Monday, February 23, 2009

As We While Away the Days

The next Atlanta radio shoe will undoubtedly drop at any time. The rapid-fire schedule and delivery of Arbitron’s PPM ratings will make sure of that. I’m going to take advantage of this lull by making a few observations, the first two of which have some relevance to the consolidated radio landscape.

Observation #1: Radio One’s Simulcast
When Radio One’s plans to simulcast its new urban AC 107.5 with 97.5 were let out of the bag, I wrote I felt this would be a waste of a signal. While 107.5 has better northern penetration and 97.5 is stronger to the south, the stations pretty much duplicate coverage. Moreover, both stations have proven they can get ratings on their own.

The other result of the simulcast was the relocation of Praise from 97.5 to the weaker 102.5 signal.

On the Friday prior to the moves, Radio One released a PowerPoint presentation to clients outlining the plans. The presentation included coverage maps of 107.5 and 97.5 that showed a fairly dramatic difference. The 107.5 city-grade circle covered all of Atlanta as far south as Union City; the 97.5 circle bordered Midtown to the north and passed Peachtree City to the south. Overlap was primarily over the southern half of Atlanta.

Even taking the maps at face value raises the question of why 97.5 is really a necessary part of the equation. After all, 107.5 provides city-grade coverage to the areas that matter, including Clayton County. Furthermore, face value is not reality.

Both stations, while officially non-directional, have maximized their signals toward Atlanta, 107.5 from the north and 97.5 from the south. In fact, I was in the 97.5 transmitter building on a Sunday in 1997 while the maximization was being performed. (Those outside tower guys are a rough bunch, by the way.) The two coverage areas overlap far more than the maps indicate.

Does Kiss 104.1, Majic’s most direct competitor, have a better signal than 107.5 in the southern part of the market? Absolutely. But, Majic has destination programming in morning and afternoon drive, featuring Steve Harvey and Michael Baisden, respectively. The 107.5 signal, while not equal to Kiss, would be easily found by anyone looking for these star performers. Just ask the airport parking-shuttle drivers, who always seemed to be playing 107.5 when it was a Smooth Jazz outlet.

All of that notwithstanding, Radio One, which has always played third fiddle in this town, sees the opportunity to pick up big ratings quickly. And having a signal that stops the scan in its tracks in the southern end probably will help the company realize that goal.

If Radio One were not a public company with big debt in a PPM world, I probably would be on its case for not unwrapping the new urban AC package on just 107.5, keeping Praise at 97.5 and seeing how the ratings unfolded. In this pressure-cooker environment, however, the company is understandably anxious to make things happen, and the sooner the better; and to do so even if it means wasting a profitable signal.

Observation #2: The Braves Can Only Hope for Such a Bench
As we all are painfully aware, a byproduct of the huge debt among radio conglomerates has been a significant decrease in higher priced—and higher quality—on-air people. Here in Atlanta, some of the best are sitting on the sidelines.

The first two who come to mind are Sandy Weaver and JoJo Morales. These are people with talent oozing out of their pores. Happily, Sandy seems to be loving her new life as a voiceover talent (, and JoJo is employed as the afternoon personality on Sirius XM’s “90’s on 9.” Yet it seems amazing that stations let these two sit there while fighting for ratings with far lesser talent. Well, it seems amazing until you think about budget realities.

Then there’s Tripp West, who is completing an outstanding 11-year run at Star 94. I’ve always felt Star 94 was the perfect platform for Tripp; he fits in just right, sounding comfortable and congenial; and putting out the quintessential Star 94 sound. So now Tripp joins the ranks of the Atlanta All-Stars who made the trip but are not in the game. Our guess is Tripp will land something good in another market. We wish him the best.

Longtime Atlanta radio fixture Steve Mitchell is another member of the club. Steve is a solid jock and an absolute wizard in the production studio.

Observation #3: Mark Arum Develops as a Talk Host
When I listened to Mark Arum fill in for Herman Cain on WSB-AM last Friday, I was thinking about how good Mark sounded, and how far he’s come as a talk-show host.

