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Still rocking at KACC

I have three things to say about this.

Alvin Community College’s little radio station that could is a welcome bright spot in an increasingly bleak terrestrial radio landscape.

With only 5,600 watts of power and a staff made up almost exclusively of students, 89.7 FM KACC plays an eclectic mix of rock ‘n’ roll that gives those of us nostalgic for the good old days of FM radio a good reason not to ditch the dial entirely.

Don’t tune in if you are looking for Top 40 hits or pop or any of the other formats that now seem to dominate FM radio. But if you’re looking for deep tracks off of rock albums from the 1960s to the present, I would recommend entering KACC into your station presets.

“We’ll play some Hendrix, but it’s not going to be Purple Haze,” station manager Mark Moss says. “We’ll get very deep in the library – ‘If 6 Was 9,’ ‘Castles Made Of Sand.’ We’ll play Lynyrd Skynyrd, but it’s ‘The Ballad of Curtis Loew.’ It’s not going to be ‘Free Bird.’ ”

Moss is the sole employee of the station, which in effect makes him, as he puts it, “station manager, music director, program director, engineer, production director, janitor.”

He’s a veteran of FM rock radio and was on the air at Houston’s legendary rock station KLOL (which now plays Spanish Pop) before signing on at KACC in 1991.

Admittedly, a station like KACC, which is funded by the college and doesn’t have to chase advertising revenue, has an advantage over other stations on the dial. It can take risks, stretch the format a little, “have a little more fun with it,” Moss says.

But he is firmly convinced that commercial radio has lost it’s way and partly has itself to blame for losing listeners to satellite and the Internet.

1. I agree with everything the story says about KACC and the niche it fills in Houston’s radio wasteland. I also agree that the weak signal is a problem. Some days it’s just unlistenable, and there’s no pattern to it that I can see. Doesn’t matter what time of day it is, what the weather is like, or where I am in the city. Some days it’s clear, some days it’s static and interference from other low-wattage stations.

2. What I wrote four years ago about how to make a radio station that doesn’t suck still rings true to me today. The main difference is that now I see less risk in anyone trying it. Terrestrial radio is a declining business. There can’t be much downside in turning a low-performing station in a market like Houston into something more old school and less corporate. If it doesn’t catch on in a year or so, go ahead and turn it into whatever canned formula is the next hot thing. What does a Clear Channel have to lose by trying?

3. For the love of God, please someone volunteer to do a makeover on KACC’s laughably pathetic webpage. Throw up a WordPress template or borrow a design from somewhere else, just please create something that looks like it belongs in this century and not on a mothballed Geocities webpage. Sheesh.

Bringing rock music back to Houston

Mike McGuff notes the reappearance of an old Rock 101 KLOL billboard, and muses about having a real rock station in Houston again.

Why did Clear Channel kill Rock 101? I’ve been told it was because you had 93.7 The Arrow KKRW which was classic rock on one side and on the other was alternative 94.5 The Buzz KTBZ. Rock 101 was stuck in the middle and kind of played music from both formats. The company realized that it had too many stations playing the same music. Which one was the one to die? The one that played what the other two did. Never mind that Rock 101 was a 30 year heritage station with a lot of history and a sense of community. Sure the station sucked in later years, but listeners were hopeful and still loyal. I was told the station was still making money too.

I have nothing against Mega 101. But it should have been Mega 93.7 in my opinion. Does anyone really care about 93.7 The Arrow? It gets listened to because it is one of the few places to play classic rock, but it has no real emotional connection with listeners like Rock 101 did. I suspect the 101.1 target looked viable for a Mega format because it was close on the dial to 102.9 FM.

Clear Channel does not own KLOL anymore. CBS now does. CBS should take a dead station like Mix 96.5 (it also recently acquired) and change that to Mega 96.5. Then bring back Rock 101. Just don’t make it suck this time like Rock 103.7 KIOL please. The new Rock 101 should have a fresh coat of paint and updated image/music.

