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|City of license||Owensboro, Kentucky|
|Broadcast area||Evansville / Owensboro / Henderson / IN-KY-IL Tri-State area|
|Slogan||"Today's Hit Music"|
|First air date||September 1982|
|Format||Top 40 / CHR|
|Callsign meaning||WSTO stands for 'W'e're in digital 'STereO'!, as the station was one of the first (perhaps the first) stations in Kentucky to broadcast in stereo|
|Sister stations||WABX, WIKY-FM, WLFW|
WSTO (96.1 FM, "Hot 96") is a heritage Top-40 radio station that serves the Evansville, Indiana, Owensboro, Kentucky, and Henderson, Kentucky markets. It is licensed to Owensboro and broadcasts from a 1,000-foot tower strategically located midway between these cities in the Kentucky town of Hebbardsville. WSTO's studio is located inside South Central Communications' headquarters on Mount Auburn Road in Evansville, Indiana, near the studios of WFIE-TV.
Founded by V. J. Steele, the owner of WVJS, WSTO was among the first FM stations in the region to transform from easy listening music to pop music, making the switch in 1982. The station reaches 33 counties in the Illinois-Indiana-Kentucky Tri-State Area. Callers from as far away as St. Louis, Missouri and Louisville, Kentucky were known to call the studio request lines.
By 1987, with Program Director Barry Witherspoon, Music Director/Midday Personality Scott Murray, Morning Personality Brian Jackson, Afternoon Personality Jamie Richards, Evening Personality Charlie Foxx, and Overnight Personality Rusty Sharp, the station had a commanding 31.5 share among persons 12 and older. Even to this day Richards is still the highest rated drive-time personality in the history of the Evansville market. Later, in the 90s, on-air personalities such as Kevin Osbourne, Ethan Adler, Cindy Mercer, Mark Ross, and Brent Gardner became fan favorites. None are currently on the air in the market and others are just plain impossible to find anywhere.
In 1996, WSTO and its sister AM station were acquired by the former Brill Media Corporation of Evansville, Indiana which also acquired WOMI and WBKR also of Owensboro. After the Brill takeover, the numbers began to decline for a variety of reasons including the firing of 15-year morning man Brian Jackson, growing commercial inventory, alienation of the younger listeners, and overbearing corporate management who believed they were programmers.
WSTO's ratings plummeted. In the late 90s, the heritage WSTO calls were all-but-eliminated, in favor of the moniker "Mix 96STO" and the slogan "the Best Mix of the 90s, 80s, and Today". The format was an adult leaning CHR/Top 40 formats, playing music from the 80s alongside popular artists of the day such as Eminem and Will Smith.
Ratings under this marketing plan actually increased slightly and the moniker was shortened slightly to "96-STO." There was already competition in the market, though, as around that same time Evansville had WDKS, doing a variant of Hot AC.
The conservative Hot AC format on WDKS didn't get very far, and WDKS was never a serious threat to WSTO until Clear Channel took the station over and put its "Kiss FM" brand on it in the fall of 2000. It appeared that might be the end of a long reign for WSTO. After Clear Channel took control, WDKS soared in the Evansville market ratings.
The WSTO numbers fell to the 6 share range, something that had never happened prior. To make matters worse, Brill Media fell into financial ruin and went bankrupt, forcing the sale of all four stations.
WSTO FM was acquired by South Central Communications Corporation of Evansville, Indiana, and co-located the station with WIKY 104.1 and WABX 107.5. Rumors immediately began to abound that South Central would dump CHR/Pop altogether to go Hot AC as a complimentary sales package with WIKY, but thorough research suggested otherwise.
In 2004, WSTO launched a new moniker, "Hot 96 - Today's Hit Music," which allowed for new opportunities to refocus their format and better compete with rival, WDKS-FM "106.1 Kiss-FM." "Hot 96" later rebounded in the ratings and is still considered to be one of the best programmed top-40 stations in the midwest, and possibly the United States.
WSTO remains a market leader to this day. In the Arbitron Fall 2011 book for Evansville, "Hot 96" ranked third overall, with an 8.6 share, beating out rival WDKS by nearly three shares.
It was announced on May 28, 2014, that Midwest Communications will purchase 9 of the 10 Stations owned by South Central Communications. (This includes the Evansville Cluster which include WSTO along with Sister Stations WABX, WIKY-FM & WLFW-FM) With this purchase, Midwest Communications will expand its portfolio of stations to Evansville, Knoxville and Nashville. The sale was finalized on September 2, 2014, at a price of $72 million.