What Radio Station Sounds Better Than Ever?

Today’s radio dial is dominated by heritage brands. Shortly before the pandemic, I looked at a page of radio ratings from a 1984 radio directory and found that anywhere from 30% to 50% of those station brands were still available in their market with a similar format. But how do those stations compare with their histories? Are there any heritage stations that could be said to be doing their best work in 2021?

Some heritage stations have scored their highest-ever numbers recently. Ratings expert Chris Huff cites Adult R&B WBLS New York; CHR WXXL (XL106.7) Orlando, Fla.; Classic Hits KODJ Salt Lake City; AC WDEF Chattanooga, Tenn.; Rhythmic AC XHRM San Diego; and Classic Rockers WHJY Providence, R.I., and KFXJ Wichita, Kan. 

The battles have been easier for older-leaning formats. Huff has as often been reporting record-low numbers for long-running CHRs over the last year. Alternative KITS San Francisco found its Live 105 heritage daunting enough to become Alt 105.3. Last week, it moved on altogether after 35 years.

With great call letters come great responsibility. For any broadcaster, merely being on the air now poses major challenges. Can any station do its best work in this time of cutbacks? Or when radio doesn’t exert the same cultural control? When radio staffs are rarely the six best jocks in the market — or even in the market? Can a radio station ever be its best self again? At this moment, we need them to be, but is it a reasonable expectation?

Last year, with the industry reeling from cutbacks even before COVID hit, I had asked Facebook friends what stations were doing great radio. This time I poised a harder question: “What long-running radio station is sounding better than ever now?” But, I added, “I’d also accept ‘as great as ever.’” 

There was, as you would expect, skepticism about that task. “Quite a few heritage stations have held up very well over the years. That said, I honestly can’t think of one that sounds better now than during their heyday,” said consultant and rock radio veteran Marty Bender. “No station that is not fully staffed has the ability to sound as good as its former self,” wrote Alan Sells. 

But Ross on Radio readers also had at least 75 candidates that met one or both criteria. Many were the same stations cited 18 months ago. And at least a few, like Heritage Rock WMMR Philadelphia, probably the most mentioned station, were indeed fully staffed. Reader Justin Rugnetta praised its “perfect balance between all rock formats, be it Mainstream, Active, Alternative or Triple-A.” 

True Tone Media Group’s Andy Cahn named WMMR, then added sister WDHA Morristown, N.J.; WPLR New Haven, Conn.; KSHE St. Louis; WRIF Detroit; and a half dozen others. “The old R&R Mainstream Rock panel, essentially.” He also cited WHJY and WDVE Pittsburgh as “unique among iHeart stations left alone and local with very little national programming.” 

In Active Rock, “KISW Seattle still shoots and scores,” said Brew Michaels. Don McCullen’s long multi-format list included the less-often-shouted-out KILO Colorado Springs. Market veteran Jonathan L praised KUPD Phoenix.

Triple-A “WXRT Chicago, KBCO Denver, KINK Portland, and many more,” got the nod from Arista’s Nick Petropoulos. McCullen noted KBCO’s ability to persevere despite listener-supported non-comm competition. 

Alternative stations often have the hardest time competing with the echoes of 1993, or 1983. “I love how [XETRA-FM San Diego] 91X is reverent of its past while still sounding current,” wrote Aaron Michelson. “In an era where Mainstream Rock and Alternative are [allegedly] dead, both WMMR and [WWDC Washington] DC101 are proving everyone wrong. Best-in-class morning shows, real personalities throughout the day, and solid music selection,” said Connoisseur Media’s Keith Dakin.

Memphis radio veteran Melvin Jones cited recently profiled Adult R&B outlet WDIA Memphis. That station’s afternoon host, Earle Augustus, cited several format brethren, including WBLS, WVAZ (V103) Chicago, WVEE (V103) Atlanta, WDAS Philadelphia, and WHUR Washington. Voiceover veteran Pat Garrett cited WALR Atlanta. 

“Absolutely agree about WBLS,” wrote New York radio veteran Wayne Mayo, citing its use of first-generation Hip-Hop as well as “continuing to play offense even when you don’t have direct format competition.”

Augustus’s list also included Adult CHR KSTP (KS95) Minneapolis. There were several mentions of KS95, including Hall Communications’ VP/programming Bob Walker who wrote, “They’ve done a great job of not allowing heritage to become baggage.” Similarly formatted sister station WKRQ (Q102) Cincinnati “is killing the game in pop and Hot AC. They know exactly who they are and they express it live and locally,” says Warner SVP promotion Dave Dyer.

“WCBS-FM New York rarely plays a record that does not excite me,” wrote A&R veteran Brian Chin. John Clay goes for sister KRTH (K-Earth 101) Los Angeles. “There’s a reason they continue to be top-rated in such a competitive diverse market.”

McCullen’s list also includes Christian AC KLTY Dallas, profiled last year after seizing the market lead, as well as national superstation K-Love and its sister Air 1. The latter is a good example of a long-running brand that has received its most traction in recent years since emphasizing praise and worship music. Gene Savage names heritage Country WSM-AM Nashville and Country Insider’s Brian Mansfield seconds.

Most readers didn’t weigh into the issue of “as good as ever” vs. “better than ever.” In some ways, it’s like a sports dynasty. If a team is winning now, the “favorite season” question becomes a fun but non-binding discussion among fans. The best stations are those such as WBLS, K-Earth, WXKS-FM (Kiss 108) Boston, or KMJQ (Majic 102) Houston that had multiple great periods, some of them decades apart.

There are stations that certainly mean more to me than they did in earlier heydays. In some cases, it’s because I couldn’t hear them much in a pre-streaming era. They include KLTY, WMMR, and the latter’s oft-praised Triple-A rival WXPN. I did hear then-CHR WKRQ and still-CHRs WIXX Green Bay, Wis., and WKRZ Wilkes-Barre, Pa., over the years. In the early ‘90s, I thought they were too adult. Now I appreciate them, perhaps because I’m too adult.

I am willing to name two stations that are doing their best work now. One is Classic Hits KOLA Riverside, Calif. That station was automated CHR when I first encountered it. Now, it’s both a market and format leader that has driven the modernization of the Classic Hits format, however you may feel about it.

I’m also with the handful of readers who cited WLTW (Lite FM) New York. Many of the personality ACs of the ‘80s have long constricted. Lite’s Soft AC format grew into a more foreground station that continues to drive the format sonically. It has also been on a continual upward arc — I might have given it “better than ever” at any time over most of the last 25 years. 

Those are just a handful of the stations readers cited. Can you name a long-running radio station that lives up to its heritage? Or exceeds it? Please leave a comment.

This story first appeared on radioinsight.com