As the late great Yogi Berra reminded us, nothing’s over until it’s over. And with 92 KQRS’ legendary personality Tom Barnard showing no signs of hitting the terminal cough button, the fight for morning drive supremacy in Twin Cities radio isn’t over yet, no matter how pleased KFAN is with itself.
Only the most culturally isolated don’t know who Barnard is by now — and that his dominance of the metro radio audience over the past 25 years is one of the most remarkable runs in the entire country.
Last year, he signed a new five-year contract with KQ owner Cumulus Media. So it is of more than a little interest that this past summer, KFAN-FM, the sports-talk station owned by iHeartRadio (formerly Clear Channel) beat Barnard as No. 1 in the demographic the two stations care about most — and not just for a month, but the entire summer … before football season (sports talk radio’s raison d’être) really kicked in.
The gulf between Barnard and KFAN’s morning show is not large. But “The Power Trip,” currently hosted by Chis Hawkey, Cory Cove and Paul “Meatsauce” Lambert, with a supporting cast that includes Mark Rosen from WCCO-TV — a key figure in Barnard’s ascension to dominance three decades ago — has now demonstrated enough staying power to settle any question that there’s any fluke at play here.
The basic numbers for 6 a.m. – 9 a.m. weekdays, men 25-54:
Repeated calls to KQRS operations manager Scott Jameson never resulted in a connection. But KFAN’s program director, Chad Abbott, was more than happy to chat, emphasizing that, yes, he expects the tide to continue running high and suggesting that Cove, Lambert, Hawkey et al.’s “high energy” delivery probably best explained the show’s growing appeal.
While KQRS’ format is officially defined as “classic rock,” Barnard’s show has almost nothing to do with 30-year-old Heart and Boston cuts and everything to do with Barnard’s persona: a combination of a world-weary natural intelligence, eclectic interests, hair-trigger disdain, unapologetic biases and the unfailing appeal of an implicit message that real men can’t get a break in this world anymore. By contrast, the “Power Trip” crowd’s act is pretty much pure escapism. Sports, goofy stuff in the news, guy-jiving and plenty of pop culture.
According to a Nielsen survey this past spring, news-talk radio remained the nation’s most popular format, holding onto leads over top 40 (aka “contemporary hit radio”) and country. Almost inexplicably, classic rock showed growth in the same survey, fueled apparently by gains among 18- to 34-year-olds. Go figure.
(A year ago, Nate Silver’s data-crunching site, FiveThirtyEight, tried to explain what “classic rock” means these days, and its popularity and regional appeal. Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and “Sweet Emotion” are the No. 1 and No. 2 most-played songs on the nation’s 25 biggest classic rock stations, and 57 percent of the music played on those stations was written between 1973 and 1982.)
By coincidence, I had a quick conversation with Mick Anselmo, the former GM at the local Clear Channel group. An Iron Range native and a bona fide survivor in the rarely rational world of corporate radio, Anselmo presided over the creation of KFAN and is now GM for CBS Radio’s local stations, including WCCO-AM. He recently announced he’ll retire at the end of the year. (More on that at another time.)
He expressed little surprise at KFAN’s good fortune, complimenting the station’s management team, many of whom he hired, and arguing as he often does that the key to successful radio in an age where people can carry 3,000-song playlists on their phones and listen to podcasts free of 25 minutes an hour of commercials is “the sense a station offers listeners that they are part of a community. You can’t get that from an MP3 player or streaming or a podcast. People like the feeling of being connected and the good operators learn how to give it to them.”