A gay home on the radio dial
by Matthew S. Bajko
This holiday season listeners of Energy 92.7 FM may believe the radio station has relocated from its Rincon Hill headquarters to the heart of the Castro. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving up until a week before Christmas the station will plug the Castro as a holiday shopping destination and has extended to area businesses a special discount for 20-second commercials.
The station's morning show hosts will be on hand for the business district's annual tree lighting ceremony Monday, November 28 and return on the morning of December 16 to broadcast their show live from the gay neighborhood.
All the promotional activity is much more than the station playing Santa to gay-owned and gay-marketed businesses. It is in keeping with the station's unique strategy of being a home on the dial for the Bay Area's LGBT community.
Launched one year ago on October 2 under the call letters KNGY, the station embarked on an otherwise untested business model in the Bay Area when it switched its play list from hip-hop and rap to dance music. The only independently owned station in the San Francisco market had pinned its survival on the listening habits of mainly gay men.
"It is about damn time," said Joe Bayliss, the station's owner, of the decision.
Himself a straight married man, Bayliss's ability to gauge what gay men want to hear on the radio is admittedly limited. Nonetheless, he decided that the success of his first foray as a radio station owner would be dependent on pursuing the LGBT community.
"It is not like we created this market, because we didn't. The market already exists but nobody else saw it as an opportunity," he said.
Bayliss approached radio consultant Don Parker, an out gay man, to help him determine what audience should be the primary focus for his station. A resident of Los Angeles and Palm Springs, where he and his partner, Todd Creel, recently opened a restaurant, Parker frequently visited the Bay Area to see his mom who lived in Alameda.
"I always felt the gay population was so great here and that there was an opportunity to target that audience and make it a large fabric of a radio station," said Parker, who has been acting as Energy's program director since July. "If you looked at the entire metro audience this format might not look as positive as it does for us. But we said it looks to us like this is a no-brainer."
A year later the decision appears to be paying off, with Energy exceeding its owner's expectations, turning a profit and gaining on its competitors in the ratings race. Among commercial radio stations in San Francisco, Energy is placing either at number one or in the top five among adults and men. The total number of people who tune in during a given week has climbed to 150,000 and station executives are pushing to reach 250,000 by the end of 2006.
Compared to the top stations in the market â€“ KMEL has 718,000 listeners and WILD 94.9 pulls in 638,000 a week â€“ Energy is no powerhouse. The station is hampered by its weak signal reach; unlike the other stations it does not break into most parts of Santa Clara County, the Bay Area's most populous region.
But when broken down by demographic share, Energy is no infant either. Among the 18 to 34 demographic coveted by advertisers the station is up to a 2.6 share and expects to be at or near a 3 share when the next rankings come out in January. If indeed it does climb that high, Energy would rank similarly with Alice 97.3, which already has a 3 share, and outrank Star 101, which has the most powerful signal in the Bay Area and garners a 2.8 share.
"If we can have shares equal to them when we only cover half the market, it is going to be a huge homerun for the station," said Parker.
The station is limited in how much it can increase its signal. Other stations in outlying areas use the same frequency, so the only way to expand its coverage area would be to purchase other stations, a solution economically out of reach. But Energy does stream its broadcasts online and in October went live on Comcast's digital FM service at channel 964.
"The station has got a ton of potential. There are still a lot of people who don't know about us," said Bayliss, who insisted the station is not for sale despite receiving inquiries from prospective buyers. "We are just at the beginning of what we can do."
Beyond the station's own success, Energy is succeeding in giving voice to the LGBT community outside the liberal bastions of San Francisco and Berkeley. In more conservative cities like Concord, Fremont, and Pleasanton residents can set their radio dials to a station with an all-gay morning show crew, including gay sportscaster Greg Sherrell, and an out and proud gay host, Fernando Ventura, something local radio historians say is a first for the Bay Area.
Along with employing out on-air talent, the station broadcasts everything from interviews with gay icons like porn producer Chi Chi LaRue and actor and comedian Bruce Vilanch to a special Coming Out Day morning show produced live from San Francisco City Hall with Mayor Gavin Newsom.
At the same time Energy officials shy away from being called a gay station.
"We don't want to be seen as a gay station, that is not who we are. Absolutely, we will be there at events [in the gay community] but we are not exclusiely a gay radio station," said Parker. "We want all people to feel comfortable coming here and listening to the station. It helps the advancement of gays and lesbians everywhere if straight people are involved in the process and know the radio station is also for them."