Mark’s voice is not going to win any awards, but that’s okay; his overall performance overcomes that. He has developed an excellent style and keeps things on an even keel, no matter what is thrown at him. Mark also shows intelligence and insight, and is knowledgeable on every pertinent subject in both the news and sports universes.

Mark deservedly was awarded an early-evening show on two Cox stations in Connecticut. As a Connecticut native, Mark knows the lay of the land and comes across as a local to listeners.

So what does this excellence portend for Mark’s future in Talk radio? That’s hard to answer because Mark does face a couple of obstacles. For the most part, successful Talk stations spew the conservative viewpoint, which is the case with WSB. Current thinking is that airing one brand of talk is as important as airing one type of music. Yet Mark is an independent thinker and does not fit the WSB brand of talk, or that of most Talk stations.

Mark is also honest with his viewpoints, which I find refreshing. However, Talk radio is really about entertainment, ratings and revenue. Rush Limbaugh is a great entertainer. Does he believe everything he espouses? Who knows? But I do know Limbaugh and other talk hosts realize that being honest plays second fiddle to entertaining, getting ratings and making money. Limbaugh admitted as much when he signed his recent mega-millions contract.

I still have to think, based on his smarts, talent and versatility, that Mark Arum has a very promising future in broadcasting.

Finally this week, thanks to Dan Steele for pointing out that “Are we human or are we dancing?”, the song line that runs through my head after I listen to Dave-FM, is done by The Killers and is on the AAA chart. And yes, my AAA benchmarks are the KINK’s of the world, that lean modern.

My email address is Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 16, 2009

What's Next For Dave-FM?

This past week, 92-9 Dave-FM (WZGC) named veteran Scott Jameson as its third Program Director. Jameson’s rock resume is impressive and includes the last 15 years at Classic Rock WFBQ-FM and Alternative WRZX-FM in Indianapolis.

Mr. Jameson will face some challenges, one of which is the limited and splintered rock audience in the Atlanta market. Another is what to do for a morning show. But Dave-FM’s most glaring need in my opinion is establishing its musical identity. Since the station launched in 2004, it hasn’t had consistency musically although its days under Mike Wheeler have been an improvement over those of its first PD, Michelle Engel.

Dave-FM started its life with the slogan, “Rock Without Rules.” The station’s playlist was all over the place. People were calling it AAA, and it did contain some elements of the format. But it was far from the real thing. Some observers referred to Dave-FM as Michelle Engel’s personal playlist, and they likely were right.

After 3 years in which the station’s high-water mark was about a 3 share in Persons 12+, Mike Wheeler was brought in to right the ship. Wheeler steered Dave-FM in a decidedly AAA direction, to the point where the format descriptor probably fit. But the end product was kind of an AAA format with a rock edge, and was heavy on 80’s groups such as The Police, Dire Straits and Tears for Fears. And I’m not sure whether any other AAA stations play The Killers.

I would expect that Scott Jameson knows music and is capable of bringing a consistent AAA sound to Dave-FM if that was the strategy. But, an even bigger question is whether AAA would be capable of generating big ratings in Atlanta. The format seems to do that only in heavily Caucasian liberal markets.

On the talent side of things, Dave-FM has most of the pieces, including two of the market’s most talented hosts, Mara Davis and Margot. As mentioned above, mornings have been and still are a puzzle.

When talent agent Norm Schrutt received his Lifetime Achievement A.I.R. Award, the AJC’s Rodney Ho wrote an article that quoted some of Schrutt’s clients, among them Mara Davis. Davis commented that Norm was usually right, and provided the example of Schrutt advising her against moving to mornings, which she co-hosted with Dunham at the end of Z93, Dave-FM’s predecessor station. Mara commented that after making the move, she realized Norm was right. My question is, what made him right?

