Monday, Oct 03 2011 07:03 PM

Bakersfield gets new rock radio station

BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer

Buck Owens Production Co. launched a new rock station in Bakersfield on Thursday, hoping to woo and maintain a loyal following of listeners in their 30s and early 40s.

KRJK 97.3 FM officially went on the air at 3 p.m. Thursday. It is one of 49 so-called JACKFM stations nationwide that play rock and pop music primarily from the 1980s, although the 1,800-song playlist goes all the way from the 1960s to the 2000s. There are no local disc jockeys on the station, whose programming and branding is licensed and marketed by Canadian company SparkNet Communications.

Buck Owens CEO Mel Owens said Monday he likes local disc jockeys and wouldn't rule out adding one in the future, but for the moment JACKFM will customize the station during breaks with local content such as area activities.

"The disc jockeys aren't the focal point of the JACKFM format," Owens said. "It's the music that they focus on."

Buck Owens paid $242,000 for the 97.3 FM frequency licensed to Lamont at a Federal Communications Commission auction. Nothing was playing locally at that frequency prior to Thursday.

Buck Owens, named for the legendary country and western icon who founded the company, had previously been firmly aligned with country music.

The company owns KUZZ 5500 AM and 107.9 FM; as well as KCWR 107.1 FM.

Buck Owens hired a research company to study gaps in the Bakersfield market, and that study concluded adults ages 30 to 45 were not well served in Bakersfield, Owens said.

That's why JACKFM will make it even as other local radio stations are struggling to maintain advertisers in an economic downturn, he insisted.

"There's a hole here," he said.

According to the latest data from Arbitron, hip hop and R&B station KISV 94.1 FM leads the market, followed by country station KUZZ-FM and KBFP-FM, which plays Spanish adult hits.

The top rock station in the market is alternative station KRAB at 106.1 FM.

JACKFM isn't the market's first stab at an adult hits format. American General Media tried Pirate Radio at 93.1 from 2005 to 2009. That frequency is now home to a pop and dance music station that skews younger.

JACKFM will be more successful than Pirate Radio because it has a larger and more diverse play list, Owens said.

Holland Cooke, owner of Holland Cooke Media, is a Rhode Island-based radio consultant who follows the industry closely.

JACKFM started in Canada, where radio is more highly regulated and oldies stations are not allowed on FM.

"It was a back door way to get oldies on Canadian FM radio," Cooke said. "So of course it worked there, and next thing you know there were all these JACKFM stations sprouting up all over the United States.

"Radio is a monkey see, monkey do industry. Nobody wants to be first to try something. Stations like to mimic what works in other markets."

The format is "radio's attempt to (imitate) the iPod because it shuffles for you," Cooke said. "It calls itself eclectic. In fact that was even part of their marketing for a while: 'There's nothing to sync up and nothing to download.' It sounded defensive."

A spokesman for SparkNet did not return a telephone call requesting an interview.

Cooke said it will be interesting to see how radio evolves as it fends off competition from Internet and satellite radio. Online music channel Pandora is getting a lot of attention, but Cooke isn't as enamored with it as some.

Despite a lot of noise about radio being obsolete, 93 percent of Americans age 12 and older listen to radio every week, Cooke said.

"That sometimes gets taken for granted," he said.

Radio is going to be around a while, Cooke said. Stations will just have to find formats that help them compete with new technologies, hence experimentation with multi-genre music stations, and even talk radio on FM.

"News talk was what saved AM radio when FM was taking over, and it may be what saves FM radio," Cooke said.

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