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In latest local radio battle, Go 96.3 goes after 89.3 The Current

As tectonic collisions go, the impact of the Pohlad family’s little radio station, now known as “Go 96.3,” on MPR’s 10 year-old pop signal, “89.3 The Current,” isn’t exactly Pacific Plate v. North American Plate, or Taylor Swift v. Katy Perry.

But in late January, the operation known formerly as K-TWIN — a melange of familiar/contemporary pop hits, some DJ banter and, in warmer weather, Twins broadcasts — flipped the switch to a more “alternative” (read: hipper) music format ... and Twins broadcasts.

It was clear to everyone who cares about the “alternative” slice of radio turf just whose audience the Pohlads wanted a slice of. The ratings hierarchy of Twin Cities radio hasn’t changed much with advent of the digital download era, when many ardent music fans can walk around with what amounts to a radio station worth of tunes on their cell phone. Familiar names like KQRS, KDWB, K102 and KS95 still command the market, with only the latter being locally-owned.

It’s the local angle that makes this Pohlad v. MPR tussle interesting, since both stations have nearly complete freedom and resources to accurately discern and align themselves with the tastes of their home market. (By contrast, KDWB and K102’s parent company, Clear Channel, which changed its name last September to the snicker-inducing iHeartMedia, would probably have to convene a board meeting with its Bain Capital directors to switch a Twin Cities format. I kid. But not by much.)

Sam Elliot
Sam Elliot

For the record, Go 96.3's Sr. Vice President Sam Elliot denies his move is a direct shot at The Current. He says the station went looking for “a hole in the market” last summer and the resulting research told them that among a handful of variations of “alternative music,” “pop alternative” offered them their best opportunity. Consequently, he says, “I don’t see a lot of overlap” in the playlists.

And while Go 96.3’s latest build-out is still a work in progress, with an announcement of new DJ hirings and a settled schedule of programs to be announced within the coming week, Elliot has a point. He says it’s fair to describe Go 96.3’s sound as much more pop and up-tempo than the highly eclectic Current, which has no second thoughts about playing sad bastard ballads from the likes of Sam Smith and others. (The problem for The Current is deciding when to toss people like Smith overboard once they get over-played on commercial stations. Call it the Mumford & Sons conundrum.) 

“So no, we’re not trying to compete with the Current,” said Elliot. “They do a really good job and they’ve got ten years on us. We’re not going to out-Current The Current.”

The Abney factor

But that may not stop them from hiring popular DJ Barb Abney, late of The Current. Abney’s abrupt firing three weeks ago, from a place implicitly selling itself as “not like the other guys,” was a bit of a watershed moment for The Current. An entirely survivable one, but still a watershed.

“Barb is a possibility,” says Elliot. “It seems like everyone who knows her has reached out to us on her behalf. Because of her situation with the Current I can’t say anymore. But when it’s appropriate I hope to have something more to say about that.”

Over at The Current, program director and frequent host Jim McGuinn is obliged to tread delicately on the topic of Abney and any personnel moves. But he says, “I don’t take anything about those kinds of decisions lightly. I wish there was a better way to make changes. So I’m not saying this with any negativity toward Barb, but we think the changes we’re making will make The Current better.”

As for Go 96.3, he says, “The world is morphing fast, everything today is competition. Are they close musically to The Current? Definitely. But there are plenty of differences.”

Barb Abney
Minnesota Public Radio
Barb Abney

One great irony to this particular competition is that until The Current bloomed ten years ago, with a decidedly non-homogenized playlist and regular attention paid to local artists, for all intents and purposes their segment of the radio universe didn’t exist in the Twin Cities, with the exception of low-powered college stations.

Commercial broadcasters, from the giants like (uh) iHeartMedia and Cumulus (parent of KQRS and a few others), locals like the Hubbards’ KS95 and smaller fringe operations had long clung and still cling to the safe, calculated wisdom that is not so different than what F. Murray Abraham says to Oscar Isaac in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis”: “I don’t hear the money.”

Key differences

Fundamental commercial pressures will keep Go 96.3 well away from the central points of appeal for The Current. To list them:

1. Ad clutter, the time lost each hour to hyping hamburgers, jewelry and what not, is all but valueless to that “alternative” music’s core demographic. Elliot is vowing to maintain Go 96.3’s three three-minute breaks per hour come hell or high water, but what traditionally happens is that, over time, ad creep swallows up another music cut or two … or three, and soon enough you’re an iHeartSponsors format. Tune into Cities97 for an example of how far traditional broadcasters dare go with “progressive music.”

