KNRK – It’s Absolutely Not Different Here

It was late, well past midnight and it was the last day I was going to spend in the San Francisco Bay Area before heading off to college. I had called in to Live 105 and was chatting with Big Rick Stuart who was jockeying between our phone call and the on air play. Rick came on the air and wished me a safe trip and played a song to send me off. That was the kind of radio station Live 105 was.

Mark Hamilton was a DJ at Live 105. He was the voice you’d also hear promoting the DJ’s spinning tunes down at One Step Beyond or The X nightclub. He was surrounded by great music and great people. So it was a fantastic revelation (Back in 1994) to find that he landed here in Portland at the very young KNRK. I met him at one of the early KNRK snowball shows, the one with Everclear and No Doubt. He seemed like a great guy.

Unfortunately it seems that Mark has forgotten what makes a great radio station. Over time he tweaked the playlist favoring retreading bands like Sublime over debuting new music and new artists. Sublime might be a slightly notable band but I doubt they should be continually haunting the airwaves of an alternative station.

Recently KNRK did a major revamp to their playlist, out was most of the new or truly alternative music (except for bands coming to town in KNRK sponsored events) and in were classics. KNRK effectively remade themselves into a Rock Mix station. The switch started gradually, with ‘classic alternative’ artists like David Bowie. Listen to KNRK for 2 hours and you’ll hear classic Bowie at least once….Then came bands like The Cars and Tom Petty. Tune in enough and you’ll wonder if KNRK hasn’t fused with KGON. At times even KUFO is more alternative… Which is sad.

Perhaps KNRK is a victim of its own success. Late last year their morning show with Greg Glover began to beat the competition. Perhaps that taste of popular success fueled them on to chase the popular audience. But what used to be a fairly descent alternative station is gone. Many of the good people are still there. Greg is smart guy, knows his music and takes risks (Listen to his Bottom Forty Sunday Nights). Gustav is still the friendliest face of the station, his perfect playlist and track 7 show he wants the station to be a good one. Tara is just plain great, she knows what’s going on, but she’s as powerless to fix it as anyone.

It all boils down to Mark Hamilton… Program director. Who has made a major misstep with the station by building a playlist that simply isn’t alternative. At my home office I’ve switched of KNRK and listen to KEXP online. KEXP, based in Seattle, ironically is the station supporting MusicFest NW (while local KNRK is notably absent). I hear new music via myspace and am more likely to fire up my mp3 player than my radio…

Next year Community Supported KZME 91.1 is set to launch. If KZME follows KEXP’s model it could give KRNK a serious run for its money. Until then fans of alternative music need to email Mark Hamilton and let him know that the playlist changes aren’t welcome, and remind them what ‘It’s Different Here’ really means. KNRK keeps saying it’s YOUR station… So tell them what YOU want.

8 Comments so far

  1. tenstringesquire (port_bill) on September 9th, 2008 @ 11:55 am

    Seeing as KNRK and KGON are both owned by ginmormous media conglomerate Entercom, I’m not surprised. I gave up on commercial radio two years ago and switched over to Sirius. There’s a station dedicated to any conceivable genre you might be interested in. I haven’t looked back since. Definitely worth the investment.

  2. gk107 on September 9th, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

    Greg is one of the few reasons I still listen to NRK, as he tries to play some different things. But it seems too often it’s retreading another Nirvana classic which you hear as often as old Bowie, or the one song by the English Beat because apparently they didn’t make any other music. I think they need to really infuse some different tunes there, or run the risk of being insignificant.

  3. divebarwife on September 9th, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

    I agree. I like what 94.7 plays – but that doesn’t mean I want to hear the same songs every time I turn it on. I am on their mailing list and fill out surveys everytime they send them to me. Once I replied asking about hearing more of a certain style of music – listed a few bands as examples. I actually got a reply back from Mark Hamilton – which I thought was impressive – but his response was that I should listen at: and he gave me a day of the week with a 2 hour window – saying I might hear something I like there. Well sure – but why can’t that be mixed in with the rest of the schedule?

  4. fenavo on September 9th, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

    I’ve given up on the station. They replay the same bands way too often and they play so much that is NOT alternative. I never thought of Duran Duran, Bob Marley or The Police as alternative bands but they sure play them every hour or so.