Parker did allow, though, that "we make it clear to anybody listening you aren't going to hear something antigay. If they are a homophobe, they probably aren't going to feel welcome."
The station may not have gay in its call letters, but after listening to 92.7 for any length of time it is impossible not to note the station's lavender sensibilities. In fact, Bay Area radio listeners would be hard pressed to find another station with such strong ties to the LGBT community.
Helping gay groups
The music Energy plays is just the start of how the station is cultivating gay listeners. The station has teamed up with numerous local LGBT nonprofit and community groups over the last 12 months to plug their events and causes. The list ranges from the gay rodeo and Halloween in the Castro to New Leaf: Services for Our Community and the GLBT Historical Society.
"We have done more events, fundraisers, and awareness campaigns in the gay community in the last 13 months than every radio station in this market has done in the last 20 years," boasted Bayliss.
Officials at various LGBT nonprofits hail not only the station's desire to partner with them but the amount of help Energy staff offer to promote their events over the airwaves. AIDS Walk San Francisco director Serafina Palandech applauded the station for its commitment to her event in July, which she said far exceeded her expectations. The station played more ads and announcements for the AIDS Walk than was called for in its contract and the morning show sent a go-go boy to the Castro one morning to promote the event and raise funds for the station's own team in the walk.
"My experience from working in this field for many years is that most major outlets have reduced support over the years. For a radio station to go over and beyond what was agreed to in their sponsorship agreement is very unusual," said Palandech. "They were just so enthusiastically supportive. Our event raised $300,000 more than the prior year; having a strong radio station being really behind the event is integral to the success of our campaign."
Horizons Foundation also utilized the station to focus attention on its groundbreaking nonprofit work within the LGBT community as it celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. Energy ads and on-air talent promoted not only the foundation's birthday party this fall but its new Qgiving.org Web portal and campaign to foster more financial contributions for Horizons. Although the nonprofit can't specify the impact the station's promotions had on the event itself, the partnership clearly led to a boost for the agency, said Henry Pacheco, the foundation's development and philanthropic services associate.
"What it did mostly was create awareness for Horizons Foundation. It is sort of hard to measure the effect on attendance, however, it was our biggest annual event ever. I think what they did had something to do with it," said Pacheco.
Prior to working with Energy, Horizons hardly used radio to promote itself, said Pacheco, because the nonprofit found the cost of advertising prohibitive. Besides an occasional news piece on public radio, Pacheco said one would rarely hear Horizons mentioned on-air.
"We would have been able to afford to do it but on a much smaller scale. It was not just the things they did in the morning, which
After his experience, Pacheco recommended other nonprofits utilize Energy to reach not just LGBT people but also the station's straight listeners.
"I think it would be a great idea just for the visibility alone. For the nonprofits it is invaluable to have maybe people who aren't in our community hear about the work we do," he said. "I listen to the radio station all the time and it is great to hear all these organizations get some air time."
The station's outreach to gay groups has not gone unnoticed. This year the Golden Gate Business Association, a group for LGBT business owners, nominated Bayliss for its Business Advocate of the Year Award. While Bayliss did not win, it is a sign that at least LGBT listeners are hearing and paying attention to his station's marketing efforts.
"Having a radio station that really focuses on the gay community is going to bring more opportunities and status to the business community because of the people who choose to advertise on the station," said GGBA president Jerry Becerra, an insurance broker with Pemmbrook Insurance Services. "It's not that other stations haven't been supportive; it's a different kind of support. It seems to be coming from the community instead of just responding to the community. It's got a different flavor to it."
GGBA has also approached Energy on developing a partnership since many of the group's members are also focused on tapping into gay consumers. By targeting that audience, Becerra said the station's success in its first year isn't all that surprising.
"For them on the surface is was just a very good business decision. They didn't need to create a market. The market is here and nobody was tapping into it," he said. "Because it hasn't really been aggressively explored before there is a lot of opportunity. We will see what happens. I know the station is growing fantastically well."
Local businesses are not the only ones taking note of Energy. National advertisers are also using the station to promote themselves and target gay consumers.
"When they realize we are talking about gay people and the potential for reaching gay consumers, for a lot of people the light bulb goes on," Bayliss said when asked about advertisers' reaction to hearing his sales pitch.
The birth of a station
Born in San Francisco, Bayliss didn't stay in town long. He moved to various cities in the West and Midwest as his father bounced around from one radio station to another.
"I was a radio brat. I moved 13 times before the ninth grade," said Bayliss.
