On the persistence of KPIG

On Quora, William Moser askedWould the KPIG radio format of Americana—Folk, Blugrass, Delta to modern Blues, Blues-rock, trad. & modern C&W, country & Southern Rock, jam-bands, singer/songwriters, some jazz, big-band & jazz-singers sell across markets in America?

I answered,

I’ve liked KPIG since its prior incarnation as KFAT.I’ve liked KPIG since its prior incarnation as KFAT.

It’s a great fit in the Santa Cruz-Salinas-Monterey market, anchored in Santa Cruz, which is a college/beach/hippie/artist kind of town.

Ratings have always been good, putting it in the top few. See here.

It has also done okay in San Luis Obispo, for similar reasons.

For what it’s worth, those are markets #91 and #171. Similar in a coastal California kind of way.

The station is also a throwback, with its commitment to being the institution it is, with real personalities who actually live there, aren’t leaving, and having a sense of humor about all of it. Also love. And listener participation. None of that is a formula.

Watch this and you’ll get what I mean. It’s what all of radio ought to be, in its own local ways, and way too little of it is.

William replied,

I have played tha brilliant ‘Ripple’ since it was released; the editing is spot-on.I have played tha brilliant ‘Ripple’ since it was released; the editing is spot-on.

With respect to DJ personalities, there are at least two that, in my fantasy of owning that station, would be gone before the ink was dry. (You might even have an idea of whom). Paradoxically, that’s probably part of what makes KPIG work.

It’s really the cross-country market appeal of the ‘Americana’ music format that is my question.

My response:

I think it’s a local thing. KPIG (and KFAT and KHIP before it) is a deeply rooted local institution. It’s not a formula, and without standing one up in some other region like it, and funding it long enough to see if it catches on, it’s hard to say.

All of radio is in decline now, as talk listening moves to podcasts and music listening moves to streaming. The idea that a city or a region needs things called “stations,” all with limited geographical coverage, and with live talent performing, and an obligation to stay on the “air” 24/7, designed to work through things called “radios,” which are no longer sold in stores and persist as secondary functions on car dashboards, is an anachronism at a time when damn near everything (including chat, telephony, video, photography, gaming, fitness tracking and you-name-it) is moving onto phones—which are the most persistently personal things people carry everywhere.

There are truly great alternative stations, however, that thrive in their markets: KESP in Seattle and WWOZ in New Orleans are two great examples. That KPIG manages to persist as a commercial station is especially remarkable in a time when people would rather hit a 30-second skip-forward button on their phone app than listen to an ad.

So I guess my answer is no. But if you want Americana, there are lots of stations that play or approximate it on the Internet. And all of them can be received on your phone or your computer.

That was a bit tough to write, because yesterday I was poised to enjoy Ron Phillips‘ long-standing Saturday morning show on WWOZ when I learned he had died suddenly of a heart attack. Ron has been a great friend since the 1970s, when he was a mainstay at WQDR in Raleigh, and I was a partner in its ad agency (while still being a funny guy at cross-market non-rival WDBS), and I had planned to give him a call after his show, to see how he was doing. (He’d had carpal tunnel surgery recently.)

Though WWOZ is alive and thriving, and there persist many radio stations that are vital institutions in their towns and regions, radio on the whole has been in decline. See here:

The slopes there are long, and a case can be made, on that low angle alone, that radio will persist forever, along with magazines and TV. But it’s clear that our media usage is moving, overall, to the Internet, where mobile devices are especially good at doing what radio, TV and magazines also do—and in some ways doing it better.

But back to William Moser’s question.

There are already many ways to stream Americana (aka American roots music) on the Internet, whether from stations, streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, or a channel or two on SiriusXM. But those are largely personality-free.

What KPIG has (once described to me as “mutant cowboy rock & roll”) isn’t a format. It’s an institution, like a favorite old tavern, music club, outdoor festival, or coffee shop—or all of those rolled into one. Can one replicate that with an Internet station, or a channel on some global service?

I think not, because those services are all global. You need to start with local roots. WWOZ has that, because it started as a radio station in New Orleans, a place that is itself deeply rooted. After years of living all over the place, Ron moved to New Orleans to be with those roots, and near its greatest radio voice.

Radio is geographical. All the stations I mentioned above, living and dead, are not the biggest ones in their towns. KPIG’s signal is almost notoriously minimal. So is KEXP’s in Seattle. They are local in the most basic sense.

I suppose that condition will persist for another decade or two. But it’s hard to say. Mobile devices are also evolving quickly, getting old within just a few years.

I’m not sure we’ll miss it much, the succession of generations being what it is. But we are losing something. And you can still hear it on KPIG.

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