When a new commercial radio station pops up on the local dial, it can be a while before listeners take notice and things get rolling. With an upbeat blend of modern, feel-good pop and melodic light rock, the recently established WMXZ Mix 95.9 FM is trying hard to connect with the Lowcountry.
As a special holiday gift to its growing listener base, Mix 95.9 will present the inaugural Jingle Bell Ball concert at the North Charleston Coliseum on Wednesday evening.
Designed as a five-act showcase featuring The Fray, Avril Lavigne, Daughtry, Jesse McCartney and ZZ Ward, the concert will offer rockin' entertainment for the station's targeted audience.
"All five of the acts on this bill will do a fantastic job on stage, and I can say that because I've seen all of them in concert before," says Sammy Suarez, program director for Mix 95.9.
"We wanted to put together a lineup where our listeners could show up with their kids, and both the parents and kids were going to have a good time," he says. "It's more of a family event than a typical concert. There's five great acts on the bill, so when you break the ticket price down, it's only $5 to see each one. That's a pretty great deal."
Suarez is a lifelong radio man. He grew up in Indiana, where he started his career as a DJ with local stations.
"I've pretty much done radio my entire life," Suarez says. "I got started in Indiana, working with Clear Channel, and I've traveled doing radio everywhere from Utah and California to Montana, Kansas and Texas."
Suarez was based in Florida before he relocated to the Lowcountry last year.
"I've always loved Charleston, and my goal was always to land in a great city like this on the East Coast, in the South. Charleston was the brass ring. When I had a great opportunity to join Apex here, I was very happy."
Suarez started working as the program director at Mix 95.9, one of several local stations owned and operated by the Florida/Charleston-based Apex Corp., the day after Christmas last year.
After incorporation, the station's format settled into a mix of Hot Adult Contemporary ("Hot AC") and Top 40.
They excluded hard-core rap and hip-hop, and emphasized familiar modern pop and rock hits from the last 15 years or so.
These days, they mix brand-new releases with the bona fide pop faves.
Suarez says he personally enjoys the format of the station because the mix of styles works well for him as he grew up listening to a variety of rock, pop, country and metal. He considers himself to be right in the middle of the Hot AC demographic.
"I listened to everything from Elvis Presley, which is what my mom listened to, to the Kingston Trio, which is what my dad listened to," he says. "And then I went through all of the typical phases: classic rock, country and hip-hop phases."
Before Suarez went on the air, Mix 95.9 did not feature live-on-the-air personalities. Like many stations around the country, they simply piped in syndicated shows or DJs who had voice-tracked their shifts. Now, Suarez handles the afternoon and evening shifts, and rookie DJ Jill Perry handles the night shift through the week.
"It's been a phenomenal year," Suarez says. "Obviously, the station has shown a lot of growth. We didn't have any local DJs before Jill and I got on the mic. It's a good combination, and it's especially good to be with a locally owned station. It's good radio the way radio was meant to be."
When the execs at Mix 95.9 decided to book a pop/rock holiday showcase, Suarez chimed in and personally approached record labels and booking agencies to figure out who might be available and willing to sign on for the Jingle Bell Ball. They did not want to simply slap the station's logo on a tour that was already in the works. They wanted to create an enthusiastic pop/rock show of their own that would accurately reflect the personality of the station.
"We took offers from artists who would represent the station well and who would do well here in Charleston," Suarez says. "We also asked a lot of our listeners and people around the community who they'd love to see in concert. Ultimately, we were able to bring five acts in on one bill."
Singer/songwriter ZZ Ward (aka Zsuzsanna Eva Ward) will kick things off at the Coliseum at 8 p.m. with a brief 20- to 25-minute set of original tunes, including selections from her 2012 debut album "Til the Casket Drops," which included her hit single "Put the Gun Down," a danceable, soul-pop ditty with hints of gospel and R&B.
Pop singer Jesse McCartney, a veteran singer/actor, will handle a 30-minute set of his most upbeat originals and renditions, including tracks from his latest, self-released EP "In Technicolor Part 1."
Each Jingle Bell Ball co-headliner - Daughtry, Avril Lavigne and The Fray - will perform full sets between 45 minutes and an hour or more in length.
"They'll each do all of their hits, and they may sprinkle in a few Christmas songs, just to keep with the holiday theme of the night," Suarez says. "Most of these acts are wrapping up their touring for the year, and they're really glad to do that in Charleston. Some of them have never even been in the Lowcountry before, so there's a sense of excitement."
A few years ago, North Carolina-based singer-songwriter and bandleader Chris Daughtry was known best as one of the more rock-oriented contestants on TV's "American Idol," but he's rebranded himself as an aggressive alt-rock vocalist with a guitar-heavy, adult-pop style.
Daughtry's latest collection, "Baptized," features the hit single "Waiting for Superman."
Over the last 10 years, Canadian export Lavigne has grown musically, from her initial status as a teen superstar to a serious songsmith. Her 2002 album "Let Go" presented a cute-but-tough teen pop-punk chick persona, which led to multiplatinum pop success. Her latest releases, many of which have been collaborations with her husband, Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger, have presented a slightly more mature tone.
In the mid-2000s, Denver-based pop-rock combo The Fray was performing in small-to-medium rock clubs around the U.S., including The Windjammer on the Isle of Palms. After The Fray signed with Epic Records in 2004, the band recorded its powerhouse debut LP "How to Save a Life" and released it in 2005. The catchy single "Over My Head (Cable Car)" became a smash hit. The ballad-esque single "How to Save a Life" followed and was featured in the soundtrack to ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and HBO's montage of "The Sopranos." The latest album, "Helios," includes the current hit "Love Don't Die."
While Suarez is anxious to see and hear each performer on the Coliseum stage next week, he admits that he's personally most excited to catch The Fray in action again.
"It's a tough one, but if I had to pick the one I'm most excited to see again, I'd pick The Fray," he says. "They do such a good job, and they have such a huge catalog of music. It's a well-rounded performance, and their stage presence is incredible."
Through his years working in the radio world, Suarez has gained substantial experience with booking and producing live concerts for various radio stations.
He knows how to arrange, promote and set up a major show, and he hopes the Jingle Bell Ball will help establish Mix 95.9 as a serious concert host with local audiences.
"The goal, 100 percent, is to make the Jingle Bell Ball an annual event for Apex and the Lowcountry," Suarez says. "The idea is not just do a show; we want to do a show that'll represent to station and the Lowcountry. We want to help bring acts who've never played here before, and we want to build on that in the next few years."