If you want to listen to new, guitar-driven rock on the radio in Kansas City, you have two other options: You can turn your dial to KQRC 98.9 The Rock, which is Entercom’s best-performing station in the market -- it’s been in second place since August ratings -- and plays active rock, a catchall format for new and classic rock, with an emphasis on the harder stuff.
Or you can go to The Buzz’s direct rival. Cumulus Media, Entercom’s closest competitor, introduced its own alternative station to the market in 2015. “Kansas City rock fans have been asking for a true alternative station for years,” went Cumulus’ announcement, indirectly attacking The Buzz. That station, now called KCJK X105.1, consistently rates below The Buzz, but it still draws listeners who’d otherwise all flock to one major alternative station.
To be competitive, Sands, the former San Francisco PD, says alternative stations need “to be more experimental, take more and bigger chances and be hyper-local focused,” all of which is how the Buzz first made its name. Hartzell is confident The Buzz can weather fluctuating ratings by doing more or less what it’s been doing: Keeping a list of about 60 currents, where some stations have less than 10, and having hosts who actually talk, compared to what he calls “iPod DJs” who just introduce songs. He thinks people want to hear real people playing new music. Streaming and other stations don’t provide that full experience. “At the end of the day, we have all these different options,” he says, “but sometimes the easiest route is just to turn up the volume because the radio's already on.”
That becomes difficult, though, when the station itself goes through changes. In early August, Afentra learned her contract had not been renewed. Since 2003 -- barring a brief stint in Seattle with Lazlo, whom she was married to at the time -- her loud, raspy voice and sometimes disorganized show had polarized listeners. After her exit, some fans wrote online that they’d stop listening, and others said they’d finally tune back into the morning show. (Reasons for her departure have not been made public; Afentra and Entercom didn’t respond to interview requests.) Still, she had a loyal following -- she won “best local radio personality” in alt-weekly The Pitch’s annual Best of Kansas City awards this year -- and she was certainly part of The Buzz’s identity, supporting Buzz-broken bands like Glass Animals and Awolnation and freely playing whatever she wanted.
The Buzz’s first major lineup change in almost a decade sent a shock through the station. Her co-host Danny fought back tears as he said on-air, “It’s like I lost an arm and a leg.” Slimfast, however, says her long tenure at The Buzz was the exception, not the rule. In radio, it’s common to change markets or stations every few years -- industry veterans often tell new DJs to always rent, never buy. “Something happened here,” he says. “A few of us got lucky enough to stay in the same place.”
In September, Entertcom added Jordin Silver, who had hosted evenings on The End in Seattle when Lazlo was there, for a new morning show, “Jordin Silver and Friends.” Entercom’s market manager said Silver would “provide our listeners with a fresh show” in the announcement. Since her arrival, she’s comfortably settled in during mornings, and listeners seem to have taken to her. Her program, though, with its games and news commentary, resembles a more traditional morning show than “Morning Buzz” did. (Silver has said she and her team plan the show on Trello, and it’s hard to imagine Afentra ever having that much structure.) It’s a slight shift toward convention from a station that has long valued the unconventional.
The fact that Afentra’s departure came a few days after the downsized, single-day Beach Buzz only added to the feeling that The Buzz was in flux. Many fans worried the slimmer lineup was a bad sign. Buzz concerts and events are such an integral part of how The Buzz exercises its influence; if lineups shrink, what does that mean for the station? The answer, according to Smith, the booker who works on these shows, is not much. “You want to do quality over quantity,” he says. “The alternative crowd is very, very supportive on stuff, but I want to make sure it's unique.” It’s also true that the talent pool varies year-to-year: Some of the biggest alternative acts of 2018 -- Arctic Monkeys, the 1975, Florence + the Machine -- are arena-sized acts, hardly fit to play the middle of a festival or headline a theater.