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Oldies, talk and sports pick up listeners at 3 formerly Spanish-language stations

Gary Dinges
gdinges@statesman.com

More cowbell.

Pop into Border Media's offices on South Capital of Texas of Highway these days and that's what you're likely to hear. Each time the oh-so-loud noisemaker rings, it signals the arrival of a new advertiser and, these days, there are plenty of them.

Increased revenue was exactly what executives were hoping for a year ago when they yanked Spanish-language programming from three of Border's five frequencies in the Austin market. Oldies landed on 92.5 FM, talk ended up on 98.9 FM and a mix of local and national sports can now be found at 104.9 FM.

"We have made huge progress," says Bob Proud, overseer of the company's local stations, who chatted with me to offer his take on how things are going. "We're rapidly gaining momentum and getting closer to our goals."

Still, Proud admits there's much work to be done. Though ratings for the three stations are growing, they still rank well below many of the city's more established players. Newly released numbers from Arbitron's portable people meters show 92.5 the True Oldies Channel is Border's only station currently ranked in Austin's Top 20.

98.9 the Big Talker

Flip on the TV these days and you're likely to see commercials aplenty for 98.9 the Big Talker. There are also lots of billboards and ads on taxicabs around town. The blitz is because numbers for the station are about half of what Proud and company were hoping for.

"We still have some work to do," he says. "We're still nowhere near where we'd like to be."

"The Bob and Tom Show" — based out of Indianapolis and airing in markets around the nation — is struggling in its morning time slot. Proud suspects listeners have had trouble connecting with the program, which debuted back in 1983 but just hit local airwaves a year ago.

"Unless you've been with them a while, it's kind of like jumping on a moving train," he says.

There are, however, some bright spots. Nationally syndicated host Dave Ramsey, heard from 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, brings in the most listeners each day and has been a hit with advertisers, as well. And local host Sean Rima, whose show airs from 4 to 7 p.m., hangs on to a good chunk of Ramsey's fans.

A few changes have already been made, including pulling the plug earlier this year on a midday show helmed by Austin veterans Sammy Allred and Fred Cantu but, for now, no other programming tweaks are planned, Proud says.

104.9 the Horn

Sports are big business for Border, airing on three of the company's Austin frequencies — one FM and two AMs.

The addition of the Horn last year allowed several local programs from Border's ESPN 1590 AM to move to a stronger FM signal, while also clearing the way for some national ESPN shows to finally be heard in Austin. (ESPN's Spanish-language programming can be heard on Border's 1260 AM.)

"The Horn is exploding," Proud says. "It's doing incredibly well from an audience standpoint, and incredibly well from a sales standpoint."

The station, home to the Round Rock Express and Dallas Cowboys, among others, is Border's most profitable in the Austin market, according to Proud. It airs 11 hours of local programming weekdays, including Erin Hogan and Dan Neil from 6 to 10 a.m., Chip Brown and Sean Adams from 1 to 4 p.m. and Geoff Ketchum and Chad Hastings from 4 to 7 p.m.

92.5 the True Oldies Channel

"The station we've done the least work on has the highest ratings," Proud says with a chuckle.

That station is 92.5 the True Oldies Channel. Promotional efforts have been minimal and, since programming is delivered via satellite, there are no local personalities. But that hasn't stopped the mix of tunes from the 1950s to the 1980s from catching on in the Austin marketplace.

Going with oldies — a format not heard in Central Texas for almost a decade — was a bit of a risk, Proud admits. In fact, it almost didn't happen. Other genres were also being looked at, including classic country. But it's a decision the Border team is glad they made.

"It has just gone through the roof," Proud says.

What's next?

Proud, Border's vice president of operations, took on oversight of the company's local stations earlier this year after the departure of Jerry Del Core, the general manager who led last year's format flips. (Del Core recently was named head of KTXL-TV, the Fox affiliate serving Sacramento, Calif.) Though he wasted no time making a number of behind-the-scenes staffing changes, Proud has so far made only minimal tweaks to what goes out over the airwaves.

There's a reason for that.

"As a cluster, we're well ahead of where we could reasonably be expected to be after a year," he says.

La Z fills gap, hits top of Spanish-radio ratings

When Border Media pulled the plug late last year on three stations serving the area's Hispanic community, executives at Emmis Communications saw an opportunity – and a need.

They wasted little time launching 107.1 FM La Z, building the station – the first-ever Spanish-language outlet to be owned by Emmis – around a handful of former Border on-air staffers.

"Border had some very good stations," says Chase Rupe, director of programming and operations for the Austin Emmis stations. "We saw the audience that was being underserved and were able to grab onto something."

With a mix of familiar disc jockeys and familiar tunes, plus a steady presence at community events, La Z has wasted little time building a following.

"In the latest ratings, we're the Number 1 Spanish-language station in the market," Rupe says. "It was definitely a big risk, but with big risks come big rewards."

Around the dial

Tom Allen, who helmed KVET's ‘Country Gold' show until recently, wrote in to offer a few more details on his departure, mentioned in my Oct. 14 column. In his words: ‘I was instructed to play nothing older than 1970. That meant no Hank Williams, no Buck Owens, not even Patsy Cline. Any fool knows you cannot do a true country oldies show and limit airplay to nothing older than 1970. That is ludicrous. I wasn't about to try to pass off that kind of show to my legion of listeners as a true "country gold" show. They're smarter than that and, after all these years of their listenership and loyalty, I certainly owed them more than that. I thought it best to vacate.' ... KUT's ‘The Final Exam: Grading the Bush Years' was honored with a finalist certificate at the New York Festivals 2010 International Radio Programs and Promotion Awards. The hourlong special examining George W. Bush's legacy was produced by Emily Donahue, the station's news director, and hosted by then-Texas Monthly editor-in-chief Evan Smith. This is KUT's seventh New York Festivals award.

gdinges@statesman.com; 912-5987