The paring of Dunham and Davis did not produce the most exciting morning show. Yet Mara has proven herself a compelling performer and an audience favorite. With the difficulty that Dave-FM has had in finding a morning show in its almost 4 years on the air—in light of the low incidence of success in any station’s bringing in a successful morning show these days—why not let Mara take the lead role along with a male news reporter/second banana?

Yes, I realize Mara has a dedicated audience in midday and is associated with the Radio-Free Lunch. But I think moving Mara to mornings is by far the best bet the station could make. And when you add to that some radio-geek criticism that Mara talks too much for midday, the move makes even more sense.

Margot, currently in evenings, is the only Dave-FM personality who really has that true AAA sound. She could easily slide into midday. Rich Sully Sullivan in afternoon drive does not have the world’s best broadcast voice, but he’s a good conversationalist and has some creativity. Tim Orff could replace Margot in evenings. Orff is not a great personality in terms of delivery, but I enjoy him because he has a sense of humor, and the fun he has is contagious.

Aside from the music and morning show, the station’s position is glaringly absent from its imaging. We know Dave-FM is not “Atlanta’s #1 hit music station” or “Atlanta’s station for old school and R&B.” But, what is it? Finally, if AAA remained the station’s direction, Dave-FM might want to go with imaging that was a bit more laid back.

Even with the increased audience compression over the past 10 years, that the powerful 92.9 signal has languished with shares in the 2’s (in Persons 12+) kind of boggles the mind.

V-103’s Midday Decision
V-103 finally named its new midday personality, and she is Elle Duncan from the Ryan Cameron show. Of course, I was not privy to the reason for the decision, but I happen to think Ramona Debreaux, who had been filling in, sounds a lot better. In fact, I am not a fan of Duncan’s high-pitched voice.

V-103 has been the New York Yankees of Atlanta radio. Every fulltime personality is a star and is unique. While Elle Duncan was not a star in her own rite, she does continue the station’s tradition of sounding unique in every shift. So perhaps tapping Duncan can be rationalized that way.

I of course don’t know the internal politics at V-103, but the overall station will certainly carry Duncan to high ratings.

My email address is Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Will It Be Back to the Good Old Days?

A couple of blogs written by respected radio people caused a stir last week. First, former Inside Radio publisher Jerry Del Colliano wrote that most of the large radio groups would not survive 2009 without debt restructuring, a near impossibility in the current lending climate. Second, consultant Bill McMahon called On Air with Ryan Seacrest “a microcosm of what’s wrong with radio,” citing what he feels is the syndicated show’s cookie-cutter nature.

While bemoaning what they believe is the sad state of radio, with voice tracking, syndication replacing local personalities, unimaginative programming and massive layoffs, radio observers felt a tinge of hope. If the Clear Channels of the world were forced into bankruptcy, legions of stations would likely find their way into the hands of smaller, perhaps privately-held, owners.

When I listen to airchecks from the 60’s and 70’s, I get a feeling of fun and excitement. So what has happened since those goldie oldie years? Are conglomerates the root of all this radio evil? If the big radio groups were broken up, would everything with the world be right again?

It all started so innocently and for a perfectly valid reason. In the late 1980’s, approximately 70% of U.S. radio stations were losing money. That led to the LMA, local management (or marketing) agreement, the precursor to deregulation. The FCC’s blessing on LMA’s was universally applauded as logical and necessary. LMA’s popped up in markets everywhere.

Once the fox was in the henhouse, however, radio station groups wanted more. They got what they wanted when the FCC allowed them to purchase a second station which with they had an LMA. But that was not enough.

I remember reading a quote from Randy Michaels, then CEO of Jacor, making the case for owning more than 2 stations in a market. Mr. Michaels said owning several stations would enable radio groups to offer diverse programming, citing classical as a possible format. I thought, “Yeah, right.”

LMA’s notwithstanding, a lot of red ink still flowed in the early 1990’s. Armed with this ammunition, radio lobbyists pushed Congress for deregulation. When it happened in 1996, the radio landscape’s transformation was dramatic. In just several years, ownership rules had shifted from one end of the spectrum to the other. Station sales hit a frenetic pace, as small owners cashed out big time. Then major groups bought other major groups.

