Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Radio One's Chess Game

Last summer, a friend who is plugged in with Radio One CEO Alfred Liggins told me that Liggins wanted to move the successful urban talk format from 102.5 to 107.5, replacing 107.5’s 7-year-old Smooth Jazz sound. He added that Radio One wanted to then sell 102.5.

I can’t say I was surprised. Smooth Jazz stations had succumbed in a number of markets last year, starting with New York’s WQCD. The talk format on 102.5 (WAMJ), featuring the syndicated Steve Harvey, Warren Ballentine, Al Sharpton and Michael Baisden, was tremendously overachieving relative to its meager signal. The 107.5 (WJZZ) signal is Radio One’s best.

In the end, 107.5’s Smooth Jazz format was pushed off the deck by a combination of things: Arbitron’s PPM, 102.5’s success, Steve Harvey, and Bruce Demps’ personal mission.

The urban talk format’s shift to 107.5 will set off several changes at Radio One’s Atlanta cluster. At 7PM on Wednesday, January 21, 107.5 will begin simulcasting the talk programming of 102.5. Then on Monday, February 2, WPZE (Praise) will move from 97.5 to 102.5. Simultaneously 97.5 will begin a simulcast with 107.5. Hot 107.9 (WHTA), the company’s hip-hop station, will remain at the top of the dial.

My inclination would be to handle things a little differently but more on that later.

Arbitron’s PPM has not been kind to formats with high TSL and low cume, of which Smooth Jazz is one. So WJZZ probably would not have had a flourishing ratings future.

WAMJ (102.5) has the weakest signal and best ratings of the Radio One properties in the early going of the PPM. WAMJ’s 3,000-watt signal, emanating from Ben Hill, does okay in town but runs into problems in Mid and North DeKalb, where WLKQ, 102.3 in Buford, causes splatter even on good car radios. A couple of years ago, Radio One offered to pay WLKQ owner Davis Broadcasting to move the 102.3 tower 5 miles farther from Atlanta, so 102.5 could move to a more central location. Not surprisingly, Davis declined.

Steve Harvey walked onto the syndicated morning stage in 2005 and immediately took the battle right to Urban AC morning fixture Tom Joyner. In market after market, Harvey beat Joyner and became a hot property for syndicator Premiere. WAMJ grabbed the show, and it propelled 102.5 to ratings glory. In morning drive, Harvey at times edged Joyner on Kiss 104.1 (WALR-FM) in key demos despite WAMJ’s puny signal. The comedian’s potential on a bigger station was obvious, especially since he was moving his home to Atlanta.

When PPM in Atlanta became a reality in October, Joyner was #1 of all stations in morning drive (Persons 6+); ditto that performance in November. Observers theorized Joyner’s emphasis on the election and its aftermath was the reason. The December PPM, however, showed both Joyner and Kiss overall jumping into the #1 spot.

A radio acquaintance told me she knew Radio One Regional Vice-President Bruce Demps when they worked together in Florida. She remarked, “Bruce is on a mission,” a mission that has not been on track so far. In a highly-motivated attempt to narrow the ratings gap between V-103 (WVEE) and Hot 107-9, Demps cast aside the well-regarded Jerry Smokin’ B as Hot’s PD. Original Hot PD Steve Hegwood, for whom Radio One corporate had no more room in DC, was dispatched to Atlanta to head the cluster’s programming. Despite some on-air changes, the huge ratings gap remains.

Bruce Demps felt if Tom Joyner was #1, and Steve Harvey beat Joyner all over the place, Harvey could kick Joyner’s butt on a better signal. Of course, higher ratings mean more advertising revenue. So the move to 107.5 makes some sense. But wait…I said Demps is on a mission. He wants to be #1, needs to be #1, and is leaving no stone unturned. To make sure the scan on every potential listener’s radio stops at Steve Harvey, Demps will use the current Praise signal at 97.5, proven capable of getting ratings on its own, to duplicate the programming of 107.5.

Personally I think Radio One has it partially wrong. Moving its most-listened-to station to its best signal at 107.5 is a logical decision. And 107.5, with its antenna around the corner from Perimeter Mall, does have its strongest penetration in the northern areas. The 97.5 signal, beamed from Tyrone south of Atlanta, obviously provides more solid coverage in the southern portion of the market.

The 107.5 signal does become unlistenable on a small stretch of I-85 in the Tyrone/Peachtree City area. However, 107.5 throws a city-grade signal over all of Atlanta. In fact, its city-grade signal stretches south of Atlanta. While I recognize Radio One’s desire to deliver a clear signal to the large African-American population in Clayton and South Fulton, the 97.5 simulcast seems a waste of a valuable signal, even more so with Steve Harvey, a destination morning host whom people will seek out. The great majority of the 97.5 and 107.5 signals city-grade the exact same geography.

Here’s what I think Radio One should do in order to maximize ratings and revenue. Steve Harvey mornings and Michael Baisden afternoons, though long on talk, were designed for Urban AC stations. I would move Harvey, Baisden and evening host Si-Man from 102.5 to 107.5, and then add urban AC in middays. That would give Radio One a bona fide competitor to Cox’s Kiss 104.1, which has a much more powerful signal but transmits from Newnan.

I would leave Warren Ballantine and Al Sharpton in middays on 102.5. The election is over, and their stellar 2008 ratings performance may or may not continue. I would fill the other dayparts with urban talk product. The station might want to go for former Atlanta Sunday morning icon Ike Newkirk, who would be a perfect fit. Syndicated product is also available, such as American Urban Radio Networks talk host Bev Smith and AURN sports talker Ty Miller. Other options include a simulcast of such a show as WOL/Washington’s Joe Madison or WWRL/New York’s Errol Lewis. A mostly-syndicated talk outlet at 102.5 would be a low cost proposition that could add significant billings. Finally, I would leave Praise where it is, at 97.5.

A couple of other wrinkles are in the Radio One master plan but at least 18 months from fruition. The company has a construction permit to move 107.5 to a new tower near Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Buford Highway. Power will increase from 21,500 to 50,000 watts at about the same height as its present antenna.

Radio One’s primary motivation to increase power is not a better signal for 107.5; it’s about making Hot 107-9 more competitive with V-103. Did I mention that Bruce Demps is on a mission? The 107.5 move will lessen the short spacing problem between 107.5 and 107.9, enabling 107.9 to increase power from 27,000 watts to 35,000 watts.

I have to admire Radio One for what it’s accomplished in Atlanta. The company went from zero stations in 1994 to 4 stations without acquiring one existing Atlanta station. That enabled R1 to establish a viable Atlanta cluster at pennies compared to purchasing existing Atlanta signals. We’ll soon learn if Radio One’s upcoming moves were the right ones.

I would love to hear from you. Email me at roddyfreeman@bellsouth.net. If you ask me not to quote your comment, I promise not to.

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