What Makes a Good Radio Station

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[Interestingly, the text portion of this page required almost no update in 2006 and 2010. In some sense, it makes the point--this opinion is rather timeless.]

Surprisingly, there's no secret to creating a great radio station. Casual listeners and addicts usually agree about the general characteristics. The only thing this common sense usually disagress with is the corporate culture of radio conglomerates.

First of all, there have to be personalities that are captivating, voices that are friends you would let into your home. So-called good radio voices help, but even a man with a raspy voice like KGO's Bernie Ward can fit the bill by building a relationship with the listener. On music radio, this means having something interesting to say between songs, but not something shocking (the obvious example being Howard Stern) or assenine (most disk jockeys at KKIQ). Stations that claim to emphasize music and completely gag their humans are missing the point. Yes, people listen to a WBOS or KMTT because they play the whole song and don't do skits between melodies, but they also listen because their jocks are pleasant to listen to and present relevant information, from tidbits about the artists to the weather. KLSY [in the 1990's] had a playlist that could make me gag, but I listened because it did have good personalities. In talk radio, hosts that you would invite into your house treat callers with respect and are honest about their own positions (admitting inconsistencies, for example), even if the opinion on the table is far-out. Jon Matthews (once KPRC) and Mike Webb (once KIRO) epitomize this quality from the right and left of the political spectrum, respectively, as both can take on fairly radical positions and still have an entertaining and educational conversation with callers.

Personalities, though, aren't the whole story. Casey Kasem and Rush Limbaugh are captivating to many, but they have nothing to say about what's going on down the street. The truly great radio stations are clearly local. In the case of music radio, that often means sponsoring events in the community, from food drives to free outdoor concerts where people from the station appear, but it can also take the form of play lists emphasizing local artists or ignoring national charts in favor of local record sales. [One wonders if the Prophet automation system will lessen the importance of local personalities by bringing in quality talent from elsewhere at lower cost; I doubt it.] In talk radio, that means having local people talking about local events for at least a good portion of the day. Good syndicated personalities don't need to be excluded, but the best stations have a good sprinkling of people that understand the community. Stations such as KFBK, KGO, KIRO, KXL, KXLY, and WBZ principally present local talent and are rewarded with excellent ratings. Notably, all of the aforementioned except KXL and KXLY are owned by huge companies, so while local ownership never hurts, it's local management which serves as the real key.

Finally, a good radio station sounds familiar while never failing to surprise. On the music radio side, this means having a clear "sound" while not limiting the play list to forty songs. When a new song comes on, the listener should not have been able to predict it but it should flow from the previous piece. For example, KLLC (Alice@97.3) has done a good job of establishing a modern adult contemporary sound, though it could use a somewhat wider play list. Hence, hot adult contemporary stations (like WXLO, WTMX, or even format originator WBMX) and adult album alternative stations (like WBOS or KFOG) tend to make better stations than contemporary hit stations, young country stations, or the "best 15 hits of the 1970's" and their limited play lists. [Of course, plenty of exceptions have existed, from WHOB's 1990's incarnation as a CHR station with an adequate mix of older material, to the KEZR of the early 1990's as a Hot AC with a tiny play list.] On the talk radio side, familiarity is trickier, since liberals and conservatives can coexist on the same station (e.g. Ward and Wattenburg on KGO) without jolting the listener. The key usually comes down to consistent pacing, consistent handling of callers, and use of consistent bumper music to create the "sound" of a station.

In light of all of the above, it's easy to see why public radio stations have gained a following. By defintion, they are local (unless they make the mistake of just piping NPR and the BBC all day). All they have to do is find some good personalities and establish an identity to enter the realm of excellent radio. "Information Radio" works for KALW, allowing it to run both local and the best of NPR and PRI programming, while institutionalized eclecticism allows KCRW to run almost anything.

So, that's my message to Infinity, Chancellor, Disney, and countless smaller station owners who promulgate syndication and automation: Just put on some captivating local personalities in a cohesive schedule and my criticism will greatly subside.

