SAN DIEGO — The rumors have finally gotten to Charlie Ochs, general manager of country-Western radio stations KCBQ-AM and FM (1170 and 105.3).
For more than a year, his stations have lagged behind San Diego's other country radio combo, KSON-AM and FM (1240 and 97.3), in the ratings.
With the announcement last spring that the two KCBQ stations were about to be sold, the word on the street was that KCBQ was finally ready to concede defeat and would soon switch formats.
Ochs' persistent denials didn't stop the rumors. And when the growing uncertainty over KCBQ's future began to hurt advertising sales, Ochs said, he knew the time had come to turn talk into action.
So now he's doing precisely that. On Sunday at 5:30 p.m.,, KCBQ will reaffirm its commitment to country music by staging the year's biggest country concert bash: an afternoon show at the Southwestern College stadium featuring Waylon Jennings, Eddie Rabbit, Jessi Colter and Steve Earle.
"Since I came here last October, KCBQ has been rumored to go every format from news/talk to album-oriented rock," Ochs said. "Recently, one of the trade publications even listed us as already having gone religious--and I immediately got three calls from people in religious radio who wanted to come work for us.
"In every town I've lived in, the rumor mill is unbelievable. And every time there's an opportunity for a rumor--low ratings, an impending sale--a rumor happens.
"So now it's happening to us, and we don't like it. And with this concert, we're making a statement: In spite of all the rumors, KCBQ is not going to change formats.
"We are here to stay, we're doing country, and we're very serious about it."
To further drive home that point, Ochs said, all 13,500 tickets to the mega-concert will be given away--at a cost to KCBQ of more than $125,000.
Some will be given away over the air; some will be passed out on the streets by employees riding in the KCBQ promotional van, Ochs said. And a large chunk of tickets--about 7,000--is being given to the armed forces Special Services division.
"A tremendous amount of this market is armed forces," Ochs said. "And a tremendous amount of the people who listen to country music are members of our armed forces.
"I was in the Army myself for three years, and I remember I couldn't afford $18.50 for a concert. This way, we're making sure everyone who wants to enjoy this concert will be able to attend, courtesy of KCBQ."
Ochs admitted that the battle for country listeners will not be decided by a single concert, no matter how extravagant it may be.
So in the 10 months that he has been with KCBQ, he said, he has instituted many other changes that he hopes will lead his stations to victory over rival KSON in the struggle for ratings.
He has put an end to the revolving door of program directors. He has beefed up KCBQ's morning show. He has altered the stations' playlists to include a lot more contemporary and crossover hits.
Since mid-July, both stations have been "simulcasting" the same music 24 hours a day after more than seven years of individualized programming.
"There are two schools of thought on whether to simulcast or not," Ochs said. "One says you should provide your audience with two separate radio stations so that if there's something on one station they don't like, they can go to the other station.
"The other school of thought--which I think is applicable in San Diego, where there are signal problems--is that if a listener is driving in his car and having a problem with FM reception, he can push a button and switch over to the AM and hear the same thing without interference.
"I believe that in San Diego, people prefer KCBQ to be KCBQ, not two separate stations. That way, they have a radio station they can always receive, they can always depend on.
"At the same time, it lets us concentrate on improving one station, rather than having to divide our efforts between two stations and, in effect, competing against not just KSON, but against ourselves.
"I plan on making KCBQ the No. 1 country radio station in San Diego. We've come a long way already, and I'm confident we'll soon be there."
Aside from spearheading KCBQ's attack, the Sunday show is also breathing new life into Luckenbach Productions, the actual producer of the event. The local firm, headed by brothers Marc and Greg Oswald, has produced more than 600 country concerts around the Southwest since 1979. But because of declining attendance at such shows in recent years, Marc Oswald said, Luckenbach has been suffering for the last year. He hopes that his firm's involvement with this concert will help lift it out of those doldrums.
"Normally, Waylon and Eddie Rabbit would play a 4,000- to 6,000-seat facility," Oswald said. "But in the scenario that KCBQ has arranged, they're able to play a stadium.
"And to bring those artists into a stadium is a nice shot in the arm for us in terms of reestablishing ourselves on the country concert market."