  5. rdawg1021 on September 12th, 2008 @ 10:41 am

    Nice read. Funny you mention this, just the other day on my way home I asked my wife what channel she was listening to. I couldn’t believe it was 97.4 and the music they were playing. I rarely drive, ride bike, so I don’t get to listen to the radio very often. I started telling her about how when I was in high school 970 ‘The Beat’ was the station to listen to and the they transferred over to 94.7 and even then it wasn’t a real transfer with the same music. I miss the day of 970 the beat I’m not sure if it was the sounds of the a.m radio on my crappy speakers in my bug or the selection of music. What I do know is that it was far better than 94.7.

  6. catherine on September 17th, 2008 @ 5:26 pm

    Great topic and good observations.

    Question for the author first; how do you know Mark changed up the play list? And why’d he do that?

    I generally really like 94.7 (I listen online occasionally and I’m even a ‘member’ of their club er whatever). That being said, OMG, why why WHY do they play Nirvana five million times a day? Seriously, if it’s because some random rock-God-quota tells them they have to–fine, I guess I can live with that. Other than that, I’m pretty happy with the station considering everything else in this town plays the same top40 and ten times more commercials. The station is far from perfect, but I think it’s important to not give up on commercial rock radio. I listen to gobs of internet stations and I’m constantly combing it for new artists. I find it interesting when a commercial station picks one up.

    I’ve also listened to KUFO and Live 105 and my opinion of the play list was pretty much the same.

    I’m also really looking forward to 91.1.

  7. crankiness on September 17th, 2008 @ 8:05 pm

    Indie (independent) and nonstandard alternative rock replace shock jocks, and listeners are taking notice
    Wednesday, January 19, 2005
    Flipping across your FM dial it’s likely you’ve caught the slogan: "It’s different here."

    [ from The Oregonian newspaper, maybe ? ]

    And if you’ve lit on 94.7 long enough, you’ve heard the proof: Bowie’s "Rebel Rebel," and then The Killers’ "Mr. Brightside." Greg Glover, "Alternative Mornings" co-host (and local label Arena Rock Records’ founder), giving a two-minute history of an Australian band called INXS. Disc jockey Tara Dublin allotting Monday morning airtime for "The Blower’s Daughter" — a Damien Rice track that has yet to crack any of the trade’s alternative rock charts.

    Welcome to the new KNRK.

    In the past seven months, since the triple-firing of deejays Marconi, Tiny and producer Nik J. Miles for their broadcast mocking of hostage Nicholas Berg’s beheading, the Portland radio station has undergone a complete sonic makeover.

    Gone is the coarse morning banter, and the harder-edged sound of bands like Korn and Godsmack, what station manager and programming director Mark Hamilton terms "Muppet rock."

    Hamilton now encourages new on-air staffers, such as Glover and Dublin, and returning talent, such as Gustav, to delve into alternative rock’s 25-year history and reach into its indie-rock future. And to play what they feel, even if what they’re feeling doesn’t fit into the industry’s current, standard alternative-rock format.

    "What we’re doing is something no one has really done before, or is doing," says Hamilton, 42, who joined KNRK in May 1995, two months after it hit the airwaves, and prefers to call his on-air staff "presenters" instead of deejays. "So we’re kind of going into uncharted waters here. We’re writing the rules, making mistakes, right as we go along."

    Though KNRK could have stuck with its former format, Hamilton chose a different path, citing the falling interest in "shock radio," a drop in the artistic quality of harder-edged alt-rock, and the station’s own slipping ratings. Add to these the fact that radio competes with new sources of music like the Internet and satellite broadcasts.

    "There was this opportunity after the Marconi incident," says Hamilton, "to serve and super-serve an audience in Portland that wasn’t getting the music that it wanted."

    Call it the alternative to alternative. It’s the listeners, Hamilton says, who fueled KNRK’s nearly-DIY-programming approach.

    In June, the station conducted an online 50-question survey, asking 8,000 listeners everything from what they wanted in an on-air personality to the amount of contests they’d prefer. More than 7,100 surveys were returned in 10 days.

    Result? Music mattered most.

