Sunday, July 18, 1999 | 9:53 a.m.
To take a step forward, KSFN 1140-AM is taking several steps back -- in a figurative sense, at least.
Way back to the days when patriotism was high, Elvis was thin and something as simple as a transistor radio was all it took to make a young boy happy.
Hoping to breathe life back into a ***station so dead it didn't even make the Arbitron Co.'s ratings chart in recent years, KSFN has ditched its sports format for what it's calling "Cruisin' Oldies" -- American-made hits from 1955-63 -- *** on the AM dial, marking a return to the radio band where rock 'n' roll began.
"Angel Eyes." "Blue Suede Shoes." "Only You." All of it feel-good, doo-woppin' tunes, 24 hours a day.
Its niche is obvious -- the 40- to 60-year olds, the baby boomers who warmly remember "rockin' around the clock" as they inch today toward the top of their earning power and represent at least a third of Clark County's residents.
The format brings a sound to the valley no one else is exclusively playing, a genre comfortably wedged between the selections heard on KJUL 104.3-FM (Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Glenn Miller) and KQOL 93.1-FM, which plays mostly the later oldies (Herman's Hermits, The Beatles, Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago).
Yet another edge: "Cruisin' Oldies" hit the airwaves July 2 as the only English music station available on an AM dial rich in options for news, sports and ethnic programming for Las Vegas listeners.
Success in commercial radio hinges on capturing and keeping an audience. Can a limited-format AM music station win in an FM-dominant market?
Based on the faxes, calls and notes trickling into the station the past two weeks from new 1140 fans, Alan Gray is all smiles.
"We've had a great response," Gray, the station's general manager, said. "We've started putting some of them on the air. People love this type of oldies. The change has really given us back what we expected."
Most fans of the new format fall within the target age group, Gray said. Some are transplanted East Coasters, many from New York, where doo-wop was big. At least one fan works for another local station.
That's not why Gray is smiling, though; rather, it's the simple fact that someone is listening because no one seemed to be listening to sports, he said. Gray's forte in radio is turning failing stations around.
It'll be a few more months before Arbitron's next *** quarterly ratings list comes out and the station can get an idea of how many people are tuning in.
"We're not trying to keep the station alive, we're trying to make it alive," Gray said. "When it doesn't show up in the rating book, that's pretty bad right there."
There indeed was a day when 1140 AM did rate, in the '70s and mid-'80s when its call letters were KMJJ and the format was adult contemporary. It became "The Crusher" in 1987 -- the first hardcore, all-heavy metal station in the country.
Three years later, heavy metal was out and the station began broadcasting a simulcast of KLUC-FM 98.5, its sister station. By 1993, the AM frequency became "Casino Radio" -- a veritable Las Vegas infomercial, running a two-hour loop of headliner updates about entertainers and lounge acts mixed in with local trivia.
American Radio Systems bought 1140-AM and KLUC in 1996, turning the AM station into KSFN ("The Fan") sports radio.
Try as it might, though, KSFN couldn't swing it. What interest it was able to generate by airing UNLV's baseball and women's basketball live, along with Oakland Raiders and Notre Dame football games, Phoenix Suns basketball games and Arizona Diamondback baseball games, wasn't enough to keep listeners.
Of the 29 signals in the Las Vegas market, only 22 apparently had enough listeners to be counted by Arbitron's syndicated service, which monitors radio listenership. KSFN wasn't one of them, but its sports radio competition was. Granted, it represented a small share of the entire Las Vegas market, but KBAD 920-AM rated the 22nd most popular station, and KENO 1460-AM, the 19th.
"The other two sports stations had all the quality programming," Gray said. "The change we made (to music) was an economics move, primarily."
That, and the fact that Gray felt confident the oldies theme was ripe.
"The era we're playing music from was a very good time for this country, and the memories for most people are pretty good," Gray said. "We stop at about Kennedy's assassination. That, plus Vietnam, signaled a change."
