Scott Gilmore

In a highly unusual move for broadcast radio, Emmis Communications rebranded adult alternative KGSR Austin as “Austin City Limits Radio.” The licensed branding of an entire station is something more prevalent for satellite radio channels and online radio stations, but for a 100,000-watt heritage radio station to enter into such a deal was truly rare.

It actually makes good sense. The ACL brand is prevalent throughout the Lone Star capital city, the ACL Festival encompasses a weekend in October each year, “ACL Live at the Moody Theater” is a must stop for concert tours coming through the area—and the taping location for the “Austin City Limits” TV Show, the vessel that started the iconic brand. KGSR is another seminal Austin brand serving the community for 28 years, with the need to evolve to stay in tune with today’s listening habits and genre-blending playlists.

Emmis Austin senior VP/market manager Scott Gillmore spoke with Inside Radio about the reasoning behind the re-branding, what the partnership entails and the audience reaction to hearing music not previously played on KGSR. An edited transcript follows.

What was the thinking behind the change to Austin City Limits Radio?

Real simply, it was a look to the future. When we launched the triple-A format in 1990 it was a 25-49 format and very successful in Austin. We had a really nice niche here. We evolved with the format and the city and had a great run, but over the course of time it had honesty become a little bit of a nostalgia format. People had in their mind what KGSR was. As the city grew and it became a technology hub and things changed, I think the perception of the station no longer matched what we played and what we were doing. It was time to reinvigorate the format. We had this great heritage and a great brand and yet we felt like we may no longer have had a great radio station.

We had a chance to merge with the Austin City Limits brand. They have done a fantastic job of evolving and growing with the Austin City Limits Festival, which evolved from the original “Austin City Limits” TV show, which is iconic and started spreading the Austin music brand across the country, to then opening up a premiere venue, ACL Live at the Moody Theater, which books a very broad variety of live music here in town. That fit with KGSR’s brand. If you go to the ACL Festival or if you see a show at ACL Live or you tune in to see “Austin City Limits” on public television, you know you are going to see a quality product with great musicians and really great music. That’s something that we wanted to associate with and, at the same time, it allowed us to reinvent ourselves and broaden our brand and play the types of music that we weren’t playing before and get people to tune in and maybe listen to us with a new ear.

What does the partnership encompass?

It’s pretty much a straight licensing partnership. We have licensed the name over a multi-year period for ACL Radio. The fee is based on increased revenue. We have those rights for streaming and terrestrial radio. We have the rights to do events and work with both the Austin City Live Music Festival and other festivals along with ACL Live and other venues. It’s a win-win as the Austin City Limits Music Festival can also work with other radio stations. It doesn’t tie anybody’s hands, but it does make us closer partners.

How different is the music today compared to what was being played as an adult alternative station?

At least 50% of the music is different. The first artist to play on the “Austin City Limits” TV show back in the ‘70s was Willie Nelson. He performed “Whiskey River,” which was the first song we played when we signed on as Austin City Limits Radio. Now if you go to the Austin City Limits Music Festival the headliners this year are Paul McCartney, Metallica, Childish Gambino, Arctic Monkeys, Travis Scott and The National – it’s pretty broad. That would be a lot to fit on one radio station. Yet, we are fitting that on one radio station. If you’re listening to Austin City Limits Radio, it’s pretty shocking as we are cutting some new ground and doing some things you’re not going to hear on another commercial radio station. Looking at today’s music, we played Weezer, Chainsmokers and then James Taylor, Franz Ferdinand and Jay Z. We are all over the map.

What has been the audience reaction to the mix of sounds now being heard on KGSR?

I’d say we probably have some 50-plus listeners that may not be happy about the changes. I’d say we have a bunch of under 40 listeners that are super happy about it, that may be discovering the station for the first time. I’m sure we have a bunch in between, that are like “I think I like it.”

Are you working consciously to appeal to the core while inviting a new audience to the station?

The center lane of the station will still play the triple-A, adult alternative and alt music, but we are going to go to the fringes – to the right and left of that – where we’re going to play hip-hop and rhythmic and to the other side, where we are going back into the vaults and pull out Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson or Ray Charles.

How much will live performances play into the programming of the station?

We will continue to host the live performances from the ACL Festival and SXSW. Our first one under the Austin City Limits Radio umbrella was with Leon Bridges and we had Jade Bird the following week. We will have access to some new things.

Will the station have exposure at the “Austin City Limits” TV tapings, the ACL Festival and shows at The Moody Theater?

All those things will develop, and we will see where all these things go. We are committed to helping [Public Broadcasting Service member TV station] KLRU and the television show. With them being our partner now we want to help in any way we can. We think the feeling is mutual. They want to help us be as successful as possible. And we also consider the venue and the festival as our partner and we are going to work together to make it all parts of the brand.

With the launch of Austin City Limits Radio, KGSR added a second signal.

We added a translator that we picked up earlier this year at 97.1 so we are now broadcasting the station on two frequencies, 93.3 and 97.1 [K246BD]. It filled in some spots in town for us. 93.3 is a huge signal, it is 100,000 watts on a 2,000-foot tower but it kind of shoots over some places where it’s shadowed in town because of the hill country. So the translator fills in some of those spots and we think we solved some of the problems there. Austin City Limits Radio is online and on two signals with some innovative programming that nobody has done before with an innovative licensing program bringing two really cool brands together. I guess I’m saying we are pretty pumped.