Radio Beat: Easy listening was just too hard a sell

June 17, 2004

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The sound was uniform and universal: lush string arrangements (almost never with vocals) of popular songs and show tunes, with minimal announcements. The stations called it "beautiful music" or "easy listening"; detractors labeled it elevator or dentist-office music because that's where it was often played in the background.

At one time every major market had at least one beautiful-music station. Some had several. "Seattle had a colorful history in easy listening," says Robert Unmacht a one-time owner of stations in the Northwest and now a consultant with iN3 Partners.

Good luck finding one of those stations today. Radio trade publication M Street Database tracks how the format has nearly disappeared. In 1990 it listed 294 stations playing easy-listening nationally. At the end of 2003, the count was just 18.

In Seattle, the roster of easy-listening stations included KIXI (AM and FM), KEUT-FM (where KMPS-FM is now), KSEA-FM (now KQBZ-FM) and KBRD-FM (now KMTT-FM).

So what happened?

"Radio bailed out of the format overhastily, in many cases," says Tom Taylor, editor in chief of Inside Radio. "It got to be a 'last one turn out the lights' kind of rush, and it definitely left some listeners hanging.

"At the same time, radio managers felt the format was going to become too hard a sell, and they began jumping to new positions, whether relatively close (soft adult-contemporary) or far away (to country or rock). In many cases you could argue smooth jazz became the replacement as the format closest to an all-day listening possibility."

If so, that would provide a historical link in Seattle; smooth-jazz KWJZ-FM (98.9) occupies the dial position once held by KEZX-FM, which in several periods of its existence was an easy-listening station.

Many radio managers dumped easy listening in the chase for younger demographics they thought would be more "sellable" to advertisers, Unmacht says. "Those are the same demos news/talk stations have today." For many the gamble didn't work, Unmacht adds, citing a Washington., D.C., station that turned a market share of 8 to about 1 by dumping easy-listening.

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