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Country contenders: KDDK poses first real threat to KSSN's solid grip.

A WOODEN TREASURE chest with memorabilia from KSSN-FM, 95.7, sits in the radio station's reception area.

Late one afternoon last week a KSSN employee rummaged through the chest looking for suitable door prizes for "something going on out at BJ's," as in BJ's Star Studded Honky Tonk.

The employee yawned and mumbled as she conducted her search. It appeared to be just a routine part of her day.

But at KDDK-FM, 100.3, public appearances still generate excitement.

It's the difference between the established country king and the up-and-coming country contender.

The almost-1-year-old KDDK, known as "The Duck," has to keep ordering new duck costumes for events it wants to cover. Four costumes now are in use, but those may not be enough.

No one seemed prepared for how quickly KDDK would succeed. A string of stations has attempted to gain part of the country share of the radio audience in central Arkansas, but KSSN has consecutively been the No. 1 station since 1985.

"Here's another one to come along and try," was the reaction of Jay Werth, KSSN vice president and general manager, when KDDK went on the air last July.

Although Werth says he didn't underestimate KDDK, he says, "I'm surprised that they came on as strong as they did."

When KDDK General Manager Wally Tucker predicted the station would have a 7 or 8 share by this year, his general sales manager, Stephanie Sherwin, warned him about making bold predictions. A seven share means seven percent of radio listeners in a market area.

The last area FM station to attempt a country format was KXIX-FM, 102.9, and the highest share it had before it went off the air last summer was a 3.6.

But in the Winter 1993 Arbitron rating, KDDK showed an 8.5 share of the 12-and-older demographic. Meanwhile, KSSN saw a 7.3 drop to 18.4

That has led to the question: Is KSSN doing something wrong or is KDDK just the first competitor to do something right?

In any country station's favor is the format's popularity.

Country stations account for 27 percent of all stations nationwide. So far in 1993, the country format is leading radio revenue growth with sales up 17 percent. Overall, the radio market is up only 9 percent.

"Country is cool," Sherwin says. "It's not your father's Oldsmobile."

That means a younger-than-ever audience is listening to country.

And that's where Tucker knew he could make an inroad.

"They were real targeted," Werth says. "That's a good thing they did."

But Werth also says that because KDDK is playing more upbeat tempos, it may be restricted to a shorter play list, whereas KSSN can play some of the slower, still-popular country ballads.

"We didn't want to go head-on with KSSN," Tucker says of his more narrow demographic. Besides, he says, the younger audience "will grow up with us."

And KSSN's attempt to be everything to everybody may be vulnerable.

The country market share has grown considerably since KDDK went on air, but KSSN's share also has dropped.

In Winter 1992, KSSN had an all-time-high 25.7 share of the 12-plus demographic, before falling to 18.4 a year later.

Werth maintains, "It doesn't worry me a bit."

Decidedly Different

Wally Tucker and Jay Werth at least physically appear to be different sorts of general managers.

Tucker usually wears a sweater over his tie, has a smile on his face and is quick to tell a duck joke.

Werth more often is dressed for success in a snappy outfit, right down to shiny shoes, and is more reserved and less vivacious when discussing his station.

These days, one might also sense a defensive strain when Werth lists the reasons to support his assertion that KSSN is doing just fine.

KSSN's niche is the all-important 25-54 demographic, which "some demographers have not described as a niche," Werth says, "but a family reunion."

Werth concedes ratings have been off a bit, but he says the station "is still where we want to be -- it's still No. 1."

One of the station's only on-air changes since the advent of KDDK is it now offers 40-minute "music marathons." Werth also says a key to KSSN's success is its edge in variety.

But Tucker and Sherwin say plenty of room exists for at least two country stations to be financially successful.

"It's not necessarily an either-or situation," Sherwin says.

"I'm not sure you should go one over the other, either," Tucker says.

"We have a lot of advertisers that we share with KSSN," Sherwin says. "They realize that we have created a whole new country audience."

Werth agrees that advertising revenues at both stations are robust.

"I don't know if we can say if |the~ Duck wasn't around we'd be billing X amount more," says Paul Massey, KSSN sales manager.

He adds, "There's going to be two country music stations in the market. It's just a forgone conclusion."

In 1991, KSSN billed an estimated $4.5 million. That increased to near $4.7 million last year, and Massey says sales are ahead for this year.

Tucker, who owned KEZQ-FM when it was on the 100.3 frequency, enjoyed being fourth in the market with billings of $1.1 million-$1.2 million.

He was willing to give that up, though, for the potential of better billings with a country format.

KDDK, which last year billed an estimated $400,000-$600,000, is breaking company sales records this year.

But neither station is satisfied with what it has.

KSSN's parent company, Southern Skies Corp., has purchased KAKI-FM, 107.1, for $1.15 million and is upgrading the Benton-based station to 50,000 watts and moving the tower to Shinall Mountain in west Pulaski County.

KAKI will then have enough power to compete with KDDK. Werth, however, won't say yet what its format will be.

Speculation is that it will identify another country niche and go head to head with KDDK for a younger demographic, or go for an older country demographic and target KSSN to a younger audience.

Werth says there are other options, though, such as Top 40 and easy listening -- formats no longer in the market.

Tucker also is looking to purchase another station by year's end.

Southern Skies' new acquisition should be ready within a month. That might cause a change in Tucker's immediate plans.

"We may modify slightly, but it will depend on what they're doing," Tucker says.

But Tucker's long-range plans are set. Before KDDK went on air, he made a three-year business plan. His goal is to have the No. 1 station in central Arkansas within that period.

Already ahead of schedule, Tucker asks, "What would keep us from attaining that?"
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:central Arkansas' FM radio stations
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 31, 1993
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