End of the KFOG Era
by Alex Cosper (4/02/16)

It was actually fairly easy to see the demise of San Francisco adult alternative station KFOG (104.5 and 97.7 FM). After decades of providing a soundtrack for Bay Area "Fogheads," the station fired several long-time air staff members on March 31, 2016 and prepared for a format flip. These types of sudden radical changes have become common since big biz took over radio in the late 90s as radio has been floundering financially ever since.

In all fairness, the "cleaning house" strategy has always existed in radio, one of the least loyal industries on earth to employees. Radio has always been business-driven, but only in the past few decades has it shifted to bland cookie-cutter formats duplicated from market to market with no sense of local culture or personality. Like a faceless jukebox that just spews redundant rotations of the same songs over and over, radio hasn't been people-friendly at all during its corporate period, execpt for the high paid execs who make all the wrong decisions.

KFOG managed to hang on to a certain level of Bay Area credibility as the last link between the freeform era and the current state of the declining, fragile dehumanized radio industry. Throwing away such a heritage that meant so much to San Francisco culture isn't so strange in an era when all that matters is advertising dollars and marketing. At one time Program Directors decided on how radio sounded, but now it's up to marketing execs - who don't seem to know how to market no-brainer heritage brands.

The end of the road for KFOG didn't really happen overnight. To quickly review its history, KFOG had been an easy listening station in the 60s and 70s and then switched to an adult album rock sound starting in September 1982. Starting with the slogan "Timeless Rock," the station bridged the gap between freeform radio and adult rock. Unlike typical rock or classic rock stations, KFOG had a large music library that spanned most of rock history from psychedelia through new wave. In the 90s melodic alternative rock helped broaden the format.

Perhaps the best way to describe KFOG throughout its heyday was an eclectic rock format with an emphasis on conceptual rock artists. Over the years it was a station that featured many well known Bay Area personalities such as Rolling Stone writer Ben Fong-Torres, M. Dung, Dave Morey, Renee Richardson, Rosalie Howarth, Bill Webster, Annalisa and Dred Scott.

It's important to note that during KFOG's best years, it was owned by the privately held company Susquehanna. Then in 2005 the station was acquired by Cumulus Media, which eventually became the second largest radio chain in the nation behind iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel). Yet, like most other big radio chains, Cumulus racked up millions in debt and experienced difficulty in navigating through the 2000s, in which other forms of technology cut into radio listening time. Interestingly, both Cumulus and iHeartMedia have shared the same investment partners: Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners L.P.

KFOG had amazing rock credibility in the Susquehanna era as its programming offered a hypnotic mix of stream of consciousness music. There was a sense that you could always hear one meaningful song after another while jumping around with decades and genres. Then as the new owners began to reshape KFOG, it became less and less of an intelligent heritage rock station and began to drift toward a grab bag of high testing pop/rock records, losing its element of surprise.

In March 2016 as the station went mostly jockless except for the retained morning team of Irish Greg and No Name, its ratings were considered low, which is why stations usually change formats. The station ranked #17 in the market (out of over 50 signals) overall with a 2 share, which equated to over 600,000 weekly listeners, according to Nielsen. A new format was set for April 20. Similar massive staff changes were made at Cumulus sister station KGO, which had been number one as a news/talk station for decades until Cumulus started tinkering with the programming.

While many loyal Fogheads mourned the loss of the station's heritage identity, one of the continued overlooked issues of the corporate radio industry is that it simply doesn't know how to rock. As much as big media has continued to suggest that "rock is dead," it's still one of the biggest selling genres of the new century, thanks mainly to classic rock catalogue material embraced by baby boomers.

So why doesn't big biz, which is so obsessed with numbers and research figure out how to market rock, the biggest selling music of all time? Part of the problem that corp execs struggle with is the outdated business model that radio is built on: commercial interruption. Much of the library of rock music that has continued to be timeless over several decades is lyrically associated with free thinking and exploring beyond materialism. That's something that doesn't compute in a corporate mindset.
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