Chalk one up for the little guys.
In a radio market flooded with corporate interests, San Diego’s lone independent rock station, 102.1 KPRI-FM, reached its 10-year anniversary April 1.
Perhaps the most successful April Fools’ Day joke that, in fact, wasn’t one; KPRI has become a well-respected anomaly in a largely corporate-driven San Diego market. The station, which transmits primarily from Encinitas, consistently scores top-five ratings from the 25 to 54 age group looking for a hybrid of modern rock, progressive, alternative and classic rock. And advertisers, such as the Mission Valley-based Bob Baker Auto Group, which has bought airtime from day one, seem to like the station, too.
“It’s not the biggest station in San Diego by any means, but the quality of the audience is excellent,” said Dave Ezratty, vice president of Baker Media. “We just find there’s not a lot of waste with this station. With others you don’t always know who you’ll reach.”
Ezratty declined to disclose precisely how much of Bob Baker’s advertising budget goes to KPRI, but he did say the company has advertised at least once a month for the past decade.
“I think the station has been a really pleasant surprise in the age of mergers and acquisitions,” said Sharon Massey, the executive director of the San Diego Radio Broadcasters Association. “A lot of people 10 years ago probably didn’t think that they would survive as they have, but they’re very well liked by the advertising community as well as respected by other radio stations.”
While others may be in shock, reaching the 10-year mark came as no surprise to co-owner and afternoon on-air personality Robert Hughes, who, with partner Jonathan Schwartz, runs Compass Radio, the University City-based company that operates 102.1.
“Why do I think some people are surprised? Because most people don’t know me and my partner, Jonathan Schwartz,” Hughes said. “Not knowing our backgrounds makes it easy to just think we’re an independent and for that reason alone, we’re not going to make it. But we both came out of the big companies. I was at CBS, Jonathan was at NBC, we know the mind-set of our competitors and that makes a difference.”
The station’s competitors include 101.5 KGB-FM and Rock 105.3 FM, two of the 1,200 or so stations nationwide owned by San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications.
Chris Carmichael, who operates a local industry Web site, sdradio.net, says Hughes and Schwartz are San Diego radio pioneers.
“They stand alone because they are the last locally owned U.S. FM station. They believe in radio, they believe in their audience, and they still believe that quality radio will bring a good return in investment,” Carmichael said.
Instead of being discouraged by comments from those who doubted KPRI’s longevity potential, Hughes, who mainly controls the product, and Schwartz, who handles the station’s finances, are amused by them.
“Ten years ago we heard, ‘they’re just going to sell it for a quick profit’ and we laughed and we’re still laughing at that very same thing today because they’re still saying that,” Hughes said.
In the 10 years that it has been in existence, Compass Radio’s KPRI has undergone several image changes, including dropping the name SETS 102, changing its original call letters and as recent as a year ago, changing its creed from “Authentic Rock” to “Rock Without Rules!” But its Triple A format, or adult album alternative, has remained largely in place.
“They just have a clear identity of who they want to be and yes, they’ve tweaked things a bit over the years, but it’s still very true to what they started with 10 years ago,” said Massey, of the San Diego Radio Broadcasters Association
When another San Diego radio station, 100.7 KFMB-FM changed its name last year from Star 100.7 to Jack 100.7, published reports speculated that it was a move designed to directly compete for KPRI’s advertising revenues. But that’s not the case, according to Tracy Johnson, vice president and general manager for Jack, which is owned by Chicago-based Midwest Television, Inc.
“San Diego is a fairly more sophisticated music palate than most,” Johnson said. “It’s a good market for Triple A, but I wouldn’t say it’s a great market There is a percentage of what we play that is in common with them but we have more exclusivity than we do commonality.”
Johnson said Jack has more classic pop and disco, compared with KPRI’s more rock intensive offerings. Carmichael, of sdradio.net, sees other differences.
“San Diego Jack FM skews toward women; KPRI skews toward both women and men,” Carmichael said. “Ad revenues are a constant battle for any radio station in the market ad dollars are always tight and radio remains one of the best investments that any advertiser can make. KPRI’s audience responds to the ads and personal appearance by the on-air staff. I’ve been to many of their Saturday and Sunday events and the radio listeners tell me that KPRI remains number one on their car and home radio. Advertisers are never disappointed by the turnout by the events.”
Because Triple A appeals largely to professional adults in their 30s and 40s, advertisers such as Bob Baker bank on the fact that their message will be heard by people with the financial means to choose their product. Ezratty said that he believes KPRI listeners are also often more open to a commercial message because they are loyal listeners to the station and consider it a trustworthy source.
But Hughes, who in addition to running the station plays guitar in the cover band Left4Dead, concedes not every airtime sell comes so easily.
“It’s particularly easy if it’s someone who is a listener because they understand, but if they haven’t ever listened to us, it’s a little harder to convince them,” Hughes said. “They just don’t get it yet.”
As for a 20-year anniversary, the 59-year-old Hughes says it’s not unlikely.
“I love the radio business,” Hughes said. “I don’t see myself as long as I am working, being anywhere else but the radio business and I don’t feel the need to retire anytime soon.”