Monday, January 12, 2009

94-9 The Bull: What Was CC Really Thinking?

Just weeks before Clear Channel Market Manager Jerry Del Core was to be replaced by Chuck Deskins in 2006, CC head John Hogan was overheard muttering the following in fist-pounding fashion as he was leaving the station: “We’re gonna make Atlanta work!”

It’s no secret that the Atlanta cluster has been Hogan’s Achilles heel. The cluster includes 2 fine signals, 94.9 and 96.1; and 2 move-ins that cover the market plus an AM. Billings had taken a high dive, down an estimated $22 million from 2004 to 2005. Del Core, who was brought in to right the ship at the end of 2004, had billings rising somewhat in 2005, but not high enough and soon enough for the growingly impatient Hogan.

Rumors started flying in the fall of 2006 that Clear Channel was going to change all of its FM formats. The rumor came to partial fruition when the legendary 96 Rock moniker was retired and replaced by young-skewing Project 9-6-1. Whether that shift was wise is another discussion for another time. The 96.1 move, however, was overshadowed in short order by the format flip at 94.9 from soft AC to country in December.

Prior to launching 97-1 The River at the start of 2006, Cox did research on where the market’s holes were. The station had a huge signal across the market’s northern environs, leading observers to speculate that country might work. Nevertheless, the research indicated that Kicks 101.5 listeners were satisfied with the product that they were getting; not thrilled, mind you, but satisfied.

With Kicks the dominant station and Eagle 106.7 as a flanker, the market had no hole for country. Together the ABC (at the time) combo had a 12+ Arbitron share of about 7.5%.

Clear Channel’s Lite 94-9 was a successful soft AC station, though not as successful ratings-wise as it had been under the Peach moniker for years. But, Lite was billing approximately $15 million and, with live local talent in only morning and early midday, not prohibitively expensive to run.

So why did 94-9 flip a successful station to a format for which the market had no hole? Our guess is that the Clear Channel brain trust looked at the $24 million or so that Kicks billed. In their utter frustration and determination to grow revenue, Clear Channel decided they wanted some of that, format hole or not.

The Bull burst onto the scene in December, 2006, jolting Lite listeners enjoying their Christmas music. The Bull’s initial theme was “The biggest stars, the biggest hits.” Imaging was aggressive.

The new CC station showed some promise. The station ran jockless with a lower commercial load than Kicks. The only strange element of the original Bull was the inclusion of songs by classic rockers such as Steve Miller and John Mellencamp, presented within the context of, “We play all kinds of country.” A massive January TV campaign was designed to induce trial, and according to the Arbitrends, it did.

This post’s title encompasses two issues. The first of course is what drove Clear Channel to blow up Lite FM and introduce The Bull. The second is what got into the mind of company management, making them think they could slap anything on the air, and Kicks would just roll over. The inferior sound of the station was especially surprising given that Clear Channel's national country PD, Clay Hunnicutt, sat in the driver’s seat.

Kicks was not a great station but a good one. It had finally gotten its morning act together for the first time since Moby, as Cadillac Jack gave it an instant heritage show. The remaining Kicks air force of Kristen Gates, Bill Celler, Wylie Rose and Scotty O’Brien was solid, and PD Mark Richards has always appeared to be a master of formatics.

In early 2006, The Bull changed course, replacing its in-your-face imaging with a laid back sound, as the station’s positioning became “Real Comfortable Country.” Although it later dropped the positioning, The Bull continued as a laid-back alternative to Kicks, and with an expansive playlist to boot. The exodus from Kicks decided The Bull was not the promised land; when all was said and done, Kicks handily won the Winter, 2007 book although The Bull did take a little bite out of the large Kicks share.

The real mystery came next, as The Bull introduced Nashville’s Big D & Bubba on a voicetracked, patched-together basis. Voicetracking can work in most dayparts, but putting on the show in morning drive in Atlanta had everyone scratching his head. What were they thinking? The Bull continued plodding along, getting handily beaten by Kicks and even edged by the ABC flanker, Eagle 106.7. The Bull was live and local from 8AM to 7PM with Paul Coffy and Lance Houston but was truly a second-rate station.

In January, 2008, The Bull made an earnest effort to establish a real morning show when the station hired Cletus T. Judd, who had returned to his native Atlanta after a ton of success at WQYK in Tampa. However, The Bull had a little problem, the lack of the budget needed for Cledus to play the role he had played at WQYK, the comedian who chimed in with punch lines.

Paul Coffy, not exactly a morning talent, would identify the songs, sounding like an interpreter. Cledus would take it from there, supported by Jamie Massey and later Kristen Gates. But Cledus just was not capable of taking it from there. An employee at The Bull told me that at WQYK, a morning host carried the show, and Cledus chimed in with funny lines.

Early in 2008, Citadel, now owners of Kicks and (the former) Eagle 106.7, bestowed two gifts upon Clear Channel. In a budget-cutting massacre, the company released morning co-host Kristen Gates, afternoon driver Wylie Rose and evening talent Scotty O’Brien from Kicks, and flipped Eagle 106.7 to a syndicated oldies format. Kicks replaced Wylie Rose and Scotty O’Brien with Seri Rose in middays and Rob Lee in evenings, both minor-league caliber talent. Midday host Bill Celler, a staple at Kicks for years, reclaimed afternoon drive. The morning show was improved slightly with the addition of former Eagle morning co-host, the talented and likeable Dallas McCade.

The Citadel massacre provided a great opportunity for The Bull, but the station just limped along as a bastion of mediocrity, continuing to rank toward the bottom of the pack despite being one of the market’s best signals.

Mid-2008 was the time for Clear Channel/Atlanta’s biannual replacement of its Market Manager. Chuck Deskins was superseded by Melissa Forrest. (Deskins, however, was given an excellent job as Director of Sales for Clear Channel’s Miami cluster.) Forrest is known for her programming smarts and product focus, and she reportedly has been all over The Bull.

The ax was applied to Cledus T. Judd early in the fall. Thanksgiving weekend was as good a time as any to start a re-launch with 3,000 songs in a row, commercial free. When The Bull returned to regular programming the following week, Madison Reeves debuted as the midday personality from 9AM-2PM, proving you can be two places at one time. Reeves is also on Birmingham’s 103.7Q from 9AM-2PM. Of course, her shift at The Bull is voicetracked, which can work in middays. Reeves has a star quality about her and is a big improvement.

Evenings are now ably voicetracked by Ty Bentli of Chicago CHR station Kiss 103.5, replacing the laid back Kix Layton, who also was voicetracked. Bentli is excellent also. Moreover, the music and imaging are both vastly improved, with the music more familiar and the imaging more aggressive and creative. The station has come alive to some extent. The weekend jocks continue to be very weak.

The key to whether The Bull will challenge Kicks is mornings. For now, Kristen Gates and Todd Veal are holding down the fort.

Atlanta is a huge urban radio market, and the country shares are limited. But the market probably could handle 2 successful country stations. Kicks has given The Bull an opening, and The Bull has started to take some advantage of it. The Bull has languished for 2 years. Will it really get up and fight?

1 comment:

  1. Can Melissa Forrest really be the agent of change? I would have believed it if the first thing she did was to fire Randall Bloomquist over at WGST. He is now on his third Market Manager since 2005. She needs to clean house at all stations. Maybe next week's big meeting in San Antonio will bring about mass firings in the Building of Death.