Don’t mess with The Sound of Texas.
KFWR/95.9 “The Ranch,” which has studios in Sundance Square, quietly altered its format recently, taking the station from a Texas-country and “Red Dirt” music format to promos boasting a “no-limits playlist” and “alternative country.” Which still includes a lot of Texas country and Red Dirt music.
For the uninitiated, sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference: As I write this sentence, Fort Worth-based country artist Cody Jinks’ excellent cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” is playing on the station.
But before I tuned in, the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider” was among the songs listed in the song history section of the station’s website. Even though there’s a bit of twang to that song, it kinda stretches the definition of “country.” But the mere addition of more mainstream country artists — Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley — to the playlist is what’s really not going over well with fans.
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“Deleted 95.9 off my radio presets after more than 10 years,” says one comment on the station’s Facebook page. “Nice new format if that’s what you call it.”
Another: “Before you know it you guys are gonna be playing [Luke] Bryan! I listen to y’all so I don't have to hear that Nashville pop [b.s] now you guys are slowly adding it in.”
And: “What in the coon dog hell is alternative country? Better get right before it’s too late!”
UPDATE: We now have comment from the station, in the form of a press release that hit our inbox Tuesday evening. It’s kind of an unusual release, written more like a memo or a letter to listeners than a boilerplate “here’s what’s happening and why” release. And it’s worth quoting from pretty heavily.
“Since its launch in 2002, Fort Worth radio station ‘95.9 The Ranch’ has charted its own path and proven that a radio station can be successful without following the traditional rules of the radio industry,” it begins. For example, the Ranch has eschewed the conventional, national chartdriven approach of creating its playlist. The conventional approach is to play mainstream current hits off the national charts, complemented by select previous hit songs that performed well in national music research/testing.”
The release goes on to say that the station believes that that approach is too limiting and doesn’t make room for independent artists, which the Ranch is known for playing with its long-standing Texas/Red Dirt format. But things evolve. And they’ve been evolving behind the scenes for a while.
“The next natural step for the Ranch is to continue to expand its listener base by playing the very best music with the gritty, real sound that has resonated so loudly with its listeners,” the release continues. “A little over three years ago, the Ranch team began identifying music outside of the daily playlist that appealed to core Texas/Red Dirt listeners.”
The station introduced such themese as “Throwback Thursday,” with a focus on classic country, and “Free for All Fridays,” opening up the playlist to format-breaking songs, the release continues. Listener reaction helped point the station in new directions. The station also talked to core artists about their influences and about the contemporary singers those artists respect.
“Much of this music that Ranch listeners love is not technically ‘Texas Country’ or ‘Red Dirt’ (i.e. Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Will Hoge, Miranda Lambert, and Sean McConnell),” the release continues. “The same is true for music from the icons who influenced today’s Texas/Red Dirt artists (i.e. Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings).”
But wait, there’s more: “Additionally, there are some artists being played on mainstream country radio who have very select songs that fit the overall sound of the Ranch (i.e. Eric Church, the Zac Brown Band, and Gary Allan),” the release goes on. “Beyond country, the taste of Ranch listener often includes older rock songs as well (i.e. ZZ Top, Bruce Springsteen, the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd).”
Outside of the release, it’s worth noting that the Ranch is not the only station in North Texas that has mixed classic rock (or even current rock) and country. KTCU/88.7 FM’s weekday playlists do a little of both. KZPS/92.5 FM tried a few years ago with its “Lone Star” format, but eventually dropped the country and kept the classic rock and the “Lone Star” branding.
But back to the release: “Because the taste of the Ranch listeners is broader than just Texas/Red Dirt, but generally does not include the highly processed, lyrically simplistic offerings of mainstream country, the Ranch has begun to use ‘Alternative Country’ as an umbrella term for the diverse mix of music about which Ranch listeners have become so passionate.”
The release stresses that this isn’t a format change, but a freshening of the playlist with some additional songs that it believes will appeal to more listeners.
It concludes with a statement from Justin Frazell, the station’s program director, morning-show co-host and longtime DFW radio veteran. Frazell is also the host of the weekl “Texas Red Dirt Roads,” described as the most successful radio show of its type in the country.
“For 21 years in the D/FW radio market, I have championed independent artists and music and have no plans to ever change or stop that,” Frazell says in the release. “I owe my career to Texas and Red Dirt Music. We believe that these additions not only better describe our current format, they will ultimately provide a larger platform with greater exposure for our Texas and Red Dirt artists. We will continue to be the ‘Sound of Texas’ that Ranch fans love, and we are excited to attract new listeners to the best locally programmed radio station in the country.”
The Ranch has always been a bit of a maverick on the local country-radio scene, providing, yes, an alternative to more mainstream country giants KPLX/99.5 FM “The Wolf” and KSCS/96.3 FM, both of which have the kind of full-market signals that get them better ratings than stations with limited DFW reach such as The Ranch, whose transmitter is in Jacksboro, putting its strongest reach in Fort Worth and points west.
And, for those of us who aren’t purists, the station still sounds pretty good and a welcome change from the more superstar-oriented formats. But the website Saving Country Music, which first reported about the format change, puts it in perspective.
“For independent and Texas country fans who often share a radio with co-workers and are used to hearing [Ranch playlist additions Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, and Miranda Lambert] in the rotation along with Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Sam Hunt, they’re probably wondering what all the hubbub is about,” reads a lengthy post on the website. “They feel lucky to hear a Chris Stapleton song every once in a while, and can’t imagine a station that regularly plays Sturgill Simpson and the Turnpike Troubadours.
“But this is the reason country music these days marks a dividing line of the culture war. True country fans, especially ones that have been listening to The Ranch for years as a safe harbor from pop country, are so diametrically opposed to mainstream music, they would rather hear rock or pop invade their radio station than even the best of what country radio’s mainstream stations play.”
(Speaking of rock or pop, as I write this sentence, southern-rock band the Georgia Satellites’ 1986 hit “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” is playing.)
As Saving Country Music points out, there is even a “Boycott 95.9 FM The Ranch” Facebook page, although it currently has only 36 “likes.”
In its post, dated March 5, Saving Country did a song analysis based on a roughly three-hour Saturday playlist block. “ Out of 54 songs, only TWO could be considered current mainstream country music singles,” the post says. “That’s less than 4% of the playlist. And those two songs .... ‘My Church’ by Maren Morris, and ‘Vice’ by Miranda Lambert, are both critically acclaimed singles from women .” And, the site notes, both are from Texas, including Arlington’s Morris, who may have had a breakout 2016 but is still, strictly speaking, a local artist.
After the initial post, some listeners pointed out to Saving Country Music the addition of the occasional classic-rock song. But even loosening its definition of “mainstream,” Saving Classic Country saw the change as positive — anything that might add Ranch listeners is essentially a good thing. And any format change tends to alienate a certain portion of the listenership before settling down and pulling in new listeners.
“The Ranch still comprises one of the best playlists in the entire country,” the Saving Country Music post says. “And if people want to see it remain filled with the best of Texas country and Americana, and inspire other radio stations to adopt similar formats, they should support it instead of slogging it.”