Ross On Radio: Intriguing Stations of 2013, Part I

Last year was neatly bookended by a few stations that represented the year in programming. It began with  Cumulus' WNSH (Nash-FM), the station that brought country back to New York radio after more than a decade, but as the flagship of a national programming initiative, something the major groups are more public about than ever. 

The year ended with Clear Channel's KFI Los Angeles moving Rush Limbaugh to a sister station and invoking the "live and local" mantra. It wasn't a group-wide vote for localism from the company behind the national spread of Ryan Seacrest and (this year) Bobby Bones. It wasn't a repudiation of conservative talk -- KFI remains one of that format's most successful proponents, and Limbaugh got a new station replacing a liberal outlet. But suddenly "live and local" wasn't only for the stations that couldn't clear Rush.

Then there was iTunes Radio, launched in September. After years of speculation about when the tech behemoths might buy FM sticks, it was disheartening for broadcasters to think that Apple just waited until they no longer had to. But overall the iTunes Radio launch just seems to reinforce how much more broadcasters know about musical taste than the new guys. Then again, all those Beyoncé albums sold are a reminder of how much sway iTunes has over consumers. And the big radio push is reportedly coming in 2014.

Our annual look at the year's most intriguing stations is never just about the highest-rated outlets, but those that spurred or typified larger radio programming trends. Last year ended with Clear Channel bringing an on-line EDM format to a Boston FM. This year was more typical, led by two gold-based formats that planted their flags in previous years. Superstar DJs can sell out a concert venue before the adults know who they are. But this year belonged, no kidding, to Air Supply and Christopher Cross.

KIFM (Easy 98.1) San Diego, Smooth-FM Melbourne/Sydney -- In recent months, WLYF (Lite 101.5) Miami has gotten its own back from Cox rival WFEZ (Easy 93.1), but not before owner LFG launched its own supersoft AC success story in San Diego. Another Miami PD, Bill Tanner, brought the format to WEZZ (Easy 97.3) Birmingham, Ala. In Australia, the format drove two 2013 success stories. The mini-boom is  being spurred by the modernization of mainstream AC -- a more successful process in some markets than others. And no matter how much adults like top 40 these days, that format is sonically aggressive enough that a few 50-year-olds must have welcomed hearing Daryl Hall & John Oates again.

WBQT (Hot 96.9) Boston; KHTP (Hot 103.7) Seattle -- Rhythmic Hot AC made sense on paper in the mid-'00s, but never took hold. Today, the '90s/'00s gold is more rested. Many pop listeners have lost interest in today's Hip-Hop and R&B. Rhythmic Top 40 has gone more pop. In Boston and Seattle, where traditional Urban AC have never taken hold, the Hot stations fill that hole as well. And there have been several similar launches in recent weeks. One other recent revelation: while '90s/'00s hip-hop is a major calling card, it's Jagged Edge and Aaliyah that remind you how much crossover R&B drove top 40 in that era, and how much it's missed now.

KHKS (Kiss 106.1) Dallas -- The oft-invoked claim of being "the original social network" makes radio sound a little insecure, at best. But radio was indeed always a community and the passing of Kidd Kraddick proved it. How else do you explain a successful station losing a highly-rated morning man and seeing the ratings go up, except that listeners just wanted to gather there? 

KMVQ (Now 99.7) San Francisco -- Now 99.7 isn't the only throwback in the CBS Radio group to the days when PDs and MDs hunted aggressively for new music. KAMP (Amp 97.1) Los Angeles does that, too. But I gravitate to Now for its broader mix of styles. And this year it was proof that breaking music could still be PPM-compliant. Not every song panned out, but it was always the hottest-new-song-in-the-world for at least a week or two.

WKRQ (Q102) Cincinnati, KTCZ (Cities 97) Minneapolis -- The former is a very aggressive Adult Top 40. The latter is a Triple-A that pushed further toward pop over the course of the year. Each was further confirmation that the music of what Sirius XM called the "alt.nation" was really pop music. 

Triple J Australia, KKDO (Radio 94.7) Sacramento, WRDA (Radio 105.7) Atlanta -- Longtime national broadcaster Triple J lost some ground a decade ago when a top 40 rival began playing much of the same music. This year, it was No. 1 in or double digits in some markets and still very alternative in feel. KKDO successfully emphasized current music in a way that had scared other alternative stations, while WRDA showed the sort of support for the format that might be lying dormant in other markets, even with all the new ways to hear alternative music. 

The most intriguing stations of 2013 continues next week with stations from country, hip-hop, oldies/greatest hits, and a few that transcend format.