Friday 09 Dec 2016

KISS of Death
Matt Seinberg

In this era of radio broadcasting, it’s usual for a station to change formats once a year or every two-five years. What is unusual is for a so-called “heritage” station to change formats, if it’s still doing ok in the ratings.

A heritage station is one that has had the same format, in my opinion, for more than ten years. That doesn’t mean all the air personalities have remained the same. For any personality to stay in one spot for more than a couple of years today is unusual.

On 26 April 2012, Emmis Broadcasting announced that it was leasing 98.7 FM to Disney/ESPN, so the latter can move WEPN-AM and its sports format. A couple of months after that, 1050 AM, would become ESPN Desportes, its Spanish sports station.

Emmis then sold, to the new YMF Broadcasting, all the intellectual property rights to WRKS/KISS New York City, for $10 million dollars, and "merged" KISS with WBLS-FM. In addition, two full time KISS DJs, Shaila and Lenny Green would move to WBLS.

Let’s take a quick look back at 98.7 FM, in New York City. It started on 1 November 1943, when W71NY became WBAM-FM. On 13 June 1948, WBAM-FM became WOR-FM, which simulcast WOR-AM.

In 1966, the FCC ruled that AM stations could no longer simulcast on their FM signals in large markets. Thus, it was a big deal on 30 July 1966, when WOR-FM brought rock and roll to the FM dial. Early DJs included the late Scott Muni, Murray the K, Johnny Michaels and Rosko. Although WOR-FM played much of the same music, as did WABC-AM, its DJs weren't as aggressive as, say, "Cousin Brucie," on WABC-AM. WOR-FM became the predecessor of the progressive rock format.

The format lasted about year, on WOR-FM, until the Drake formatted “Big Town Sound” debuted on 4 November 1967. All the former DJs were gone, replaced by Hal Mitchell, Sebastian Stone, Tony Taylor, Steve Clark, Bob Elliott, Jim O’Brian, the late Charlie O’Donnell, who was the “Wheel Of Fortune” announcer, and the late Bill Brown. Some of the other DJs to pass through WOR-FM included Sean Casey, Al Brady, Johnny Donovan, Joe McCoy, Mark Driscoll and Rick Shaw.

That all changed, again, on 23 October 1972, when the WOR-FM call letters changed to the now famous WXLO-FM, which eventually became “99X.” It was sometime in 1973 when I was introduced to 99X by a bunch of friends and I became hooked on FM. Goodbye AM radio, stereo sounded so good!

I remember listening to Dave Thomson, Walt “Baby” Love, Steve “Smokin'” Weed, I didn’t get the joke at the time, Terry Nelson and the late Ron O’Brien. In 1976, when I was just getting out of high school, and entering college that they had what I consider the best DJ line-up ever. That’s when my interest in radio really peaked and I wanted to be one of them.

Doing mornings from 6 am to 10 am was Terry Nelson, followed by Program Director Lee Douglas doing 10 am to 2 pm. Steve “Smokin” Weed did the high energy 2pm to 6 pm shift; Paulie did 10 pm to 2 am and Dick Sloane did 2 am to 6 am. At one time or another, Sloane did every shift on the station. The utility player and all around weekend jock was Bobby Messina.

That line-up lasted for about a year, when Jay Thomas arrived to do mornings. That pushed Terry Nelson to afternoons and Steve Weed out. Lee Douglas was also out as PD, replaced by Bill Garcia. Now covering mid-days was Glen Morgan and Dave Collins and the station hired Ed O’Brien to do nights.

In 1978, Bobby Rich came from KFMB-FM/B100, in San Diego, to be the new PD. My hopes were high for the station, since B100 was high energy, kick ass, personality driven Top 40 station. My friend and first radio sister Sue O’Neal arrived from Cleveland in March to take over nights, just as the station was transitioning to a more Adult Contemporary format.

By 1979, the station dropped the famous 99X moniker, and became the more adult friendly FM99 WXLO. The death knell of WXLO came on July 31, 1981 when they changed to an Urban Contemporary format and the next day WRKS-FM/KISS was born.

One of my air check friends, Frank Williams, is in Dallas, TX. He asked me and two other friends to record the last days of KISS-FM. I asked him if he knew anyone that could give me some information about the station, from a “super fan” point of view and he hooked me up with Brian Asberry, in Stamford, CT.

Asberry grew up in Connecticut and often traveled to Brooklyn, NY to visit his grandmother. He told me he would sit for hours in her house listening, and recording KISS-FM. So we did a quick question and answer session, and he had some great things to say about the station.

Matt Seinberg (MS): Who were some of the early air personalities on KISS-FM (1980s)?