    So now there is a more of it (an average of 11 to 13 songs per hour), and talk has been stripped back to comments and news — and maybe a little gossip — about music. The style of In-Your-Face-Through-Your-Ear chatter is now left to other stations.

    "I remember someone telling me that the first hour of my show was going to be up against Howard Stern," says Dublin, who came on last July, "And I was kind of like, ‘Wow, OK, that’s the biggest name in radio.’ But I try not to think about that. I know I enjoy what I do and I love the music, and I hope that comes across."

    The station’s daily playlists span a broader spectrum of sounds as well.

    Though Korn is banished, Green Day, Depeche Mode and David Bowie are mined. "Deeper cuts," that is, tracks from new albums that haven’t yet been issued as singles, are allowed airtime as well. And Gustav, 34, is able to champion local bands, like Crosstide, via his afternoon show.

    "(Portland) is such a hot spot musically," says Gustav, "and to be able to share that music now is astounding."

    Though his morning show at KNRK with Daria O’Neill ended in 2003, his name topped the listener list of people they wanted back. ("Heartwarming," says Gustav).

    "My first few days back, I was a little afraid," says Gustav, "I was so used to a preset format. It’s like deejaying with your pants down; people see more of who you are by what you play."

    Another move, and perhaps the savviest: KNRK added indie.

    While independent rock acts like Ambulance, LTD., Keane, and the Killers ruled live venues and late-night talk show musical slots this past summer, and logged countless comments on rock blogs and chatrooms, finding these bands’ tracks on the nation’s radio dials was next to impossible. Active rock and traditional alt-rock formats, for much of the year, virtually shut this music out.

    "KNRK was one of the first six stations to play (the Killers’) ‘Somebody Told Me,’ " says Christine Chiapetta, vice-president of Modern Rock promotions for Island Records. "It totally arrived from the West Coast. It was San Francisco, KROQ in L.A., The End in Seattle, KNRK in Portland, and 91X in San Diego. ‘NRK was one of those very early stations that played it, even before the band had a video done, before it took off at all."

    Breaking bands is one thing. But are the changes helping where it counts: the ratings?

    The most recent Arbitron book shows the station lost some teen listeners, a drop the station says it expected. But October 2004’s cumulative numbers (which tracks listeners for this past summer) show KNRK ranked seventh overall for 18-49 year-olds, Monday through Sunday, 6 A.M. to midnight. This is a jump from the station’s 10th-place ranking in the previous book, issued in July. More females are tuning in, too.

    "It’s nice to know that people in modern and alternative rock radio are doing things the old-fashioned way," says Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci, "and that there’s deejays taking chances."

  8. crankiness on September 17th, 2008 @ 8:16 pm

    Q & A With KNRK/Portland PD Mark Hamilton
    April 27, 2005
    Interview By Mike Bacon

    [ ]

    Mark Hamilton

    In June of 2004, Entercom Modern Rocker KNRK/Portland overhauled their look, their sound and their mission statement. They did so six months to the day after sister Modern Rock station KNDD "The End"/Seattle and Jacobs Media re-tooled their musical approach in favor of more cutting-edge artists and ’80s and ’90s Alternative gold.

    In the months that followed, 94/7 Alternative Portland has a new airstaff in place and has completely abandoned all of their harder-edged trappings. The music and presentation is decidedly more upper end, and the results thus far have been very rewarding.

    Their recent ratings and cume spikes in their new target demo are testament to the foresight both the company and the staff at 94/7 Alternative Portland had in changing up their focus, avoiding a hi"Jack"ing or a knee-jerk format flip in a completely opposite direction.

    Corporate execs, GMs, PDs – take note. KNRK is a great example of Alternative, market-focused programming done correctly. We recently caught up with KNRK PD Mark Hamilton and got up to snuff on how the station has evolved since its progressive re-tooling twelve months prior.

    Just about a year ago the station underwent an overhaul, changing up the music, presentation and airstaff to a decidedly more upper end Alternative lean. You recently experienced your best ratings since the change. Where does 94/7 FM stand now?
    Phase one is being completed. In other words, we’ve dramatically changed our focus and target as a radio station. We’ve gone from an 18-24-driven station, to a 25-34-driven station, and that change is complete. Our 25-34 audience has increased forty percent in the last six months, and there’s been a thirty percent increase 35-44 (that’s widespread across all dayparts). Our cume, 25-34, from 10 a.m. to Midnight we’re number one, and 25-34 from 6 a.m. to Midnight we’re number two. The people have come to the party, now the next challenge is to increase the TSL.

