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Going Country With Class : Entertainment: KSON has become San Diego’s most-listened-to station through a format that leaves twang and ‘Hee Haw’ behind.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The lobby of KSON’s Mission Valley office has the tasteful but generic look of a law firm or a dentist’s office, with Victorian chairs and an abundance of glass and faux marble.

There are no autographed pictures of Minnie Pearl on the wall or cowboy hats lying around, items once thought to be staples of any country radio station’s decor.

Guitars on the walls and bales of hay are part of what KSON general manager Mike Stafford calls the “horrible Hee Haw imagery” that plagues country radio, and it has little to do with his station. Slick and mainstream, KSON, simulcast on AM (1240) and FM (97.3), is a modern country station, disdainful of the fads and knee-slapping jigs of the format’s past.

Armed with a less-twangy sound, KSON can now do battle for the ears and advertising dollars of San Diego’s young, upwardly mobile, Volvo-driving professional types--and it is winning.

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Ten years after the “Urban Cowboy” craze two-stepped over the horizon, KSON has emerged as the most-listened-to station in San Diego, according to the most recent Arbitron ratings.

Powered by new, attractive artists such as Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, George Strait and the Judds, country stations are finding unprecedented success across the country. Industry studies have found that country is the

most widely used format in the country, and its average listenership is higher than any other format’s, surpassing even Top 40 and adult-contemporary stations.

KSON’s success in the spring ratings book--dethroning the Top 40 hits of KKLQ (Q106), which had been No. 1 among listeners 12 and over for three years--is no fluke. “San Diego Country” has been at or near the top of the key 25-54 adults ratings group for three years.

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And KSON is not simply jumping into the latest hot format. It has been a country music station, with the same call letters, for 28 years.

But it’s definitely not the same country station some of its older listeners may recall.

“Some remember the KSON of 10 years ago,” Stafford said. “The logo was a guy sitting on a horse standing next to a cactus,” a sharp contrast to the station’s current red white and blue logo, which features the station’s call letters scrawled across a circle.

The 50-year-old Stafford, tan and healthy looking, with a clear aversion to neckties, has been KSON’s general manager since 1982, and he’s been part of San Diego radio for 23 years. The station began to move to a new level of success in 1984, Stafford said, when Jefferson Pilot Communications bought the station from Dan McKinnon, reportedly for $7 million.

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Jefferson Pilot, which owns stations in Miami, Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta, besides the top-rated country station in Denver, had the resources to move the station into the modern era of radio, in terms of research and promotions, said program director Mike Shepard.

Shepard, who joined the station in 1984, is considered to be something of a research fanatic. At 33, Shepard looks like Stafford’s opposite, with a slight frame and a conservative, tie-based style of dress. He, too, is a radio veteran, having worked at stations around the country after getting his start changing tapes at KSON when he was 13 years old.

In addition to the normal nationwide music services, which help programmers chose songs, each week Shepard and the KSON staff select hundreds of listeners at random to give feedback on 10-second clips of current songs.

“Private market research, music testing, were all things that had not been done before,” Shepard said.

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KSON has also benefited from extensive television advertising. In the last year, it has run as many, if not more, television commercials than any station in town. Yet, as much as research, promotions and hot new stars, KSON management credits the station’s success to what Shepard calls a “touchy-feely” approach.

“When our people go to events, they’re not there to do P.A. announcements,” Shepard said. “They talk with the listeners, shake hands, kiss babies.”

Lisa Dent, who teams with John Stone for the station’s morning show, estimates she does 150 personal appearances a year.

In the realm of country music morning shows, Dent and Stone are unusual. Successful country stations tend to de-emphasize personalities in favor of long music blocks. In fact, KSON trumpets the fact that it airs 12 songs in a row, “a lot of music without a lot of interruptions.”

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But, in the morning, Dent, who has been at the station three years after being fired from Q106, and Stone, who joined the station last January, are active and vocal, running contests and taking phone calls from listeners, much like morning shows at other stations. It has paid off, as KSON’s morning show--first Jack Diamond and Dent and now Stone and Dent--has been among the most popular morning shows in town, according to the ratings.

“When we first started doing the morning show, we decided we didn’t want to do a traditional country morning show,” said Dent. A traditional, low-key show “takes you out of the marketplace. You can’t compete with someone doing bits and getting involved in the community.”

Compared to most acerbic morning shows, which rely on pranks and stunts, Dent and Stone are a kinder, gentler morning team. Listeners will hear all about Dent’s love of animals, but they won’t hear jokes about accused serial killer Jeff Daumer or Pee-wee Herman.

“We don’t want to be bad guys,” said Dent. “If everybody’s doing Daumer or Pee-wee jokes, we won’t. We try to stay away from what everybody else is doing.”

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But everyone at KSON agrees that the music is the key. Once the joke in country circles was that there were only two types of music: country and Western.

Now, to the consternation of traditional country music fans, the twangy Western sound is gone from country stations such as KSON. The new sound is light and friendly, with easy to understand themes--patriotism, love and heartache. Although critics say the music is just a down-home form of pop, it’s success is undeniable.

It offers “melodic hit songs performed by good-looking, well-costumed young stars,” said Tom Taylor, managing editor of Inside Radio, an industry publication. “You could make the argument that country is in fierce competition with adult contemporary stations.”

Most impressive, industry experts say, is that country stations have managed to find a new audience without completely alienating the old. Within the industry, country music listeners are considered extremely loyal. While rock or pop fans may jump from station to station, depending on their moods and what’s popular, country fans, like classical or jazz fans, are unlikely to jump around.

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“Someone who likes country is not going to switch to Mariah Carey simply because she’s hot,” Stafford said.

The music has attracted the type of audience that is attractive to many advertisers. Once composed almost entirely of men, the listeners are diverse and increasingly youthful.

“People have a certain image of country listeners, which isn’t always correct,” said Joan Hammond, media buyer for Phillips Ramsey, a local advertising firm. “It’s a big cross-section of people, not just blue-collar people but white collar, too, with money to spend.”

KSON certainly benefits from its almost exclusive claim to the audience. It’s only real competition is KOW, which is based in Escondido and focuses on North County.

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There are constant rumors that some other station may challenge KSON. Maybe San Diego needs a traditional country station, which would appeal to lovers of old-time country music, some industry wags say. KCBQ was the last to try it, playing country from 1981 to 1986, when it switched to oldies rock after it failed to significantly crack KSON’s listening and advertising base.

The KSON brain trust has heard the rumors about possible new competitors through the years, and it takes a typically combative approach.

“We’ve done some research, and they’re not going to dethrone us, and they’re not going to beat us,” said Shepard. “The best they can hope for is being No. 2.”


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