Gray said oldies stations today are moving away from the late-'50s/early-'60s music to bring their age bracket down and appeal to a younger crowd -- the twentysomethings who advertisers see as the more desirable consumer because they'll likely be living longer and therefore buying more than baby boomers.
"I believe there's a need for this music," Gray said. "It represents a time in this country when people believed in patriotism. There was a time after WWII, after Korea, when Ike was in office. People didn't lock their doors.
"A lot of movies and (TV) shows have depicted that era. 'Peggy Sue Got Married,' 'Happy Days' -- if you watch those things and you're not from that era, you probably think it's make-believe. But it really isn't -- that's the way things were then."
The music's appeal aside, the change surprises Adam Jacobsen, radio editor for the trade publication Radio and Records, based in Los Angeles.
"There is very little AM listening in Las Vegas in proportion to the FM. Very rarely do you see AM stations flipping *** to a music format; it's usually from," Jacobsen said. "It is very difficult to bring listening to the AM dial."
Even in Seattle, Wash., where an oldies station consistently rates at the top of the popularity charts in a fiercely competitive market with more than 50 radio stations, it's aired on an AM-FM combine -- meaning the same music is simulcast on both stations. An estimated 95 percent of their listeners, officials say, are on the FM side.
"Oldies stations do very well around the country, though mostly in the FM band," Steve Reeder, a longtime radio man, said. "It's an extremely popular format. In terms of pop rock oldies of the mid-'50s through the mid-'60s, though, that's pretty rare."
Reeder worked abroad for National Public Radio and CBS, spent nine years at a station in Chicago and currently works in Seattle as host and producer for Classic KING 93.1-FM, and news anchor for the local CBS affiliate.
"The bottom line: Putting any kind of music format on AM is a long shot," Reeder said. "But by defining an audience and a format that's otherwise not being served, it makes sense to me, at least in the abstract."
Another advantage Reeder pointed out -- 1140's dial location. Studies have demonstrated that the best homes are typically in the middle of the dial, neither buried on low end in the 500s or 600s, or the spectrum's high end in the 1400s or 1500s.
AM, FM, dial position, skepticism -- none of it matters to those who care about music.
"My lord, it's about time!" rhythm and blues legend Ruth Brown said.
Brown, who's been living in Las Vegas off and on since the Moulin Rouge hotel-casino opened in the '50s, said she's been troubled by the previous gap in music choices offered in the valley that KSFN is trying to fill.
"Usually the radio stations say, 'We're going to play some of the oldies-but-goodies, and they start in the '70s," Brown said. "As far as I'm concerned, that was the Motown era. Oldies-but-goodies began in the late '40s and into the '50s."
The era Brown speaks of were the years she became a household name with a long list of hits that included "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean," "5-10-15 Hours" and "Teardrops from My Eyes."
Brown toured and shared the stage with legends such as Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Little Richard and Count Basie, and was the friend Sam Cooke turned to when he chose to leave gospel for R&B.
"No matter when you pull it up, that music is viable because you've got a straight melody, you can remember the lyrics, it's a poignant beat and it's danceable," Brown said. "I'm getting to be 72 years old and I've been going up on stages for over 50 years now. ... Every now and then the legs feel a little tight. Until the music starts. Wonderful things happen when the music starts!"
Cat Thomas, "Cruisin' Oldies" program director, says 1140 will still air the Diamondback games, for which it holds broadcast rights, and expects that some of those fans will carry over to the oldies music.
Little will be happening in the near future, advertising-wise, until the station establishes a budget. It's accomplishing the lowest overhead possible by automating the programming: All selections are done by computer.
The music heard on 1140 was taken from Gray's personal inventory, collected years ago when he owned an oldies station in Ohio.
"Winning is a relative term," Thomas said. "If we can get people and we can serve the listeners who have an appetite for this type of music, we're succeeding."
Having hit rock bottom with its previous sports programming, Thomas added that it will definitely be an uphill battle, but "failing is not an option."
"We're going to do well with this new format, draw some listeners and have a little fun."