At 18 he started his own career in the business, working in sales at the adult contemporary station K101 in San Diego. He later worked as a broker selling and buying radio stations for clients. In the early 1980s after his father died, Bayliss joined his brothers in running several AM and FM stations on the central coast near Santa Maria that his dad had acquired.
He then left his family's company and went to work for Steve Dinetz at Chancellor Broadcasting. In 1997 he landed back in San Francisco working at Kiss FM, which was then acquired by Clear Channel. Feeling disenfranchised by the radio industry's penchant for mergers and identical formats on stations in different cities, Bayliss took a two-year sabbatical.
Then he joined Infinity Broadcasting as its vice president for sales in San Jose and San Francisco. The job led him to reconnect with Dinetz. With financial backing from Dinetz and three private equity firms, Bayliss formed Flying Bear Media, named after his father, and bought Energy on September 27, 2004 for $33 million. The station just marked its first profitable month in October.
According to a history of Bay Area radio by industry historian Alex Cosper, 92.7 had been a simulcast frequency for Clear Channel's KSJO, allowing the San Jose station a foothold in San Francisco. The station then became KPTI "The Party" in 2002 and played dance music but had no on-air talent. It then went hip-hop for six months in 2004 as "Power 92.7" under the ownership of Three Point Media. On September 22 Bayliss switched off the hip-hop and played various sound effects nonstop through October 2, when the new station formally announced its existence.
The reason, said Bayliss, was because "we wanted to purge" the station of its past formats. It also gave the new owners some distance between the sudden death of the hip-hop station. At the time, the station's offices were in Oakland, and the sale by Three Point and Bayliss's decision to change the format back to dance music caused a minor uproar among Oakland's hip-hop community.
This summer the station physically removed itself from its past, relocating to San Francisco only blocks from the new Mission Bay development. In addition to new digs, the station boosted its signal by finalizing placement of its antenna on Sutro Tower, thus increasing its market reach by 500,000 in population. Energy can now be heard as far north as San Raphael and Vallejo, south to Sunnyvale and Fremont and as far east as parts of Livermore.
Long before placing his bets on dance music, Bayliss researched the local radio audience. He tested eight different formats in the summer of 2004 before even finalizing the sale. What he learned is that three listener groups would tune into a dance station: gay men, Caucasian females, and the Asian community. Out of the three, both gay men and Asians seemed adrift in terms of finding a radio station to call their own.
The research also pointed out to Bayliss and his investors that the Bay Area boasts the two areas in the country with the highest concentration of same-sex couple households: San Francisco and Oakland. Broken down by Zip codes, three of the top 10 neighborhoods gay couples call home in America are in San Francisco: the Castro, Twin Peaks and Haight Ashbury.
"The gay community is big and it's been ignored" when it comes to radio, said Bayliss.
However, Bayliss said if the station were to go after the gay market, he knew in order for the strategy to work it would take more than just playing house music.
"For us to be adopted by one of these communities you've got to walk the walk and talk the talk," he said.
Therefore, gay men make up 80 percent of the station's research on what music makes it on its play list. Up to 200 people, mostly gay men, are routinely brought in to listen to 600 songs at a time to see which ones will be heard by Energy listeners.
"If it doesn't pass the test with gay men it doesn't get on the air," explained Bayliss.
In the last 13 months, Bayliss has spent $250,000 on research and he expects to spend $100,000 a year to stay tuned to what listeners want to hear played on the air. It is all part of his commitment to ensuring the station is seen as a true partner to its listeners and not as a greedy corporation blindly pursuing the "gay dollar."
"We are not going to show up to Pride once a year and then disappear. If we are going to be part of this community we have to be there 365 days a year, seven days a week," said Bayliss.
In order to fund what the station gives back to the community â€“ Bayliss said he doesn't have an actual tally but puts the amount in the six-figure range â€“ Energy purposely forgoes doing station contests, which can be quite costly.
"We do very little of it. We believe our audience is slightly more sophisticated than the average bear. So part of that money goes to our grassroots, community work," he said. "Any radio station can duplicate our play list, but they can't duplicate the kind of things we do for the community."
If its first year is any indication, the station has just begun to energize the Bay Area's LGBT community.
"We are still building on everything we do. We have definitely made a commitment to be a community-focused radio station," said Parker.
The station is throwing an anniversary party next month to celebrate its first year. Expected to perform are Deborah Cox, Amber, Stonebridge, DHT, Lola, Lucas Prada, and Judy Torres. The event starts at 8 p.m. December 3, at the Regency Center, 1300 Van Ness Avenue (at Sutter Street) in San Francisco. Tickets cost $35 and can be purchased at www.Ticketmaster.com.