Brian Asberry (BA): Yvonne Mobley, sometimes night host, the First Lady of KISS-FM, in the 1980s. She was smooth, sexy and articulate. The late Mary Thomas, a Black sounding White female with a perky personality, Charlie Berger, a white guy with a powerful voice, Ken "Spider" Webb, a legendary morning guy who later worked at WBLS-FM. KISS-FM air personalities were called sophistiblack. They were articulate with no street talk.

MS: What separated KISS-FM from WBLS-FM?

BA: KISS-FM played many songs popular in NYC Nightclubs, in the 1980s. Songs played in Nightclubs, such as the Paradise Garage (NYC), Bentleys (NYC), Silver Shadow (NYC) and Zanzibar (Newark, NJ). Club DJ Tony Humphries was the Resident DJ at Club Zanzibar in Newark. He was also the Friday/Saturday Club Mixer on KISS-FM.

Humphries would play Club songs from small and Independent record labels. Many of these songs aired only on KISS-FM and in the NYC and NJ nightclubs. Black radio stations in Philly, DC and Baltimore wouldn’t touch those songs. Some blacks from DC and Philly would come to NYC for the weekends and record KISS-FM for two days. They would go back and pass out the cassettes to friends and family.

MS: Did Rap Music get a lot of play on KISS-FM?

BA: Yes it did. The two main Rap/Hip-Hop DJs are now legendary in the Hip-Hop community. DJs Red Alert and Chuck Chillout started out in the 1970s. Kiss hired them in the early 1980s. They played Kiss on Friday and Saturday nights. They also played in Hip-Hop nightclubs in NYC. They would break new Rap music during the weekend Mix Shows. Some of those rap songs would end up in regular rotation on KISS-FM.

MS: Did Kiss have any Public Affairs Programming?

BA: Yes, two Sunday Shows, "Open Line," Sunday Mornings-10am to noon, and "The Weekend Review," on Sunday nights from 11:00 pm to midnight. "Review" is hosted by Bob Slade, who's has been with KISS-FM since the start. He also had a few sidekicks, James Mtume and Bob Pickett. I loved both shows. The Black community came to talk about pressing issues in the community, such as Sean Bell, Obama, Trayvon Martin and so forth. The shows started in the early 1990s. Al Sharpton had a Talk Show on Sunday Nights from 9 pm to 10 pm.

MS: How was the changeover from Urban Mainstream to Urban AC in 1993/1994?

BA: It was nice. Many women and men, who grew up on KISS-FM, had gotten a little older. The 1970s and 1980s R&B was a nice change. If they wanted to hear the Rap stuff, you could go over to Emmis sister station Hot 97.

MS: What has the music been like on Kiss recently (past few years)?

BA: Terrible, KISS-FM seems lost. Some of the 1970s R&B KISS-FM, which started playing when the station made the changeover from Urban to Urban AC, are still being played today; more than a little wear and tear: the same old 1970s or 1980s songs, repeatedly. A lot of the R&B has an old southern sound. They ignored much of the music, which made KISS-FM famous, back in the 1980s. The last PD, Jay Dixon, started adding those old KISS-FM Club Songs into regular rotation in January. After he did that, the stations ratings went up to a 3.7/3.8, in the last few months. Many of my friends would not listen to KISS-FM because it was too heavy on 1970s Gladys Knight and the O’Jays. There wasn't enough New York music.

Here’s a quick look of how KISS-FM changed formats. In 1994, it became a Gold Based Urban AC. In 1999, the stated changed to Hot Urban AC. Most recently, as Asberry stated, it was becoming more reliant on music from the 1980s.

Another reason the ratings fell was how the Arbitron calculates ratings, now. Previously, people filled-out diaries, which they mailed back to Arbitron. When Portable People Meters (PPM) appeared, in 2008, most urban and ethnic oriented stations plunged in the ratings under the new PPM method.

Many sports, news and talk stations across the country are migrating from AM to FM, just as music stations left AM in the 1970s for FM. The AM band today is a virtual wasteland of syndicated talk shows, with hardly any live and local hosts.

What is to become of FM? Are we going to lose any more music stations because people are listening to satellite radio, Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody and their iPods?

Being a heritage radio station doesn’t mean anything, anymore. If the station doesn’t produce ratings and revenue, kiss it goodbye.

As the Manhattans sing, “We’ve been meeting here so long, I guess what we done, oh was wrong. Please darlin’ don’t you cry, let’s just KISS and say goodbye.” The End.

Matt Seinberg lives on Long Island, a few minutes east of New York City. He looks at everything around him and notices much. Somewhat less cynical than dyed in the wool New Yorkers, Seinberg believes those who don't see what he does like reading about what he sees and what it means to him. Seinberg columns revel in the silly little things of life and laughter as well as much well-directed anger at inept, foolish public officials. Mostly, Seinberg writes for those who laugh easily at their own foibles as well as those of others.

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