    What are some key tactics that were implemented to target that upper demo?
    The key tactic, that we’ve implemented from day one and it started with an audience survey asking what people wanted from radio, is that everything we do and we’re doing is always credited back to the listeners. They feel a tremendous ownership of this radio station. It doesn’t feel like some big bad corporate radio station that is playing 20 songs over and over again. We’ve finally given the people of Portland a feeling of ownership and that has been the effective element of our plans. From a music perspective, we’re focusing on that 25-44-year-old audience. If you go back ten years to ’95 when this radio station came on, and listeners were 18 to 24, now they’re 28 to 35. So everything from then through the ’90s makes up a big part of what we play. Plus, at the same time, we’re being very selective in terms of what new music we’re playing. It almost has an Alternative, Triple A hybrid feel to it. Jack Johnson’s huge here. He sold 12,000 copies in three weeks. I believe Portland is his second biggest market. The Beck album debuted at number one in Portland. Look at the releases coming up: Audioslave, Coldplay, Weezer, Garbage. Those are not 12-24-year-old artists. Those are artists that appeal to a 25-44-year-old audience. That is where it lies for us.

    What recent promotions have been the most effective for you?
    Right now the thing that’s really causing a lot of interest is that we actually had the foresight to go out and buy 25 pairs of U2 tickets for the Seattle show. The show sold-out in 15-minutes, and we will be giving those away everyday for five weeks. The response has been phenomenal. We’re the only station that had them. People listen for a block of U2 anytime between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., and then call in and answer a simple U2 trivia question to win. No hype contesting. Then the database, the 94.7 Nation, get e-mails that tip them off to when the block will be played and the trivia question that we’ll ask. That has driven our database up by 3,000 in the last ten days – so that’s been fun.

    Several stations have really skewed their aim toward the upper end by playing artists like these more, playing more variety, competing with the appeal of the iPod, etc.
    Yeah, and it’s your market also. There’s a good economic reason why. There’s an argument to be made that a lot of Alternative stations went way too far down that hard-edged 12-24-year-old road. Looking at it, you just have to turn on MTV to realize that Alternative isn’t where it’s at for a young audience, Hip-Hop is. Everything’s cyclical though; it’ll come back around. I just feel very confident and focused in what we’re doing, targeting 25-34-year-olds. There was a great article in one of the Portland local magazines recently that said 25-34-year-olds are moving to Portland five times faster than any other Top 50 market. I can see why. It’s affordable, it’s the quality of life; it bodes very well for the whole music scene here which, incidentally, I believe that in about a year to 18-months Portland will be the music capitol of the United States of America. Everyone’s here. The Shins, The Decemberists, Modest Mouse… the list goes on. We’re in a really good space right now, especially because I really do see a resurgence in this format. Not just with the tried and trues… Beck, etc. But also, there’s a great wave of new music coming through with The Bravery, The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, Interpol. It’s good times.

    Add that to all the major releases in stores and coming soon that we mentioned…
    Nine Inch Nails, Audioslave, Weezer, Green Day, Coldplay, Foo Fighters, Queens Of The Stone Age, Beck, Garbage, Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers – right now it’s low hanging fruit! As for the format, it’s chameleon-like in that it changes its color, its look, on an on-going basis. It’s great. We’re very lucky, KNDD/Seattle PD Phil Manning, Lazlo at KRBZ/Kansas City, myself and the folks at KWOD/Sacramento, to be working with Entercom. David Field is a huge believer and supporter of Alternative music.

    Could digital or HD radio be an answer to other corporations that may be questioning the format’s viability or place on the dial?
    A radio station will have anywhere from three to five secondary channels. That’s going to be a really exciting time for radio, and something that every program director should be thinking about now, but we have to wait for the public to catch up and actually own the technology. The hardware will get there. It’s really exciting to think you could literally have just a channel for what we are now; another more 12-24 focused. Another channel could almost be like podcasting where you would take specific two-hour shows and recycle them. It’s an exciting time, and as a program director, I’m really looking forward to it.

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