Shock Treatment

It doesn't really matter whether he overtakes KQ and Tom Barnard. Either way, Howard Stern wins. And local radio loses.

Already the limiting effects of consolidation can be felt in the Twin Cities. Two hard-rock stations are crowding the dial with virtually indistinguishable formats, a circus tent full of zany morning crews are trying to outclown one another, and programmers are already paring down their playlists. So far, though, no one's felt the effects more viscerally than fans of REV 105--the last community-minded radio station with the corporate resources to make the big boys sweat.

Last fall, the Crazy Cabbie--a character on the Edge's morning show, played by Lee Mroszak--was making an appearance at the Mall of America for a special preview of the action-bomb Maximum Risk. An overgrown frat boy, the Cabbie has managed to carve out a living by showing up at public events to scream corporate catch phrases. At this particular event he finished his 30-second pre-screening pitch with the inspiring rallying cry "93.7 rules!" To which a fan in the half-full theater responded, "REV 105!"

To put it in theatrical terms, the Cabbie broke out of character. "Yeah, right, they rule,'' he scowled as his go-go swagger turned into an angry stomp up the aisle. "If you can hear them through the static. Because, y'know, they're not owned by a big company or anything. No! Cargill doesn't have a dime.''

The spectacle, while a tad surreal, was as revelatory as it was comical. Even though REV 105 was dwarfed by the Edge in every category of the most recent Arbitron ratings, the little station with the three separate signals made ABC palpably uncomfortable. On the air, in interviews, or in private conversations, outbursts like the Crazy Cabbie's were the norm. A full two months after REV 105 has been replaced by X105, employees at the Edge are still prickly about the subject. When I contacted one on-air personality from the Edge to talk about Howard Stern, the first thing he wanted to know--after making it clear his name wouldn't be used--is why ex-REV DJ Shawn Stewart was on the cover of City Pages' Best of the Twin Cities issue. "I mean, for Christ's sake," he said. "Can't we just let that whole thing die?"

On the surface, the Cabbie and his cronies got the glass slipper. On March 11, ABC signed a deal with Cargill Communications to acquire 105.3 Cambridge, 105.1 Lakeville and 105.7 Eden Prairie. All told, the stations went for $17.5 million, too much for Cargill's CFO, James Cargill, to turn down. Depending on who you talk to, REV was barely breaking even. Some contend it was losing money.

John Kuehne, who is the general manager at KLBB-AM, Cargill's remaining station, was in on the sale as general manager of REV 105. He says the Telecommunications Act made it nearly impossible for a stand-alone station such as REV to compete. "The reality was that with consolidation happening in the market, the bar got raised. Ratings that would have been OK prior to consolidation weren't OK," Kuehne says. "A station like REV, trying to feed at the advertising trough with the big boys, couldn't stand alone. To make matters worse, our Arbitron numbers weren't near what they needed to be. In fact, from the fall of 1995 to the fall of 1996, they'd gone down."

By buying REV, ABC hoped to accomplish more than eliminating an annoyance for the Edge. By changing REV's format to what they termed "active rock," they created a three-pronged assault on male listeners, 18 to 34, who have already given KQ and KEGE the edge in a majority of time slots. The Edge is programmed to attract young, urban males; X105 is aimed at young, suburban headbangers; KQ captures older, more affluent demos with their softer play list.

Now KQ's audience, by far the most lucrative of the three, is up for grabs. Asking local radio insiders to handicap the race between Barnard and Stern is a little like asking a bar full of football fans at the Wisconsin/Minnesota border who's going to win the next Packers/Vikings game. Barnard enthusiasts pooh-pooh Stern as a has-been, pointing to his subpar performance in markets such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, Memphis, Baltimore, and Phoenix, where audiences have been loyal to local talent. In Minneapolis, they argue, people will tune into KQ's morning crew because they'll be talking about the Twins game or making fun of Arne Carlson while Stern is rattling on about something in the Bronx.

In concert with Barnard's refusal to acknowledge the presence of a national competitor, no one on the payroll at ABC/Capital Cities will make an on-the-record comment about Stern. Steve Konrad, program director at Hubbard Broadcasting's KSTP, sums up their arguments succinctly. "The conventional wisdom is that Howard won't do very well, because listeners here are supposedly provincial and rigid," Konrad says. "General managers all over are saying they won't touch him, because he's a pox, a disease who will infect the whole station."

In the Chancellor camp, Stern fans such as Anselmo and McCarthy say it will take at least a year before his presence can be fairly judged. In the meantime, though, they reject the idea that Barnard has an advantage because he broadcasts from Golden Valley. "It's not about local or national, it's about compelling entertainment," Anselmo says. "Steve and Sharon had a local TV show. Remember? All of a sudden Oprah came to town. When viewers were given a choice between John Travolta on Oprah and the plant doctor on Steve and Sharon, they overwhelmingly picked Oprah. The same will be true of Howard." In markets where Stern is struggling, such as Chicago and Pittsburgh, McCarthy says the show's been shifted from station to station and faces a number of talented morning teams, not just one.

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