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Media Watch

The Jolt Celebrates 10 Years of Avoiding the Cookie Cutter

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KJLL AM 1330 recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, and along the way, it has embraced--perhaps out of necessity--much of what radio isn't anymore.

In a world of processed formats, where the news/talk station in Buffalo, N.Y., sounds like the news/talk station in Kansas City, which sounds like the news/talk station in Tucson, the Jolt wears its independence like a badge of honor.

For starters, it is a stand-alone independent signal owned and operated by women--the only station with that combination in the Southwest.

Brief backstory: There was a time when KMRR, which used to occupy 1330, was a solid station with decent numbers, but by 1997, those days were long past. Enter Aldona Sprei. She bought the land, the signal, the station and the tower, and brought to Tucson something that at the time didn't saturate the dial the way it does today.

"I decided to go with a news/talk format, because at the time, there was only one station that offered it, and that was KNST," Sprei said. "We were the second one that came into the market. I wanted something that was an alternative, something that was a choice, because there wasn't a choice at that time. We weren't a part of a big ownership group, so we went with being local and trying to be the pulse of the community."

In a business known for its format narrowcasting, the Jolt is more scattershot. Its daytime lineup features liberal talkers along with Dr. Laura, Tucson talk staple John C. Scott and a rotating list of brokered programming (i.e., purchased time) in afternoon drive time.

"We're the only station in the market that has an 85 percent live lineup," said Jolt station manager Kimberley Kelly. "That makes for huge interaction."

It's also a niche KJLL needs. The talk market on AM is a different animal. In addition to conservative KNST AM 790, talk can be found on KVOI AM 690, KCUB AM 1290 and KFFN AM 1490. KQTH 104.1 FM is trying to find a talk audience on the FM band.

Greater competition and the pinch from nationally operated conglomerates have made life difficult.

It's the Jolt that introduced the likes of Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Phil Hendrie, Bill O'Reilly and Jerry Doyle to the Tucson market. None of those programs are on the Jolt today, as all were snatched by stations operated by Clear Channel, Citadel or Journal.

"As the legislation changed, for us as a local station, it became harder to compete with the monopolies," Sprei said. "We'd be the ones who picked up a show because we thought it was a good show host with a good format, and we'd take the risk of doing that, because the personalities were fairly unknown in the market, and then all of a sudden, the show would become popular, and someone would come along and steal the shows from us. That was very frustrating. ... (The conglomerates) would negotiate with the vendor and say they could broadcast the show in 12 or 15 different markets. Well, we can only offer it in one market. That became a very unfair advantage, but we've always survived, and we've always picked other winners."

Then there was the controversy surrounding Don Imus. Imus was a morning-show staple on KJLL, and while his ratings were never stellar, the fervor of his listening audience ranks among the best in terms of loyalty to a syndicated program in this market. When Imus was fired, it was a major blow to the Jolt.

"When we lost Imus, we lost four hours of programming and a few clients dedicated to Imus," Kelly said. "Then we were misprinted in the paper as saying we refused to play his reruns, which is not at all what we said. That was a network decision. I had 340 screaming responses on my voicemail, so we lost some Imus listeners."

Not long before that, Imus' brother Fred Imus had his local show with Nicole Cox pulled. Furthermore, the syndicated Imus show was moved in favor of Mancow in the Morning, a disastrous decision orchestrated by then-general manager Jerry Misner. It was a costly mistake.

"We tried something different, and it didn't work out," Sprei said. "We were somewhat disappointed as well. It was a poor management decision. Sometimes, you make mistakes, but that's how you evolve. That's why we pulled the contract. We felt it didn't seem to be a good match for our community."

John C. Scott continues to be a good match. The 40-year radio veteran broadcast his brokered show on KTUC during that station's talk era in the early to mid-'90s; KTKT in the late-'90s and into the early 2000s; and for the last three years on KJLL, where he has taken the show on the road. And by "the road," we're not just talking the small businesses to which Scott has catered for years, but places like Israel, China and Vietnam.

"We were able to do things nobody else would do. I appreciate that," said Scott about the freedom he's given at KJLL. "Who else is going to say, 'Get on a plane, go halfway around the world and do a radio show'? Nobody is going to say that, and we make money doing that every time."

Flexibility and the independent spirit is part of the reason Cox, the station's news director--and one of the rare radio reporters in this market who actually does more than rip-and-read--has stayed on board for more than seven years.

"The station in some ways is treated as a democracy, where the owner wants to hear what everyone has to say instead of, 'This is protocol, and this is what's happening,'" Cox said.

The Jolt is looking at a youth movement, pursuing greater teen involvement by allowing students to work at the station while providing more on-air content geared toward a younger demographic.

Like the spiking pulse that is part of its logo, the Jolt's decade-long journey has been anything but a straight line, and anything but smooth sailing.

"The first 10 years were the hardest. They were trying," Kelly said. "There were times we didn't know whether the station was going to make it. We had programming problems, financial issues; everyone was taking our shows; managers and GMs (were) in and out. But now we have a solid staff; our programming is tight; our clients speak for themselves. These are people who have been with us for six to 10 years."

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