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Thursday, May 11, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Young, New And Kickin' Country -- A Trio Of Seattle Radio Stations Try To Corral A Larger Herd Of Country-Music Listeners

The sorts of songs you hear on country radio haven't changed a whole lot over the years. You still get the clever refrains and self-deprecating values that have always made it endearing:

Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug.

There are still plenty of 18-wheelers, bar stools and broken hearts. People are still making out in pickup trucks under the moonlight, usually by a river. Alcohol is ever-present, although it appears sobriety is OK, too - to a point:

I sobered up and I got to thinkin': Girl, you ain't much fun since I quit drinkin'.

No, the music hasn't changed much, although every so often you can hear twanging artists cover Beatles songs. What has really changed in the last decade - drastically - is country-radio listenership.

This ain't "Hee-Haw." Forget primer paint on old Chevies.

"Our research shows 50 percent of listeners just started listening to country recently," said Ray Randall, program director of KRPM-FM-AM (106.1, 770). "It's become a mass-appeal format like rock."

Credit an early-1990s explosion of talent. Most noteworthy was the emergence of megastar Garth Brooks.

The popularity of country has mellowed somewhat in the last year, but the genre has scaled a plateau, said Becky Brenner, general program manager of country KMPS-FM-AM (94.1, 1300) and classic-rock KZOK-FM (102.5).

Unlike the last time country got hot, with release of the movie "Urban Cowboy" in 1980, Brenner said, "this time the craze and the growth were based on good artists and great product" - not mere fashion.

Said Eric Logan, program director for KYCW-FM (96.5): "I've never felt more confident about the product out of Nashville as I do now. I don't know why some people say country is over with" as a hot format.

In any event, the boom left country with a bigger core radio audience.

Proof of mass appeal can be found in the spirited battle of three major country-music stations in the Seattle-Tacoma market. KRPM is in the middle of the fight, with monolithic KMPS still reigning but weakened somewhat by the arrival last year of third-place KYCW, which almost never utters those official call letters, calling itself instead simply "Young Country."

Over the last few years, the average percentage share of the Seattle radio audience tuned in to country at any given time has ranged from 11.5 percent to 13.5 percent, according to research by The Arbitron Co. During the last measurement period, the winter quarter, country stations in Seattle drew 12.5 percent of the audience, reaching 783,900 people in an average week.

KMPS had a 5.9 percentage share, KRPM had 3.8 and KYCW had 2.8. The race was tighter among 25- to 54-year-old listeners coveted by advertisers: KMPS 5.9, KRPM 3.8 and KYCW 3.5 percent.

"You've got some powerhouse stations duking it out and some of the brightest programmers in the format working there," said Wade Jessen, Nashville-based director of country charts for Billboard magazine.

Not everyone is convinced the nation's 13th-biggest radio market can support three country stations.

"From a consumer standpoint, it's great," KRPM's Ran

all said of the three-horse race. "But I don't know how long it can last from a business standpoint."

Logan is confident, despite a dip in Young Country's ratings after some growth. "It's a down (ratings) `book' for country in general, and when you're the third guy in, you get hurt," Logan said.

Regardless of its ratings, Young Country's presence has been felt.

For one thing, the arrival of Young Country - a registered trademark and a format used by co-owned stations in San Francisco, Dallas and Detroit - prompted a battle of slogans, with KMPS adopting "New Country" and KRPM, previously known as "K106," calling itself "Kickin' Country."

Do these labels define the music? Not distinctly. Since a good portion of the radio audience is new to country, all three FM stations are playing mostly new material, with nothing older than seven years or so. For older fare, you have to turn to the Country Gold Network on a handful of low-powered AM stations in the area, such as KBLV-AM (1540), KWYZ-AM (1230) and KJUN-AM (1450).

"The God's honest truth is there is very, very little difference between the three (FM) stations musically," said KRPM's Randall. "It's a marketing and imaging battle, really."

Indeed it is. All three stations are spending a bundle on promotion and tweaking their on-air presentations:

-- KMPS reaches the most people but lags the other stations slightly in the measure of average time people spend listening. So KMPS has taken the unusual step of playing commercials only once an hour (except for morning drive time), which means a long sweep of music - but a long commercial break, too.

"We wanted basically to clean up the clutter," said Brenner. "We wanted to be music-focused."

Meanwhile, KMPS has grown a 180,000-person "Loyal Listener Club" whose members get a magazine and membership-card specials at sponsors.

-- KRPM last year lured away popular morning DJ Ichabod Caine from KMPS and has hired a new midday personality, Ellis Feaster, who had been doing mornings in Orlando, Fla.

While KRPM, too, intends to focus on music, "we're going to be a little higher-profile personality than any of us were doing before" Young Country came to town, Randall said.

-- Music is somewhat incidental at Young Country, where DJ chatter, listener phone calls, community involvement and a healthy dose of whimsy define KYCW.

On Monday, the station will begin a contest to give away $96,500 to a single person who answers the phone correctly. (Coincidentally, a new ratings service, AccuRatings, has come to town, and the research is done by phone.)

From their distinctive echo chamber, Young Country's DJs talk often - and about almost anything but country music. This week listeners called in their thoughts and experiences on everything from child safety and the Legislature to sexual relations and flatulence.

"We absolutely love to break the rules," said Young Country's Logan, who is, well, young (24) for a big-city program director. "We have a `liner' on the air that says, `They said it couldn't be done - so we shot them.' "

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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