Thursday, February 26, 2009

Indie 103.1's Former Program Director Gives a Post-Mortem

Max Tolkoff joined Indie 103.1 in April 2007 as program director, brought on board to help drive up listenership for the underdog alternative station. The Huffington Post recently asked him to write up his take on the critical success and commercial failure of Indie 103.1, and what eventually led to the station's demise. Some excerpts:

It's entirely possible we will never experience this type of radio again in our lifetime.

Trust me, there are no lessons here. No moral to a sad story. It's pretty much business as usual for radio as practiced in the United States of America today. It boils down to: formats that make money stay; formats that lose money go away...

By [the time Clear Channel, which originally launched the station as a joint sales agreement with Entravision, dropped out of the deal in 2005] there were now 18, yes, eighteen specialty shows on the station. The music was, to say the least, eclectic. It was hard to believe this was an actual commercial station and not NPR, or college radio. Perhaps you're beginning to guess where this story is headed. It was just too much for the average listener. A plethora of riches that appealed to the very few, and the very hip. After the initial check-out people went away and did not come back. The station was too difficult to listen to for long periods of time. Too unfamiliar. At times even difficult to pin down what the station actually was due to too many specialty shows clogging up the format...

it's all a question of balance, right? And INDIE was seriously out of balance. Koyaanisqatsi baby. No doubt about it. And I could see the clock on the wall. I entered into this arrangement with my eyes wide open. That clock was ticking loudly, and we all knew it. But [station manager Dawn Girocco] was still making money and Entravision left us alone.

And then...the first sign of the apocalypse. July 2008. Arbitron schedules a meeting at Entravision to present to the company the first "pre-currency" PPM numbers for Los Angeles. They came with a Power Point slide show breaking down the numbers for all the Spanish stations, and INDIE. And what did we see when we looked at the whole market? Essentially payday for KROQ and STAR 98.7 (which by this time had shifted to a format I can only roughly describe as "Let's-Play-All-The-Best-Testing-Songs-From-KROQ's-Library-With-A-Few-Random-Currents-Thrown-In-Just-For-Grins". Pre-PPM Star was tracking at about a 1.6 12+. PPM? 3.2. KROQ was similarly elevated back to through-the-roof status.

INDIE? Suck it ass-wipes. Yer in the friggin basement. 12+ we were at a 0.3 in PPM world. We used to be 0.5 in the old Arbitron paper diary world. As far as rating point, which is all sales cares about anyway, we were at a nose-bleed inducing 0.0. Yes, you read correctly.

The writing was on the wall the moment station manager Girocco -- who, Tolkoff notes, was able to make it "rain money" -- departed for a job at the Los Angeles Times. There was a period of time where Girocco was bringing in so much cash that Entravision left its weird little English-language alternative station alone. But PPMs made it tougher for Girocco to find that money -- and once Girocco was gone, the station became a drain for its owner.

Nonetheless, Tolkoff held out hope that the station could be saved: "We had been cleaning up our act. We moved specialty shows either out or someplace harmless. The music was more familiar and balanced with the right currents. The PPM numbers since July had been creeping back up. Autumn seemed full of promise."

Then the economy collapsed. The rest is history: Entravision flipped Indie to the Spanish-language "El Gato" on Jan. 15. And so far, the ratings are up.

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