Musical Formats

Country Wolf in the City

In February 28, Bay Area station 95.7 KMAX-FM deviated just a tad from its variety hits format. Without warning or sentiment, the Little River Band’s “Lady” ended at 12:45 p.m. and the station’s doomsday device was activated. A computerized voice announced a format change in “T minus 18 hours, 2 minutes, 42 seconds and counting…”

That day, the station e-mailed its fans to say that “all good things must come to an end” and to convince listeners to stay tuned for a station that would be “fun, energetic, and unlike any other … in the area.” And then KMAX was gone.

On March 1, just in time for the morning commute, the countdown yielded to nonstop twang. The new 95.7 the Wolf took over, proclaimed itself the Bay’s new country powerhouse, and launched into a promotional stint of ten thousand country hits without a commercial break. Within minutes, devotees of the doomed classic rock and pop station were venting online. “So depressing, so very, very depressing,” Kimberly J. blogged on “I about had a heart attack when I heard the word ‘country.’ Why would they do something like this? … I thought Max was doing well — everyone I knew loved it!”

This frequency, in fact, can’t seem to get it straight. It has hosted short-lived stations since 1994, when 32 years of classical KKHI came to an end. Over the past decade, 95.7 has been remade no less than four times, sending talk-radio KPIX-FM and classic-rock 95.7 the Drive to the FM graveyard and leaving behind swaths of confused listeners. Before KMAX came about in 2005, it was the Bear, none other than — you guessed it — a country station! Talk about multiple personality disorder.

Most of these sudden mood shifts came under the watch of Salt Lake City-based Bonneville International, which has owned the frequency since 1997. Bonneville is owned by the Mormon Church, and has had difficulty running rock and urban stations because of management sensitivity to lyrical content and its refusal to broadcast ads for casinos, alcohol, or the Lottery.

In January, Bonneville sold three stations to Philly media giant Entercom in exchange for three smaller ones in Seattle and four in Cincinnati. Entercom picked up KMAX (No. 23 in the Bay Area), soft-rock KOIT 96.5 (No. 2), and classical KDFC 102.1 (No. 9). The last two will keep their formats.

Entercom, the nation’s fourth-largest radio group, owns more than one hundred stations in twenty markets. It gained notoriety recently when a woman died after participating in a water-drinking contest at its Sacramento rock station KDND. The company also has been a perennial target of antitrust watchdogs. It was sued for fraud last year by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer for allegedly accepting money from record labels in exchange for airplay.

Scott Mahalick, the Wolf’s program manager, came from Entercom’s Seattle country station, also called the Wolf, which debuted in 2005 and is that market’s fastest-growing station. Mahalick, who calls himself the “Prime Minister of Twang,” says he’s confident the Wolf will significantly outlive its predecessors. The old KMAX, he says, served only a narrow niche, and country is a “thriving,” increasingly mainstream genre. He refers to a study he commissioned, which found that 15 percent of radio listeners from 20 to 54 would choose a country station if available, making it the most popular format surveyed. “It’s a great time for the format,” Mahalick says. “From a business standpoint it made sense to fill the void where there was no competition.”

The Wolf, the program manager contends, will differ from the unsuccessful Bear because its high-energy presentation is geared to “bringing country to the city.” He plans to hire local DJs who know the market and will play an array of straight country and country-rock. The Bear, he says, died because it lacked charisma: “If you’re not giving audiences something that’s dramatically compelling, what’s the point?”

Of course, in these harsh media wilds, survival is never assured. Even for a Wolf.

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