.
"There was a time in the '80s, I didn't live here, but I guess there were five rock stations," Strong says. "So all of a sudden, there's sort of ZPS here, which is, as I consider, more a classic hits, a light classic-rock station. And then you have The Eagle that, yeah, plays some classic rock, but a lot of new stuff, with Godsmack and Limp Bizkit. And, you know, there's a lot of people over 25 that don't want to experiment with new music anymore. So there seemed to be a big hole, and when we did research, there was a big hole."
Not only that, but as they further investigated the possibility, they found that listeners had become disenfranchised by the clinical Clear Channel way of doing business. They remembered Q102 and The Zoo, how the jocks knew their names, how the jocks were their friends. "And they weren't getting that from the Clear Channel stations," Strong says. "That it was more of, 'That station is a corporation.'"
It wasn't always that way. A decade or so ago, when Q102 and The Zoo (KZEW-FM) ruled the local FM dial, they didn't have to remind listeners that they rocked. They just did, and with playlists not much different from what's in rotation at The Bone. Throughout the 1980s and early '90s, Q102 was pulling in an 8 share (which would have trounced K104's recent 6.2, a number that made it the top-ranked station in the area in the 12-plus category in the latest Arbitron ratings) and did it with personality. People tuned in to the station as much for the jocks as they did the songs. They clicked on to hear what big-name act Redbeard had in the studio (the DJ was on a first-name basis with Jimmy Page and Paul McCartney, among others) and which local group was on "Texas Tapes." The same was true for The Zoo: Listeners wanted to wake up with the late John LaBella and John Rody in the morning and find out about George Gimarc's latest under-the-radar discovery. The jocks at Q102 and The Zoo were family, and the stations were live and local.
With The Bone, Susquehanna wanted to organize a sort of family reunion. They hired Bo Roberts--who once held down the morning-drive slot with his former partner, Jim White, at Q102, and had done the same at KZPS until he was unceremoniously dropped last year--to host the station's morning show. (Roberts officially joined the on-air lineup March 1, though The Bone heralded his impending arrival from the get-go.) They put together a playlist that mirrored Q102 and The Zoo's heyday, heavy on the Led and the loud. More important, they did their best to ingratiate themselves with prodigal listeners, demanding their jocks pick up the phone and answer e-mails, as well as be seen around Dallas somewhere other than in the studio. They couldn't go back in time, necessarily, so they did the next best thing: They tried it all again and hoped it would work a second time. So far, it has.
"One of the things, going into it, we'd hoped would happen that we didn't predict would happen would be all the upper-demo former Zoo-KZEW listeners and Q102 listeners, who hadn't really had an outlet for that style of radio, would come back. Would find us, would embrace us, would look at us as this new version of those stations," says Jeff K, the station's music director and host of the afternoon-drive show. He's one of two on-air personalities, along with Yvonne, who survived the format change. Jeff K is an unlikely fit at a classic-rock station: a DJ closely associated with electronic music throughout his career, a guy whose current favorites are records by DJ Shadow and Morcheeba. "And the initial response was from a lot of those people: 'Thank God. Where have you been? I've been waiting for a station like this since The Zoo went away or since Q102 went away.'"