I agree that in its heyday, KLOL hit a sweet spot between “flavor of the week” and “same stale old ‘classics’ over and over again” that is sorely missing among commercial radio stations. I’d argue that 89.7 KACC fills that niche pretty nicely, and goes a step farther in that it includes local music, something we haven’t really had on the dial since Donna McKenzie’s “Made in Texas” show on the old 107.5 KZFX, but KACC suffers from a frustratingly weak signal, which makes listening to it a hit-or-miss experience. I’d love for there to be another Houston-based station, one you could listen to anywhere in town, that catered to real rock music fans. If there were to be such a thing, here are the three things I would beg of it, so that it would have a chance of not ending in bitter disappointment, as so many other “new” stations (like Jack and The Point, to name two prominent ones) have done.

1. Don’t insult our intelligence

Of my three wish list items, this one is non-negotiable. Please, for the love of Wolfman Jack, don’t be another focus-group-driven no-imagination limited-playlist atrocity. Hell, don’t have a playlist at all. Hire DJs that know their stuff, and set them free to spin what they want. When you play older music, don’t just give us the same moldy “classics” we’ve all heard a million times since the “classic rock” format was created 20 years ago. Play deep cuts. Play new music by classic artists – believe it or not, some of these acts have made albums since Ronald Reagan was President, but you’ll never hear it on any station in this town. Play artists that aren’t as well known, like the artists that inspired the guys we’re all familiar with. Play stuff from different eras, and different genres that influenced rock music, like blues music. Play local music, and promote live music events that feature local artists. Treat us like intelligent consumers that are fully aware we can go other places on the dial to hear “Stairway to Heaven” one more time.

2. Use social media to create a community

First, accept the fact that the vast majority of radio station websites are a wasteland of stupid games, popups, ads, annoying Flash intrusions, and brain-dead content, and vow not to be like that. Make your website a useful resource. List and maintain an archive of every song you play, with a brief clip so that when someone hears a tune they don’t recognize and they don’t hear it identified on the air, they can figure out who and what it is. Hell, include links to Amazon, iTunes, artist sites, and other places where we can buy a copy of each song, if we’re so moved. You could probably make some money off of that. Let local bands submit their tunes to you, as KACC does, and partner with them to provide some free downloads. Let (or make) the DJs, who are what gives a station its personality, have their own pages on the website that they regularly update, so they can tell us more about the bands and songs they love. Take requests via Twitter and/or Facebook. If you create specialty shows like Donna McKenzie’s “Made in Texas” (and you should), especially ones that air at odd hours, create podcasts of them that can be freely downloaded. Create Flickr and YouTube groups for pictures and videos taken at events hosted by the station, or even just for fans who want to share concert experiences. Needless to say, there’s a million things you can do here.

3. Don’t be afraid to experiment

I hope I’ve made it clear that the last thing we need is another cookie cutter station. Surely by now it must be obvious that the dull, dumbed-down homogenization of commercial radio is the reason for its decline in a media environment that allows so many choices for so many tastes. I also hope it’s clear that in this fragmented, diverse media environement, there is always a demand, and an audience, for quality. It may seem scary to experiment, and safer to do the same old same old, but consider how much successful TV programming is unconventional, “Mad Men” being the latest example. The beauty of all this is that with flexible playlist-free programming, and with a good social media presence, experimenting should be easy because you can get and respond to feedback quickly. That song list I said you should be publishing? Let people rate what they’re hearing and tell you if they want more of it or less of it. Act accordingly and you’ll never get too far off track. Doing stuff like this will help you establish a strong brand, with a loyal following, and that’s a mighty valuable thing.

What’s strange about all this is that I don’t see anything I’m suggesting here as being radical, or even all that unusual, and yet I feel like there’s no chance that a media behemoth like CBS or Clear Channel would ever think of doing these things. I suppose I could be overestimating the audience size for a non-brain dead radio station. Maybe the type of person that I think would tune in to this has given up on radio for good. But I don’t think it’s that hopeless, and I do think it’s worth the effort. Sadly, I don’t ever expect to see it happen.