San Diego does not seem to be able to support two alternative stations. In the latest Nielsen ratings, FM-94/9 was again in a sorry 18th place among all local stations while 91X was even worse (again), ranked 20th.
Insiders assumed that it would be 91X left standing when it was announced Padres play-by-play would be moving to FM-94/9 next year, signaling that it may drop music and switch to an all-sports format before the first Padres pre-season games in March.
The future of FM-94/9 staying in modern rock seemed even more iffy when 20-year local radio veteran Hilary Chambers left FM-94/9 to return to 91X in June, and FM-94/9 went for months without a live DJ in Hilary’s old mid-day shift.
Why should FM-94/9 hire someone, the thinking went, if it was switching to all sports in a few months?
Recently, 91X appeared to be on a huge upswing, buoyed by the announcement that it was hosting not one but two blockbuster lineups for its “Wrex the Halls” Christmas shows at the Sports Arena. One was headlined by Beck, the other by blink-182 with support bands Pierce the Veil and Jimmy Eat World.
It also didn’t hurt that the promoters of the Bad Religion/NOFX show October 22 at Waterfront Park chose 91X to be their radio sponsor.
On its website, FM-94/9 is now featuring a homepage spread “Who is Hunter Renfroe” next to its promo on the Desert Daze music fest. (FYI…Hunter Renfroe is a Padre.)
In the alternative-radio derby all signs seemed to say that 91X would stay and FM-94/9 would go.
But now the insiders aren’t so sure. After four months of having no DJ in the mid-day hours, 94/9 finally hired a replacement for Hilary (Alyssa Haberman from Canton, Ohio), indicating that the station may be staying with music after all.
A year ago the group that controls 91X, 92/5, and Z90 (Local Media San Diego) announced it was creating a five-station radio group with KFMB-FM and KFMB-AM. Last month it was announced the five-station group would be dissolved in December after only one year.
This raises a lot of questions. The two key players who could answer those questions — KFMB stations owner Elisabeth Kimmel and Local Media San Diego General Manager Gregg Wolfson — aren’t talking.
But there is no lack of speculation about what this breakup could mean.
For starters, will Garett Michaels remain at KFMB-FM? The program veteran who spent ten years at FM-94/9 essentially created a new format in January when he joined KFMB-FM and launched a hybrid format that mixed classic-rock artists such as Journey and Tom Petty, metal bands such as Whitesnake and Black Sabbath, and alternative artists such as Oingo Boingo and The Fixx. KFMB-FM is certainly doing better now than it was last year when it relied more on modern hits. But now KGB’s more traditional classic rock often tops KFMB-FM in the ratings after the Dave Shelly Chainsaw morning show leaves the air.
Michaels was brought to KFMB-FM by the Local Media group, which will no longer be involved with KFMB-FM after December.
If Michaels leaves KFMB-FM, would he replace Mike Halloran as 91X program director?
Even though 91X has been playing modern rock for 33 years, it can’t seem to do much better than 18th or 20th place for any given rating period.
One full-time staffer at FM-94/9 said he heard from two people at 91X who called over to FM-94/9 asking if there were any openings when the deal between the KFMB stations and Local Media was called off.
Of the two stations, FM-94/9 has a much safer, conservative playlist. While both stations seem to overplay cuts by 21 Pilots, FM-94/9 plays "Stolen Dance" by Milky Chance (from 2013) and Vance Joy's "Fire and the Flood" (from last year) five times a day.
Clearly 91X is more adventurous, playing breaking artists such as Fidlar, Dirty Heads, and CRX. And each month 91X gives local unsigned artists such as Mrs. Magician, Midnight Pine, the Young Wild, and the Frights four weeks of valuable heavy-rotation airplay.
But one local radio veteran says that while 91X may be winning the hipness battle with FM-94/9, that may not matter as much as it did in the ’80s.
“Hipness is not a factor like it was,” says the insider. “Millennials who care about hipness aren’t going to listen to traditional radio anyway.”
And regarding the fact that 91X has been getting hooked up with all the big shows, the insider says: “FM-94/9 is owned by a major corporation [Entercom] who probably tells the promoters that they won’t touch the show unless they spend money [in advertising] with the station. I’ll bet 91X said they would present those shows just for the sake of getting tied in with such big shows and for the chance to give away tickets on the air. The promoter probably went with them because they didn’t have to spend any money to advertise on radio.”
The mix of alternative music and live Padres on FM-94/9 seems to many to be an unlikely eventual outcome.
One theory is that Entercom will eventually either buy or lease another local station to accommodate the Padres and an all-sports format and leave FM-94/9 in alternative music.
But most radio insiders say that the two-station local alternative battle can best be summed up in the sentiment in the old Sparks song: “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
The ratings performance of both 91X and FM-94/9 are dwarfed by harder rockin' Rock 105, which currently has about double the listenership of either station. Rock 105 is known as an “active rock” station, versus 91X and FM-94/9, which are classified as “alternative.”