Program director for the Bridge focuses attention on local musicians

02/07/2014 4:00 PM

02/08/2014 10:53 PM

Jon Hart’s radio career started in the 1970s, when he was a 14-year-old high school student in Warrensburg.

“The university started a radio club so high school kids could fill in for the college students on weekends or during breaks,” he said. “That’s when I decided I really wanted to be part of the radio I was listening to, which was all in Kansas City.”

He would get his wish.

Today, more than 40 years later, Hart is running that same radio station, but from a building in midtown Kansas City. And his goal is to make the station a significant part of the radio world he was listening to growing up. And to herald the music the city produces.

Radio jobs up and down the dial

When Hart was attending University High School in Warrensburg in the 1970s, the university in town was called Central Missouri State. Its radio station was KCMW (90.9 FM), a National Public Radio affiliate that played a mix of jazz, classical and some rock amid news and talk. Hart was a freshman when he took his first shift.

“We did a little bit of everything: music, news, farm reports,” Hart said. “It was very wide-ranging. It taught me how to be on the radio.”

He graduated in 1975, and two years later he landed his first radio gig in Kansas City at KWKI (93.3 FM), a rock station. He saw it as a steppingstone.

“It was the most chaotic place I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. “But the whole time I was there, I was quietly auditioning for KY. It took a while, but I finally got Max to pull the trigger.”

KY was the rock-radio juggernaut KYYS, and Max was morning on-air personality Max Floyd. Hart was hired in late 1978.

At about the same time, he went into business with some longtime childhood friends, who through various enterprises raised enough money to file a license request with the Federal Communications Commission to start a radio station in the Lake of the Ozarks.

“They granted us a license, but we had no money left to build the station,” he said. “So we did it lease-purchase. That was in 1980, and the economy was so bad I think the lease-purchase was at 29 percent interest or some ungodly number. It was like going to Rent-a-Center to buy a radio station.”

He’d been working part time at KY, kind of, getting the experience he’d need to set out on his own.

“Max’s philosophy was to hire a few people he really liked and work them to death,” Hart said. “I was doing every shift, often several in the same day. I was on-air and doing production and promotions. There really wasn’t anything I wasn’t doing.”

He left KY after a year and a half to set up the radio station in the Ozarks, which he and his partners still own.

“It’s in Warsaw, which is a wonderful community but was smaller than I was comfortable with,” Hart said. “So after about a year, I was back at KY.”

After a couple of years there he became part of Floyd’s morning show for almost six years.

“I’d been doing some sports during the morning show at KY,” Hart said. “So in 1990, when the Fox (KCFX) got the Chiefs, I ended up going over there and doing some football stuff for a few years.”

That started a parade of various roles at various stations: host of sports talk, regular talk on KMBZ and KCMO, and a country DJ at WDAF.

“By then, country was becoming more like pop music, and I prefer the more traditional stuff. But culturally, it was a good station. They really put the listeners first, which is what a station should be like, I think.”

It was a philosophy he would bear in mind years later.

Radio loses focus

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed by President Bill Clinton, deregulated the radio industry. It led to the consolidation of station ownership by corporations such as Entercom Communications, which owns more than 100 stations in the United States, including seven in Kansas City. Deregulation changed the radio landscape dramatically.

In 2002, the Future of Music Coalition issued a report titled “Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Musicians and Citizens?” Its conclusion: It has not. “Instead it has led to less competition, fewer viewpoints and less diversity in programming. Deregulation has damaged radio as a public resource.”

“Companies were buying and selling stations like candy,” Hart said. “Every time a station was sold, the price went up, so a lot of companies were saddled with huge debt service. Sometimes it’s easier to cut costs than it is to raise more revenue, so there was tremendous job loss, which means you can’t serve the listener as well.

“As there was more competition; almost without exception, every station decided to get its piece of the pie: country, rock. Listeners were separated by age, race, sex. But if you went into someone’s home and looked at their music collection, you saw a Johnny Cash album next to the Beatles, but you weren’t going to find that on the radio. It was getting more narrow than human beings tend to be.”

Hart remembers attending an Indigo Girls concert at Starlight Theatre in the mid-1990s and watching a crowd of 5,000 or so sing along to nearly every song.

“I remember thinking, ‘Where is the radio station for these people?’ No station in town was playing them,” he said. “I knew people hadn’t stopped putting out good music; I was just having trouble finding music that appealed to me.”

In 1997, KY102 was sold to Infinity, and its format changed to adult contemporary. It has since been sold to Wilks Broadcasting, and its format has changed three times, most recently on Wednesday, when it flipped from Alice 102 and a AAA format to adult contemporary. The station’s weekday “Local Edition” show, which featured local music, was discontinued.

Hart became part of the staff at the revived KY at 99.7 FM, mostly behind the scenes. During his two years there, it dawned on him that Wall Street was changing the radio climate too much for his liking.

“So I decided I had a better chance of having the kind of job I really wanted if I went over to the public-radio side.”

Back to his roots

In 2001, one of Hart’s business partners alerted him to a program coordinator opening at KCMW, the station that taught him to be on the radio. Back then, the station broadcast primarily jazz along with news, sports and NPR programming. Hart got the job and told the school, now called the University of Central Missouri, he’d do his best, but he was dubious about the programming.

“I said, ‘If I have an imperative to do jazz, I’ll understand, and I’ll work on it,’ 

” he said. “And I really tried to make it a better jazz station. But the research in regard to jazz was so negative, the writing was on the wall: We’d never find enough money to make it stable.”

So they re-branded the station, gave it new call letters, KTBG, and a nickname, the Bridge, and switched the music format to adult album alternative, or AAA (called Triple A), a diverse, wide-ranging format that spans generations and genres.