As consolidation marched forward, the new radio companies accumulated immense debt. But not to worry; the economy was booming. Station values were increasing. That the economy could eventually tank was not part of the business model.

A lesson to be learned is that, big conglomerates or not, multiple station ownership within a market should continue to be a fact of life. Taking into account good times and bad, as well as the proliferation of alternatives to terrestrial radio, some staff consolidation, such as office and engineering, will be necessary for stations to thrive. Nevertheless, I would prefer that stations under a single owner in a market be slightly less than the current numbers. After all, more competition results in better product.

So back to our question: Are the big radio conglomerates the reason for the mediocrity in radio? My conclusion is probably partially but nowhere near totally. A lot has happened since the fun days of radio.

In those good old days of chasin’ the blues just minutes from news, programmers had what seemed like good ideas and executed them. The only research was calling record stores. In the mid-sixties, programmer Bill Drake surmised that more-music radio without the clutter would beat traditional song-talk-commercial radio. And he was right. Drake’s format also manifested his other theories. For example, he figured playing a jingle going into a song would get listeners to associate his stations with music. But Drake was all about intuition; the ratings were his research.

Radio consultants were not new to the industry but started popping up full force in the 70’s. The John Rooks and Buzz Bennetts of the world were portrayed as the geniuses behind Y100 in Miami, 13Q in Pittsburgh and other success stories. Consultants refined Drake’s theories, and stations increasingly became more-music machines. That the audience was moving to FM accelerated the emphasis on music. Gone were the days when stations had time to talk about listeners searching for a Mustang key. Yet some great jocks still manned the turntables, such as Miami’s JoJo Kincaid and Robert W. Walker, San Diego’s Rich Brother Robbins and others.

Research became a byword in the 1980’s. Although Scott Shannon famously shunned research in favor of his own opinions at New York’s Z100, a consensus grew that a station could not be successful without it. Consultant firms hired researchers to learn and then teach clients how to pull listeners through quarter hours plus other techniques to amass Arbitron diary mentions. All of this was more bad news for lovers of radio as it once was.

Radio’s increasingly sophisticated ways of getting ratings in our judgment had much more to do with today’s bland programming than did Clear Channel or any other conglomerate.

Another huge force in the melding of today’s radio was technology. Of course, automation had been around for years, and had for the most part been unsuccessful. Today all kinds of voice tracking software are out there, enabling the better jocks to appear on air in multiple markets without listeners knowing it. And frankly, voice tracking has improved the sound of medium and small market radio. Gone are the days when my friends and I drove through a small town and had fun laughing at the jock on the local station. ISDN lines are another technology that contributed to radio’s sameness around the country.

Still another factor that moved radio to where it stands today was advertising agencies. Procter & Gamble had a perfectly legitimate reason for targeting 25-54 for most of its brands; large families buy more household products. But agencies use either 25-54 or 18-49 for virtually every client. That forced almost all FM’s to program for the same demographics and is what led to format fragmentation: AC, Hot AC, Soft AC, Pop Conservative, CHR, Adult CHR…and on we go.

When you fold large radio conglomerates into the mix of programming for ratings, technology and agency target audience, the picture is complete. Strapped with unwieldy numbers of stations and mountains of debt, radio companies were forced to cut costs, unloading superior talent and making enhanced use of voice tracking and ISDN technology. Super tight playlists became the order of the day; there was no room for experimentation. Today’s down economy did not figure in their business plans but has accelerated what many feel is a significant decrease in the quality of radio stations, on and off the air.

So if major owners were forced into a wholesale shedding of stations--well within the realm of possibility--and many of the properties ended up in the hands of smaller owners, would radio return to that way-back machine of yesteryear? Probably not, but things might improve to an extent.

