Tweaks to KGSR's playlist that began late last year irked many longtime listeners, but they appear to be paying off in the form of higher ratings for the Austin-centric radio station.
In an average week, an estimated 97,000 Central Texans now tune in to 93.3 FM, up from 79,000 about a year ago, says general manager Scott Gillmore. Those extra ears have helped return the station to Austin's Top 10 after an absence of a couple years. Currently, KGSR ranks eighth among adults ages 25-54, according to program director Chris Edge.
Those are exactly the results Gillmore, Edge and others with Emmis Communications were hoping for when they added around 300 songs to the station's regular music rotation.
"Austin's evolving," Edge says. "There just weren't enough new people coming in. We had to broaden out our sound a bit and evolve, too."
As they worked to resuscitate KGSR, station executives studied other adult album alternatives – better known as AAA – stations across the country, looking at the artists they played. Some, they thought, would work in Central Texas, like Muse, Phoenix and Silversun Pickups.
"Every AAA is very unique to the market it's in," Edge says. "There's a core sound, but they vary from city to city."
Songs from those artists, plus more alternative music and hits from the 1990s, pop up once or twice an hour, Gillmore estimates, mixed in with tunes that are more familiar to the core KGSR crowd.
"A lot of the new music worked," he says. "Some of it was probably off base, and we pulled back on it a bit. Goo Goo Dolls, for example, didn't work."
KGSR also tightened offerings from staples such as Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin. You'll still hear them, Edge says, but you're not likely to hear as many different tracks as in the past.
"They keep it fresh by mixing things up," says Shelly Broussard, who has been listening for nearly a decade. "I love the music. Hearing new music and local music are the things that keep me coming back each day."
But the changes — along with the departures of high-profile staffers such as Susan Castle and Jody Denberg — also turned off some loyal listeners, sending them searching for a new station to call their own.
Russell Henry, who lives in South Austin, describes the new KGSR as a "generic, faceless rock station you can find anywhere in America."
"That's what made KGSR special; it sounded like Austin. Now it sounds like Toledo and Tulsa and Sacramento and Peoria. No offense, Peoria."
Gwynne Ash listened to the station up to eight hours a day in the past but now relies mainly on CDs to keep her company as she commutes from Austin to Texas State University in San Marcos, where she teaches.
"Occasionally, I'll tune in, but I find it rare to listen to more than one song before I turn away," Ash says. "They're now no more Austin than the strip malls that line I-35 all the way to Georgetown."
Similar sentiments litter the "I want the old KGSR back ... NOW!!!" page on Facebook, which has nearly 1,200 fans. Edge and others have reached out to many of them, but it's been a hard sell.
"People are understandably upset," Edge says. "The people who have worked here over the years built a brand people cared about, and listeners feel like they have an ownership stake in that brand."
KGSR's signature community outreach projects such as the Blues on the Green concert series and the annual "Broadcasts" CD benefiting the SIMS Foundation continue, Edge points out, despite tweaks to the playlist. And, just last week, an entire day of programming originated from the downtown Whole Foods location to help draw attention to HAAM Benefit Day, which raises money to provide health care for area musicians.
"We're still really community focused," Edge says. "We do a lot of work with area nonprofits."
The station has also had to battle issues that have surfaced with its signal. When KGSR switched from 107.1 to 93.3 FM, it moved from a tower near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to one near Liberty Hill in Williamson County. Though Gillmore says the new tower is taller and more powerful, the area's terrain has made it hard for a clear signal to reach some listeners, especially in parts of South Austin and Hays County.
Emmis hopes to flip the switch on a translator in the Westlake area later this year that will put KGSR on a second, closer-in frequency. That additional frequency is expected to fill most, if not all, of the gaps. But the station shouldn't expect to win back everyone, particularly folks like Russell Henry and Gwynne Ash.
"I used to have friends across the nation who listened to KGSR online because it was unique and featured new and interesting artists," Ash says. "Their disappointment is more profound than mine. They sought out KGSR, and it betrayed them."
On the Web
Fans of the 'old' KGSR might like the 93.3 FM Music Lounge, found on the station's HD2 signal, which features tracks from past 'Broadcasts' CDs, as well as recordings of in-studio concerts throughout the station's history. Don't have an HD radio? KGSR is now streaming the Music Lounge at kgsr.com/musiclounge.