KHAR Format Change Irks Listeners

It seems there is one more casualty in the media wars. Anchorage’s old time music station, KHAR went through an abrupt, and unannounced, program format change early this month, much to the chagrin of its loyal listeners.  The incident only serves to highlight the realities of a rapidly changing industry and the challenges posed by tough economic times.

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 Some Anchorage area radio listeners were shocked earlier this month, when an easy listening music station abruptly changed it’s format without warning. Some KHAR listeners went to bed to the romantic strains of Frank Sinatra,  and woke to sports jocks’ high decibel early morning rants, and now fans of the old music format are vetting their frustration through letters — many, many, letters —to the Anchorage Daily News.

KHAR program director Joe Campbell made the decision to change.

“It was simply done because of revenue and ratings. We have been on the air with this format for an awful lot of years and I have watched consistently, year after year after year as the ratings have gone down, which has really hampered us from gaining any kind of a foothold in the market monetarily and from getting the advertising dollars we need to keep the lights on. So without the folks showing up to listen in, you just can’t keep the station on indefinitely. “

But the Heart in KHAR is probably broken right now. Campbell admits that the station’s operators did not give it’s listeners a heads up, for several reasons, but mainly not to warn the competition.

 “So we don’t want to kind of give them a clue as to what we were doing, and the ink wasn’t dry on the contract to secure CBS Sports Radio until just a couple of days before it came on on May 1. And you also don’t want to have your advertisers taken by surprise, so you kinda need to give your sales department enough time to go out and see those folks before the change happens and before you start announcing it. It gives us the competitive edge to kinda go and discuss the new format and hopefully secure those folks to stay on the radio station. “

 A flood of letters to the editor of the Anchorage Daily News tells a different story. For three weeks now, the newspaper has printed at least one, and sometimes up to four, a day from KHAR listeners protesting the change.

Campbell says the letters only prove his point.. a handful of older listeners are complaining, not the younger demographic that KHAR’s owners want to attract

 “The folks emailing in to us, the phone calls we would normally get in making any kind of change on one of these radio stations would garner hundreds of people calling in to the station immediately to complain, and you kind of see it in a much more immediate fashion than just folks who have written in a letter to the editor. And I frankly got to question why they are continuing to print so many of them, it makes me wonder that there is nothing else going on in town. “

 But Frank Gerjevic,  opinion page editor for the Anchorage Daily News, says the letters reflect what the community is interested in:

 “Well, we are not trying to get at anybody. This is a matter of running the letters that we get, and there are more letters about KHAR than any other subject. This is not a matter of our deciding to choose a subject, this is a matter of what we are getting, what people are writing in to us. “

 In the past week alone, the Anchorage Daily News has printed 12 letters protesting the change. Gerjevic says they just keep coming

 “We haven’t printed them all, I probably printed most of them. I don’t have a count, but what we have had is a steady stream of letters since the change in format. You know, I get a couple a day, by and large, ever since the first one, which was shortly after the change.”

 Campbell fires back that if the number of letters printed was multiplied by one hundred, the number would not represent enough people to keep a radio station on air. Campbell compliments fans of KHAR’s old format for the Time Spent Listening – an important indicator of a station’s health

 “It could easily be said the KHAR’s passionate listeners essentially broke the knob off their radios and that’s what the listened to 24-7.”

 But, he says, there just isn’t enough of them to notch up the stations’ Arbitron ratings. He defends the move, and says it won’t be reversed. Under the old format, the advertising was not only just not there, what advertising there was was aimed at a specific audience

 “If you had been a passionate listener to the radio station over the last six to eight months, you will have noticed that a lot of the local advertising that you hear on other radio stations had started to disappear off of KHAR and we were starting to get down to two very specific product lines. We were advertising for funeral homes and crematories, were the advertising dollars that we were able to attract to the radio station, and I actually was getting complaint calls from people saying ‘please stop reminding me that I am going to die every time you go to commercial break. ‘”

 He says KHAR advertisers are welcoming the new format, because it attracts a younger audience.

 Frank Gerjevic says, in a way, KHAR and Anchorage Daily News have a lot in common.

 “It’s no secret that newspapers have been struggling, and so I’m beginning to think well, let’s see, KHAR easy listening format listeners were probably older Alaskans for the most part, and it’s said that it’s older Alaskans who remain loyal newspaper readers. There’s a definite, you know, some link there I think, in that those are the folks that are writing in and saying ‘ hey we want our station back. ‘ I’m guessing that those are also people who still have the newspaper habit. “

 And Campbell couldn’t agree more:

 “That’s not the audience that I’m going after with this sports radio format. I’m going after the many thousands of other people who haven’t been listening to KHAR is what I’m really after this time. “