The date was April 10, 2005. Smooth jazz listeners who turned on their radio station in St. Louis that day found something completely different from what they expected.
There was no more smooth jazz on WSSM. Overnight the music had been replaced. The music they heard was a mixture unlike anything else in the market.
WSSM was history, replaced by a format that had been tried and proven in Phoenix. It would take St. Louis by storm, vaulting the station’s ratings to No. 2 (18-34), No. 1 (25-54) and No. 1 (35-64) in the most recent Arbitron survey period.
To hear John Kijowski tell the story, the idea for the station was hatched and developed shortly after Radio One bought St. Louis’ WRDA from Emmis and changed the format to Urban.
Kijowski, who is Vice president/market manager – Bonneville St. Louis, says the market is about 18 percent African American.
“To really do great with smooth jazz, you need to capture a majority of the African American audience and you have to make huge inroads into the KEZK audience. We only got a small portion of KEZK’s audience, and on the African American side we ended up competing with Majic. When Radio One got Tom Joyner and St. Louis picked up a second adult African American signal, there was no way I could be the third choice for African Americans.
“We began creating a game plan for “The Arch,” and I wrote up a summary of what we wanted to do. I called our Phoenix station and told them [at the Phoenix office] that I’d followed their success, and they told me they weren’t going to do the “Jack” format. They told me what they’d done and I thought we could do it in St. Louis. Phoenix is more of an A/C market, and St. Louis is more of a rock market. I knew I’d have to adjust the playlist.”
“Once I got the go-ahead for a format change, a team was assembled: Joel Grey (P.D. from The Peak in Phoenix), Greg Solk (head of programming for Bonneville), Matt Bisbee (Director of Creative Services for Bonneville Chicago), Drew Horowitz (Senior Regional Vice President Bonneville, Inc., from St. Louis), WVRV Imaging Director Jude Corbett, former WVRV P.D. Marty Linck, our Marketing Director Abigail Pollay and myself.
Greg Solk would later tell Radio Monitor magazine the actual format change took about 45 hours, “It was quite a launch,” he said.
Grey agrees: “Greg Solk and I showed up in the middle of the night, took the Peak basic format from Phoenix and put it on the air in St. Louis and then modified it to make it a St. Louis radio station.”
Kijowski says, “When other broadcasters ask us how we did it, I tell them it was totally a group that did that over a weekend, turning it around in 48 hours. The first month we did not have an on-air personality. Then we brought in locally known players.”
Jules Riley arrived from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in June and took the job of program director at The Arch. She says initially, the target audience was 25-54 women, but the current Arbitron shows listenership is evenly divided between men and women. “Our station came out of the gate strong, and we already had guidelines in place on spots and clutter – things that people had said they didn’t like about other radio stations. Recently a caller told her, ‘We listen to the station because my wife and I can agree on it.’”
Riley and music director Al Hofer pick the daily playlist from 1,100 titles (at least double the size of most station lists) and constantly tweak it.
The success of The Arch in St. Louis isn’t surprising to a longtime radio observer. Bob Kochan, owner of Kochan and Company advertising, is quick to praise the large playlist. “A music mix that is not so narrow allows for variety without the frequent repetition of songs to work to their benefit. The decades of music they cover gives them the ability to capture the listening of more audience in more demos. It also reinforces the theory that the market will embrace a station that is promoted as different and fresh.”
That promotion has an attitude. Using the highly recognizable voice of John O’Hurley for imaging, the station assigned the actor an identity: Simon Archer. He records scripted material provided by station personnel to help give The Arch local flavor. Riley says humor is an integral part of the atmosphere at WARH. “You can’t take yourselves too seriously. I mean, it’s radio. We’re not saving lives here.”
The image is also enhanced by the pledge to never play the same song twice in the same day. This philosophy came from studies that showed heavy music repetition to be a tune-out factor among listeners.
There’s no doubt the station is a huge success, not just locally either. It’s getting national trade press attention for its huge Arbitron ratings.
John Kijowski tells SJR he’s running The Arch with an eye toward the future. “Technology has allowed people to get the music that they want to hear when they want to hear it, completely customized for them, whether it’s their I-Pod, satellite – whatever they want to hear they can get now. Tightly fitted formats have less and less appeal. We keep our ratings up by keeping the music fresh, and we live up to what we say we’re going to do. We have to do it differently to keep them listening to local radio. Local jocks are vitally important. We intentionally try to make the music flow crazy.”
And the result of that crazy music flow? “This means we’re going to have [formatic] trainwrecks all over the place,” Kijowski laughs, “because that’s what the adults want to hear.”
But Kijowski says music mix isn’t everything. “Personality is really important in how we built this radio station, because if it were nothing more than a juke box I don’t believe we would be as successful as we’ve been. The jocks have a lot to do with the success.”
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 09/2006)