Finally, to close, here are some of my favorite radio stations that are following at least a good part of my advice:

Public News Radio Stations

  1. KUOW, 94.9 FM, Seattle WA, "94.9 Public Radio": The station that won me over to public radio has just kept getting better since I started tuning in and recent programming decisions have vaulted it to the top of the list. There is substantial local programming, from Weekday to The Conversation to the Works. Meanwhile, it has shown the willingness to try to quality programming from elsewhere, including now-cancelled Mystery Theater and the Connection. I find the weekend schedule to be too light on hard news (just give us an hour of the BBC in the afternoon!), but this is a station in touch with its community, listening to its listeners, and it should be commended. The additions of alternate digital channel KUOW2--now over analog on KXOT--has only added to the diversity.
  2. KALW, 91.7 FM, San Francisco CA, "91.7 Information Radio": Another station that does things right, producing quality local programming like West Coast Live and airing a unique schedule heavily featuring the BBC and CBC.
  3. WBUR-FM 90.9 FM, Boston MA: This station does many things right, mixing local reports into Morning Edition, and producing its own programming from Car Talk to World of Ideas to Inside Out. Its schedule once most closely approximated my suggested ideal. However, I have real issues with station management running the station like a business and pretending to be a charity which date back well before the controversy over and eventual cancelling of the Connection. Hence, it's not at the top of the list anymore.
  4. KQED-FM, 88.5 FM, San Francisco CA: I may have a problem with how this station runs itself, but its broadcast schedule is the standard for west coast public stations.

Gone in the 2006 update...

Commercial News

  1. KCBS, 740 AM, San Francisco CA, "KCBS All-News 74": This is the standard all other commercial news radio shoots to attain, with a fleet of talented reporters and a set of competent anchors. It doesn't get any better than KCBS, and now it's on FM too!
  2. WCBS-AM, 880 AM, New York NY, "WCBS Newsradio 88": The New York flagship comes closest to its west coast counterpart, edged out only on the basis of reporting depth and feature schedule.
  3. WBBM, 780 AM, Chicago IL, "WBBM Newsradio 78": The Chicago version of the CBS network owned & operated newsradio station is in turmoil and may soon fall off the list, but last I listened it was still nearly to WCBS standards.

Gone in the 2006 update...

Talk Radio

  1. KGO, 810 AM, San Francisco CA, "KGO Newstalk 810": Just a partial list of its daily lineup says enough: Owens, Edell, Burns, Rothmann, Taliaferro. That leaves out Walters, Wattenburg and Copeland on the weekend! It's no surprise that this station has been #1 for 20 years in the Bay Area; now that it has dumped Dr. Laura it may once again deserve its nickname: "The World's Greatest Talk Radio Station."

Gone in the 2006 update...

Gone in the 2010 update...

Popular Music

  1. WXRV, 92.5 FM, Andover/Boston MA, "the River" : In the age of MP3's, Adult Album Alternative stations have grown in my favor as a source to hear new music and because of their wide playlists. "Independent Radio" on "the River" to me is the best of this format, with strong personalities and DJ freedom to do things like "Kryptonite" followed by "Superman's Song." It's my first choice for streamed music.
  2. KRSK-FM, 105.1 FM, Moalla/Portland OR, "The Buzz": This station now rates as my favorite "Hot Adult Contemporary" station, willing to be more adventurous in its playlist and having created a very clear "sound" anyway. Why aren't all Entercom stations like this?
  3. WTMX, 101.9 FM, Skokie/Chicago IL, "The Mix": This station has done a great job of creating a "sound"; it could just use a little more variety in the older portion of its playlist. This is a great station to pay attention to for new music. Bonneville is capable of doing things right, too.
  4. WPLJ, 95.5 FM, New York NY: Despite recent changes, 'PLJ still seems a dinosaur, claiming to be a hit music station but still playing plenty of hits dating back to the 80's while avoiding rap... I rather liked the genre and am pleased to see it is still around in NY, even if its ratings are fading.
  5. KINK, 102.1 FM, Portland, OR A nationally-known Adult Album Alternative station, KINK is noted for its community involvement and it's definitely a Rose City institution. It's another station I watch for new music.
  6. WXLO-FM, 104.5 FM, Fitchburg MA : Truly wide variety within the hot adult contemporary format, added to personable disc jockeys, make up my favorite music station for many years.
  7. KMTT-FM, 103.7 FM, Tacoma WA, "The Mountain": True variety from 60's to today with almost no repeats, a good example of the Adult Album Alternative format.

Gone in the 2006 update...

Stations That Should Be in Every Market (But Aren't)

Gone in the 2001 update...

Gone in the 2006 update...

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(C) 1998-2010 Lance Gleich - Last Updated: 17 April 2010