What Makes a Good Radio Station
Return to the radio listening page
[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
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
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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
Gone in the 2006 update...
- KBSX, 91.5
FM, Boise ID, "News91": Never strong in local programming, gradual change in
this network's offerings make it relatively unremarkable but still a quality outlet.
- KPBS-FM, 89.5 FM, San
Diego CA, "Radio 89.5": This station does local shows and has a long history of
bringing in quality radio from wherever it could find it, and at one
point nearly matched my ideal public radio schedule, but the move back toward
a classical station from newstalk drops it down in my view.
- KRBM, 90.9 FM, Pendleton OR "Oregon
Public Broadcasting": I certainly listen to OPB when in Oregon, and it
produces good local programming in Oregon Considered, but recent schedule changes
are a little weird and I simply don't understand why the AM stations run
Performance Today from 9 to noon.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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...
1030 AM, Boston MA, "WBZ Newsradio 1030": WBZ always had an
unusual format, never running news at the top of the hour, for example.
However, it's 2005 "dumbing down" to an effective 15-minute news cycle
(instead of 30 like the stations above) takes it off the list it made
with its replacement of weekend sports back at the turn of the century.
- 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...
- WBZ, 1030 AM, Boston MA, "WBZ
Newsradio 1030" : One name: David Brudnoy. Since his death, the talk
segments of this station haven't been the same since. I like
Steve LeVeille and Lovell Dyett, but the great talk days of 'BZ appear
to have passed.
- KXLY-AM, 920 AM,
Spokane WA, "KXLY Total Newsradio 920": Mike Fitzsimmons no
longer has a daily show on this station now, and other aspects of its lineup
have weakened as well. I never figured out what "total newsradio" meant.
I'd listen if I lived in Spokane, but not being there this station is
no longer remarkable enough to be on the list.
- WABC, 770 AM, New York NY,
"Newstalk Radio 77": Lynn Samuels and Steve Malzberg are gone, and
really only John Gambling makes this station any more remarkable than the
litany that run syndicated hosts Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Matt
Drudge (even if it is the flagship for the first two).
Gone in the 2010 update...
- KIRO-FM, 97.3 FM,
Seattle WA, "Newstalk 97.3 KIRO" : The removal of most local shows
outside of daytime hours on weekdays and the move to FM from its classic
position at 710 AM has caused me to remove this station from the list.
It still has Dave Ross, but little else to distinguish itself.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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...
- WHOB, 106.3 FM, Nashua NH: A station that listed itself as contemporary
hits but still had a wide playlist... do you remember when most stations used to do that?
It lasted to 2005, but they don't anymore, either, as they are now classic hits
WFNQ "Frank FM".
- KPLZ, 101.5 FM, Seattle WA, "Star
101.5" : This station has good personalities, but it has been
struggling to tweak its format and gain in ratings for years. It
just doesn't strike me as remarkable anymore.
- KZXR, 101.7 FM, Prosser WA, "K 101.7": Another wide playlist with non-annoying
personalities plus the lack of advertisement common in a smaller
community added up to very listenable radio--but it's been gone for
years now, instead it's Spanish language as KLES-FM "Tekila".
- KKIQ, 101.7 FM, Livermore CA,
"Variety 101.7 KKIQ": Musically, this station could be
mistaken for KZXR, and it also has fewer commercials than most in the
Bay Area, but it's personalities can't seem to say anything
intelligent. "It's all about variety," sure, but I thought that meant
the music, not the talk.
Stations That Should Be in Every Market (But Aren't)
- KING-FM, 98.1 FM, Seattle
WA: This was an excellent commercial classic station, and there are
not many of them left. Seattle was lucky indeed. It is now set to go non-commercial;
it's not clear how much will change. The only other stations in
its class that I have found are WCRB in greater Boston, CFMX 96.3 FM in Toronto,
and arguably KDFC in San Francisco.
- KLLC, 97.3 FM, San Francisco
CA, "Alice@97.3": To me, this station is the quintessential
modern adult contemporary radio station, and students usually can agree
to leave the dial here.
Gone in the 2001 update...
- Sadly, KREW-AM, 1210 AM, Sunnyside WA is now off the list,
supplanted by "La Bonita" Spanish-language programming. It was
full-service radio the way it was meant to be, with adult contemporary
music mixed in with news, agricultural reports, and CBS network
Gone in the 2006 update...
- KONA-AM, 610 AM, Pasco
WA: A good example of full-service radio that used to
exist in major markets, this one with ABC features. (Remember this KOMO
and KEX? You were better then... and so was KONA before it went all-talk.)
Return to the radio listening page
For maintenance concerns about this page, contact
(C) 1998-2010 Lance Gleich - Last Updated: 17 April 2010