Twelve nights before drawing a standing ovation at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, pop singer Tori Kelly stood before an intimate crowd at Tampa's Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, strumming an acoustic guitar and opening up about her songwriting process.
A fast-rising star, Kelly easily could have filled a much larger venue. But this gig was private, open only to guests of Wild 94.1 as part of its Tampa Bay Talent Search, a contest for aspiring singer-songwriters.
Hosting a pop singer and sponsoring a contest for songwriters may seem like curious moves for a radio station most associated with party music. But Orlando Davis, Wild's longtime program director and morning host, doesn't see it that way.
"People are going to try to paint us into a box, but we're probably the most diverse station with the most diverse audience in the bay area," Davis said. "We're never a hip-hop station, and we're never a pop station. We're just a rhythm station."
It's a reflection of where Wild 94.1 is in 2015. Last fall, the station was among six Tampa Bay stations acquired by Naples-based Beasley Broadcasting Group in an affiliate swap with CBS Radio. The switchover came at a competitive time in a competitive market and had a swift effect on other new Beasley stations. In December, 98.7 — Wild's former home on the dial — switched from sports talk to rock, with a lineup built around shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge; while 1010 AM switched from sports to financial talk.
Wild, on the other hand, keeps rolling along, adapting to the ever-shifting tides of pop, hip-hop, R&B and dance music. Its ratings have remained steady, even as many of its peers nationwide have lost listeners. Last month, Davis, one of the market's best-known radio personalities, re-upped his contract with Beasley for five more years.
"That station is doing something that very few rhythmic stations are doing around the country," said Justin Chase, Beasley's vice president of programming, citing Wild's steady ratings despite the format's drooping listenership nationwide. "When we came into the market, we did nothing with Wild. We left it alone. We don't have a tendency of trying to fix things that aren't broken."
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Wild, of course, is not the only "rhythmic station" in Tampa Bay. Across the bay sits Tampa Bay's other big hip-hop station, 95.7 the Beat, as well as its sister Top 40 station, 93.3-FLZ.
Around the time CBS and Beasley were finalizing their trade of affiliates, Clear Channel Communications, which owns 95.7 the Beat and 93.3-FLZ, announced a total corporate rebranding under the new name iHeartMedia. It is an aggressively expanding empire, encompassing radio stations (under the banner iHeartRadio), digital apps, music festivals and its own nationally televised awards show.
Going up against that sort of marketing is never easy, especially for a market newcomer like Beasley, replacing an industry powerhouse like CBS. Davis downplays the competition, saying, "Put us up against anybody, and we win, as far as content is concerned."
According to Nielsen ratings data, listenership for Wild 94.1 and 95.7 the Beat is neck-and-neck as always. Wild reaches tens of thousands more listeners, but the Beat's audience generally listens longer, leaving their market share about equal.
However, Wild's audience tends to be younger, according to Nielsen, with nearly 60 percent of its listeners this year under age 35. And between spring 2012 and spring 2015, Davis' morning program, Orlando and the Freakshow, went from a tie for 12th in its time slot to sixth, leapfrogging the Beat in the process.
"He's the unofficial mayor of Tampa," Chase said of Davis. "He's been there so long, and obviously connected with the audience, developed a real deep connection with his audience."
Davis said that when Beasley took over, he had opportunities to remain with CBS in another market, or even jump to iHeart. But what he liked about Beasley was their smaller, regional corporate structure. Instead of having to run every idea through CBS in New York, he could connect directly with Beasley's leadership in Naples — not just about Wild, but about Beasley's markets around the country.
Chase, Davis said, is in his office once a week.
"I'm bouncing ideas off of him, about a multiplicity of our markets, and directly about Wild. I get a direct answer, and I'm emailing our COO and CEO straight away."
One such idea was the Tampa Bay Talent Search.
While Wild's bread and butter is mainstream hip-hop — its annual spring Wild Splash concert draws tens of thousands of fans to Clearwater's Coachman Park — Wild also regularly spins white pop artists like Tori Kelly, Calvin Harris, Sam Smith, Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran.
"We've helped so many hip-hop artists over the years," he said. "Most people who are singer-songwriter types, they would come in and we'd be like, 'Look, you gotta get hot in the club, or get into our mixes.' They'd be like, 'I don't make that type of music. They don't play me at Club Skye. They don't play me at Jackson's.' So, we never really had great opportunities for them."
Davis, a longtime Kelly fan, spoke with Hard Rock reps about linking a private, station-sponsored show with the casino's summer acoustic music series. It was an unlikely partnership that, just a few years ago, might never have happened.
"Hard Rock used to be all about classic rock," said David deMontmollin, the casino's vice president of sales and marketing. "Ten years ago, we probably wouldn't have done this because pop wasn't really what Hard Rock was about. Now, it is."
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Three weeks after the Kelly event, Davis was back at the Hard Rock Cafe for the Tampa Bay Talent Search finals. After sifting through more than 200 entries, the contest was down to 11 finalists — 10 chosen by judges, one picked by fans.
If the mission was to create a creative space for nontraditional Wild artists, it was a success. One sang a stark, moving mashup of Lauryn Hill and Beyonce. Another delivered a torchy take on House of the Rising Sun. Most played originals — a gentle country-folk number, a ukulele-driven slice of neo-soul, a bubblegum-pop ode to Vintage Cream Soda. All were vastly stripped-down and vulnerable; one singer admitted she'd never performed on a stage this big.
The winner was Francesca Giorgianni, a 16-year-old Hillsborough High School IB student and marching band clarinetist who won across-the-board raves for her sparse, delicately deconstructed rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Francesca, who's normally a country music fan, said she was surprised to hear Wild was sponsoring a contest for singer-songwriters. "But then they kind of tied in Bruno Mars and Tori Kelly, and I was like, 'I understand,' " she said. "Because Tori Kelly is amazing."
Davis laughed when asked if he could remember ever spinning Somewhere Over the Rainbow on Wild. "Never," he said.
But that doesn't mean he never will.
"I don't think looking at the usual suspects of Wild is going to keep Wild the station that it is," he said. "The Tori Kellys, the Robin Thickes, the Calvin Harrises, the Tove Los — those are records that aren't 'Wild,' if we're going to be (put) in a box. But if we're going to be a station that reciprocates the market after being here for 16 years, they're going to trust us to play what they love."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] Follow @JayCridlin.