New KISS on the block

The switch from new country to CHR repudiates the CRTC’s original decision.

Marketing Magazine, June 24, 1999   

KISS is gone, replaced by KISS. That’s what the station at 92.5 on Toronto’s FM dial is called now.


“KISS” was “Power 92” for about three weeks. Then it abruptly became KISS for reasons that remain obscure. There’s already a Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) station in Edmonton called Power 92 — that may have had something to do with the name change. Maybe the Edmonton Power 92 (owned by WIC Western International Communications) felt there were too many similarities between itself and the Toronto Power 92 (owned by Rogers Communications, which also owns Marketing) and told the Toronto version to rename itself. The stations’ playlists and graphics were also identical.


Initially, I wondered if the two stations shared a consultant service. That would have explained why they had so much in common despite being owned by different companies. It’s probable. Every North American commercial station uses a consultant. And there are fewer consultants than formats, so two stations with the same format are likely taking their cues from the same people. It’s been that way ever since the rise of Top 40 and its various formats — Chuck Blore’s “Color Radio,” Bill Drake and Ron Jacobs’s “Boss Radio,” perfected at Los Angeles’ KHJ, replicated in San Francisco, Boston and Windsor, before finally being imperfectly imitated by “fake Drake” formats everywhere.


But in the case of KISS, nailing that hypothesis down was tough. Telephone conversations with KISS staff members produced a series of increasingly strange and cryptic responses, ranging from “what’s a consultant?” to a kind of non-denial denial: they wouldn’t admit they use a consultant, but they wouldn’t definitively say they didn’t use one. Or if they knew what a radio consultant was — not saying they did — and if they used one — not that they did — they wouldn’t be able to reveal which consultant because of some special super-secret radio code of conduct, the existence of which they couldn’t admit to.


Why be so evasive about a basic element of commercial radio? Rogers acquired the frequency and immediately had to change the station’s format to something more profitable. Were I KISS or its owner, I’d want my new station to be running a format as rock-solid, battle-proven, road-tested, market-researched, focus-grouped, consultant-massaged, risk-free, ironclad and sanitized for my protection as possible. That kind of high-gloss precision is even more important with two strong competitors already in the market. Buffalo’s WBLK pulls in older listeners with its burnished R&B Adult Contemporary nuggets. Hamilton’s Energy 108 remixes younger-skewed selections for their kids.


One of the few definite conclusions we can draw from the 92.5 switch and the changes in the Toronto radio arena is the death — at least in Toronto — of “new country” as a viable programming option. Hell, even Garth Brooks has given it up; he’s trying to start a second career in baseball. And “new country” was always baffling. There didn’t seem to be much discernibly “new” about it, and except for a couple of wardrobe cues (cowboy hats, mainly) and the odd fiddle or steel guitar in an arrangement, there didn’t seem to be much “countrified” about it, either — it was always too pretty and polished. Compare anything by Alan Jackson or Terri Clark with the mournful wailing of the Carter Family. The three Carters — from Clinch Mountain in southwest Virginia — played raw-boned, unvarnished versions of ancient, doom-struck songs marinated through generations of nasty, brutish and short lives in punishing coalfields. It’s spooky. And it was country before anybody even called it that. When the Carters were cutting 78s, folks called it “hill music.”


But that’s all archeology now; the genre is finished. When I covered the launch of Rawlco’s CISS-FM in Toronto in 1993 — the previous tenant at 92.5 — I wondered why the last FM slot in the country’s biggest city had been granted to a Calgarian corporation playing records about pickup trucks and truck-driver divorces. The CRTC had straight-armed a perfectly good application from an outfit called Millennium for an “urban contemporary” (read “black”) station. Even looking at nothing more than the success of Buffalo’s WBLK in the Toronto market, handing Millennium the license should have been obvious.


It was, in retrospect. Black Entertainment Television’s (BET) hassle-free passage onto the cable dial was a tacit admission by the CRTC that it got the CISS decision wrong. Now the market has made the initial error that much more obvious. At best, that chain of events makes the CRTC look ill informed. At worst, it looks like racism. Hip-hop, R&B, urban contemporary — call it whatever you want. It’s the only identifiable musical genre enjoying any kind of sales growth these days.


What the replacement of CISS with KISS is going to mean for the two cable channels that still offer round-the-clock corn-pone crooning is unknown. But if the change in the radio landscape is any indication, how much longer can both of them last? Perhaps we could try — just once, as a kind of nutty experiment — to see what the market might do.