The switch turned out to be a fortuitous one, professionally and personally. One of the first listeners to call and object, half-jokingly, about the switch was Leslie Swank, a former high school classmate.

“She was always too cool for me,” Hart said.

He told her he couldn’t stop the format switch, but he offered to take her out to dinner instead. They were wed two years later.

“I turned a complaint call into a marriage,” he said.

Hart didn’t stop with a format change. He also changed the scope of his audience.

“We couldn’t survive by being just another Warrensburg radio station,” he said. “From the start, we wanted to focus on Kansas City. It was the only way to survive.”

He found volunteers who were passionate about the music and the station, and the Bridge started giving itself a presence at concerts in Kansas City and Lawrence and giving away concert tickets. It started doing live in-studio interviews and performances with touring bands coming to town for shows. And it focused on local music.

Eventually the station developed a reputation as a place for music fans who wanted a broad playlist that played favorites but not repetitively, that introduced new music and new bands and that delivered the occasional surprise.

But Hart was still dealing with some limitations.

The station signal was often hard to pick up in Kansas City, and it was also broadcasting lots of news, sports and NPR programming amid the music.

Just when it seemed he’d taken the Bridge about as far as he could, a suitor came calling.

An extensive playlist

On a chilly Thursday in January, Hart led two guests through the halls of the KCPT building near 31st and Main streets. Last spring, the public television station had announced plans to buy the Bridge from the university. It planned to move the station’s transmitter closer to Kansas City, boost its power and relocate the staff to the metro. The transfer became official Dec. 18.

There was construction and remodeling going on throughout the building, including the office Hart hadn’t yet moved into. The building was a hive of multimedia activity. In November, KCPT had opened the Hale Center for Journalism, a place where journalists, photographers, videographers and Web designers create content to be disseminated via television, the Web and now the new member of the family, the Bridge.

Shane Guiter, vice president of digital media for KCPT, said the Bridge will have at its disposal all the resources in the building and will benefit from the TV station’s commitment to local culture: the arts, food, theater and music, all of which will be part of a monthly television show that is in the works.

At its website, the Bridge has already posted high-quality videos of live performances recorded at Weights and Measures studio by several local bands, including Making Movies, She’s a Keeper, and Katy Guillen and the Girls.

“We are most excited about our philosophy about local music,” Guiter said. “Local music will be woven through the playlist so that people are discovering local bands by hearing them amid great songs, in between the Beatles and the National.

“One thing we see when we look at other noncommercial AAA stations is that they really get ingrained in the music scene and help accelerate that scene’s development. The goal of the Bridge is to do the same and hope the music scene views the Bridge as its home base.”

There is plenty of time to build that reputation. The Bridge has dropped all NPR programming except for World Cafe, leaving the rest of the NPR menu to the other public-radio station in town, KCUR.

“We have a lot of respect for the staff at KCUR and for the NPR audience,” Hart said. “We thought, why not provide something unique instead of competing with people who are supposed to be our brothers.”

There has already been some collaboration between the two. When Hart landed an interview with Janelle Monae the day of her performance at the Uptown Theater, it shared the audio with KCUR so it could air a spot about her show later that day. (A video of Hart’s interview has been posted on the Bridge’s website.)

For the broader music picture, Hart has spent a lot of time developing a playlist that now exceeds 4,000 songs and a philosophy about how to use it, especially when it comes to repetition.

“If you never repeat a song, eventually no one will listen to you,” he said. “We want to hit that happy medium where we play it enough to allow you to love it, then reduce the rotation before you get sick of it.”

Kliff Kuehl, president and CEO of KCPT, said Hart’s reputation for AAA programming and discovering new bands is well-known.

“We went to the (noncommercial) radio convention last year in Philadelphia, and he was a rock star,” Kuehl said. “He is so highly respected, one of the top five or 10 programmers in the format.

“Waterloo Records (in Austin) is one of my favorite record stores in the world. It’s where you go to hear new music. Jon is my Waterloo now. He teaches me about new music and new bands.”

Tanna Guthrie, one of Hart’s fellow morning personalities with Floyd at KY in the 1980s, said, “Jon is living the radio dream: programming radio the way it should be. He’s not bound by consultants testing every song. He listens to the music, and if it moves him, he knows it will move others and adds it to the playlist, a very extensive playlist.”

And diverse. Recently it included Ray LaMontagne, Tame Impala, Zero 7, the Head and the Heart, Pearl Jam, Big Head Todd, the Decemberists, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Foster the People, Franz Ferdinand, U2 and Traffic.

Hart said that after listening to him talk about the Bridge’s playlist, a friend who is a radio consultant said, “Is this a format?”

“Maybe that should be our slogan,” Hart said. “The Bridge: Is this a format?”

A great music town

Of all his missions as general manager of the Bridge, Hart is most passionate about the local music scene, which he thinks produces music as good as any. He invokes “The Wizard of Oz” when he talks about his mission to give local music its due.

It’s an apt inspiration from a guy who is back home in more ways than one: back at the station that introduced him to radio (and reintroduced him to his future wife) and back in the city he aspired to work in.

“This is a great music town,” he said. “Local music is going to be a big component of what we’re doing, but we’re not going to treat it separately or like a special feature. We won’t play everything; we have filters. But we’ll treat local bands like any other band. We’re going to make it easier for people to discover great local music. We’re going to find new ways to get involved in local music.

“Not everyone gets this analogy, but I keep on using it: I think the local music scene is like the end of ‘The Wizard of Oz’: You don’t need a brain, you need a diploma.

“We’re here to say, forget any chip on your shoulder or notion you’re inferior. You are part of a great music town.”

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