Some longtime listeners of 96.3 The Blaze thought it was a joke when they first heard Nickelback on the station. When they heard Creed, others were convinced the locally programmed home of hard rock, which prides itself on playing deep cuts and regional artists, was running some sort of twisted contest; they started writing down "non-Blaze" songs in hopes of winning a prize.
There was no prize. The songs marked an April 18 switch that put The Blaze's playlist under direct corporate control.
"I will confirm that I am no longer in charge of programming music at The Blaze," says Angel Hughes, who has been at the station since 2001 and had been in charge of its playlist since 2002. "My format leader and the vice president of programming at Townsquare Media are now in charge of what listeners hear on the air. We had a good 12-year run with the original format, and it's my sincere hope there's an audience for the new format, because I don't plan on going anywhere."
Townsquare owns The Blaze and six other Missoula stations, as well as more than 200 radio stations in 17 states. The company's rock format leader is in Grand Rapids, Mich. Kurt Johnson, the company's senior vice president of programming, is based in Greenwich, Conn.
Sources familiar with the old format say the playlist has been cut from roughly 1,100 songs to 400 more mainstream selections. The station's one-hour Sunday evening show, Local 406, is the only programming not affected.
The most visible backlash is a Facebook group, "Creed Makes Babies Cry: Stop Playing Creed/Nickelback on 96.3 The Blaze." It received more than 130 "likes" in a week.
Shawna Batt, Townsquare Media's general manager for the Missoula market, says it was her decision to switch the station from "active rock" to "mainstream rock." While The Blaze pulled strong ratings with males ages 18-49, she says, the new format will target adults 25-54. "That's the target demographic national advertisers are looking for."
Shawn Whitney, host of his trademarked "Rockstar Radio" show, worked at The Blaze for four years before being fired last year and landing at The Montana Radio Company. He says changes at The Blaze aren't surprising in light of industry trends, but still mark a loss for the Missoula music scene.
"It's becoming background music instead of destination music," Whitney says. "It's like another mom-and-pop store that just got bought out."