2. Elliot says his DJs, when they’re fully assembled (only Jason Nagel and Brian “BT” Turner are on board at the moment, with the latter reduced to an hour-long lunchtime show), will pick (“curate”) their own show “from a big crate of records they can choose from.” And while that is a step up from playlists beamed in from San Antonio, with the lucky jock allowed to play a song an hour of his or her choosing, it’s a long way from the celebration of quirky variety that keeps The Current sounding fresh. (I seriously doubt Go 96.3 will ever get to the point where they’re dialing in a week’s worth of John Coltrane in a nod to Black History Month.)

Jim McGuinn
MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert
The Current program director Jim McGuinn: "The world is morphing fast, everything today is competition."

3. The Pohlads have made several good-faith attempts at community outreach, the aforementioned Turner in particular has been an indefatigable ambassador for the company, for years popping up at events all over town. But The Current, with MPR’s well-oiled marketing operation, which is plugged it seems into every corporation in the state, has become a gold standard for weaving event promotion into its airtime. Alternative music fans may reflexively turn a deaf ear to hamburger ads, but they remain alert when the jock starts yapping about who’s playing in town that night, or at the station’s summertime Rock the Garden extravaganza, in conjunction with the Walker Art Center.

4. Ratings still matter. The Pohlads’ financial strength immunizes Elliot and his team a bit from the usual ratings mania, but no commercial station avoids them entirely. (BTW, he describes Go 96.3’s new target as 25-to-44 year olds, as opposed to K-TWN’s 35-54). Meanwhile, MPR’s shall we say “robust” membership structure allows McGuinn et. al. much greater freedom to play with their product while building an association among The Current's young-ish listeners to the Mother Network. 

All that said, Elliot makes an upbeat case for his revamped station. He says they haven’t settled on a set of morning drive personalities, traditionally the mainstay of pop music stations. But he insists there’ll be no “Morning Zoo”/TMZ factor to it. (“Alternative” listeners apparently have a low tolerance for celebrity inanity and fart jokes.)

He says the station will continue its series of concerts in the 1,000-seat amphitheater just west of Target Field, and there’s a plan afoot to develop what he’s calling the “Players’ Playlist,” with individual Twins picking their favorite music and hosting maybe a show of some length TBD. Assuming there’s a player among them who listens to anything other than country or hip-hop, that could be a fun shtick. As for the jarring intrusion of the 162 games themselves, Elliot says he’s goosing up the station’s on-line product, where music (and videos) play in lieu of the Twins.

On McGuinn’s list of news and evolutionary changes, he says that unlike previous years the roster for this summer’s Rock the Garden is set and will be announced “soon.” (Last summer’s crowd favorite, Spoon, will not be at RTG, but will play at another local summer festival, says McGuinn) Also, after the current pledge drive, (The Current’s equivalent of a week’s worth of hamburger commercials), the Barb Abney replacement show, hosted by Jade Tittle, will fully flower, with the well-travelled Dave Campbell, a refreshingly droll presence among The Current’s ever-chipper cast, launching a Tuesday-through-Thursday 11 p.m.-to-2 a.m. show that McGuinn says will have extraordinary license to roam even by The Current’s standards.

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Comments (10)

Go-FM

The much bigger hole in the market is for a rhythmic format - featuring r and b, only non-commercial KMOJ serves this right now. The Pohlads are not interested in serving this segment because they don't feel it would go well with Twins baseball. The old KTTB "B-96" on the same frequency (with a not so great signal in the East Metro) had ratings in the 3.0s and even close to 4.0. KTWN hasn't been above a 1.0 since it switched to rock music several years ago.

I listen to both stations...

I listen to both stations and as of late, I've been listening to Go 96.3 a little more than The Current. I'm a long time listener to The Current as well as a sustaining MPR member but for now, I'm enjoying GO a little more. We'll see if that continues once the newness wears off.

In my opinion they should

In my opinion they should make 96.3 a triple-A station (adult album alternative) and fill the void Cities 97 left in 2012. The alternative market (The Current, Alt 93.3, Radio K), already lean towards newer stuff, so a new "music from then, music from now" station would be appealing (at least to me).

New Station

Go96 sounds like it'll be interesting even though it's not targeting my demographic. For the most part though I think I'll stick with The Current and KNOW for the time being. I have zero interest (make that negative) in anything sports related, so the Twins are not a selling factor for me.

Instead I'll stick with my walking cane and Bill DeVille on Sunday mornings with his United States of Americana and maybe a little Teenage Kicks on Saturdays.

Speaking of holes in the market

I'm unlikely to listen to this new station much due to a reason that I find almost inexplicable for a station that is supposed to be the Twin Cities flagship for the MN Twinks; I can't pick up the broadcast signal. That might be marginally excuseable if I lived in Delano or Stillwater or Princeton. But I live near Macalester College. I've been listening to Twins games while doing yardwork since my childhood, yet now have to settle for checking box scores on my ESPN app (or to trot down to the neighborhood pub to watch their big screens), because 96.3's signal is practically ephemeral in my neighborhood. Until the Pohlads get serious about having a signal that can be heard in St. Paul, I'll be tuning into stations that I can actually hear.

I can't put my finger on it

I listen to radio all day. I have it on all work day long, usually the Current, KBEM, some KFAI, and Classical MPR (lately, a lot). The Current is just no longer what I once loved to hear. The playlists have definitely been reigned in and you will hear many of the same songs a couple times a day which in the beginning never seemed to happen. I am an MPR member and one thing I am not interested in is how the Current streams all over the world. I really don't care how my dollars allow someone in GA to listen for free. We pay for this station locally. It could just be I am no longer their market. It could be that radio as we have known it is failing. My age group (I'm in my 50's) grew up listening to radio and buying a lot of music. Most of the younger people I am around stream services and don't listen to radio that much. I now listen to the Current less than I have for years and I can't say exactly why but in radio all that matters is I don't listen as much as I did.

Streaming

I've heard this complaint a lot, and I can't quite fathom it. Why the assumption that those listening elsewhere don't contribute? In am slightly younger, 36, and while I do stream music occasionally, I still like the occasional presence of a live person behind the mic. Many acquaintances use the stream to listen to the Current after they move elsewhere, as its better than what they have available locally, and they still donate. As to the playlist, meh, I've accepted that as I age, I may not always find what the "youngsters" prefer to be my cup of tea. It would be foolish of the Current to stand pat with any aspect of their operation. Being reliant on an ever aging donor base will spell doom eventually, you and I may not like it, but if what their doing is refreshing the donor base with younger blood, its the right decision. Whether or not this makes them more "corporate" is a matter that's debatable, is kept them on the air for 10 years now, we'll see how long GO can last before its NEXT format shift. I've been here 17 years now, I think 5 commercial "alternative" formats have come and gone in that timeframe, I don't hold out much hope for this one.

Current and the Pohlads

Instead of going after the Current listeners, maybe the Pohlads should invest that money in making the Twins a competitive team that would attract more fans.

It's nice to have something to listen to...

When I don't have my satellite radio. I want to hear music when I tune into a music station, and more often than not I hear DJ's yacka yacka yacking whenever I tune in the current, and when their not yacking their playing some bewildering tune that I just can't listen to no matter how hard I try. One day a Current DJ played the theme from the 70s TV show: "The Courtship of Eddy's Father"... apparently because it's so short. NEXT.

I don't know, it's always been kind of a basic rule of radio, unless you have something to say that's more interesting than the music you could be playing... you shouldn't be talking.

I'd rather hear a song that I like more than once than hear songs I wish I'd never heard all day long. The current does do a really good job of plugging into live programs, and Rock the Garden is great, but radio stations have been promoting shows since the beginning of radio, the Current didn't invent the idea. Other stations could compete. I think 96.3's big problem is their weak signal, and the twins games, that makes them hard to stay with.

Basic rule of radio

Yes to this. Current announcers prattle on endlessly with nothing to say. Add pledge periods and it's easy to see how a commercial station might compete.

Mary Lucia and Bob Potter are the one bright spot, actually saying things interesting to people besides those in the room.

It would be nice if the Current was innovative in its whole approach. Why celebrity birthdays during morning drive? Why "call in to win" concert tickets? Why must pledge drives sound the same as the other MPR stations'?

As far as the Go is concerned, however, the notion that the Pohlads would do something innovative or original is laughable. They're billing it as "quality modern music" after all.