Privately-held companies can afford to be more benevolent in tough times compared to public companies, which see their stock price go up when they lay off workers. Moreover, private and especially family owners, who might gain entry into radio by virtue of depressed prices, sometimes are willing to allow some creativity. Nevertheless, the forces of technology, research and virtually all FM’s targeting the same audience will still be a part of the landscape. Why employ an overnight personality when doing so is a money-losing proposition, especially in light of voice tracking technology?

Another big factor clouding the issue in major markets is Arbitron’s PPM, which has been indicating that a music station’s ratings are highest during music sweeps and lowest when someone opens his mouth. This too could have influence on the sound and creativity of radio as we move forward.

Thanks for reading. Your comments are welcome. Email me at

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Radio One Gets One Right

You would never have known by the clumsy way in which the format change was handled by Radio One/Atlanta’s top management. But replacing Smooth Jazz on 107.5 with an urban AC station that will house Steve Harvey and Michael Baisden shows some brain power within Radio One. Of course, the company does have some super programming minds, starting with Barry Mayo, its President, and Jay Stevens, its Senior VP, Programming Content. And Steve Hegwood, who programs the Atlanta cluster, is well respected.

Magic 107-5, the new format’s moniker, was the station’s identifier during its first 3 years on the air, before the flip to Smooth Jazz. The first version of Magic tricked only Radio One, sawing no competitor’s ratings in half. But you will not be having an illusion when the 2009 version makes Kiss 104.1’s number one ranking vanish.

The new 107.5, presumably to be christened WAMJ, is a more recent Urban AC than Kiss, positioning itself as “The best mix of R&B from the 80’s, 90’s and today.” (I did hear “Le Freak” by Chic, a hit from 1978 at the tail end of the disco craze.)

As we remarked 2 weeks ago, Urban AC is the best format for the 107.5 signal. Of course back then, Radio One/Atlanta management was not leveling with us that such was the plan.

Urban AC will work for 107.5 this time for a couple of reasons. The biggest one is that the Urban Radio landscape has markedly changed. Tom Joyner proved that syndicated product can work in the Urban arena, tearing down the widely-perceived notion that it could not. Michael Baisden and Doug Banks added credence to the Joyner results.

In 2005, TV star Steve Harvey took a shot at syndicated morning radio. Bull’s eye! In market after market, Harvey lifted stations to number one and became the hottest thing in Urban Radio. Radio One’s 102.5 grabbed Harvey for mornings and added Baisden for afternoon drive. Within these giant bookends were Syndication One shows Michael Eric Dyson and Al Sharpton in middays. The station’s ratings soared to heights that most observers had thought unattainable given 102.5’s weak signal. Steve Harvey at times beat Kiss 104.1’s Tom Joyner in key demos.

The second reason is the caliber of talent this time around. With Harvey and Baisden, 107.5 will already have the cream of the crop on the cheap. Several years ago, SiMan (Silas Alexander) made a bad decision, leaving afternoon drive at Kiss 104.1 for a morning show on 102.5. The lure of a morning show sounded great, but one fact he seemed to ignore was the morning show would be on a 3,000-watt station. When Radio One brought in Steve Harvey, SiMan was demoted to evenings, where he continued to do an excellent job. He is one of a few being mentioned for middays on the new 107.5. At the least, he should make a seamless transition to the new frequency, be it for middays or evenings.

Other names being bandied about for fulltime slots at 107.5 are former V-103 morning co-host Carol Blackmon and former V-103 midday jock Magic Man (Myron Gigger), both of whom have weekend shows on 102.5.

The new Magic 107-5 is running automated and commercial free. It’s already sounding good, and Kipp Kelly is absolutely perfect as the station voice. According to Radio One, financial details are being worked out with Premiere Radio and ABC regarding moving Steve Harvey and Michael Baisden over to the 107.5 signal, a plausible reason for the delay. Music formats often leave the starting gate with no jocks in order to get an audience quickly. In this case, we don’t think that’s the best strategy since Harvey and Baisden are incredible draws.

Radio One/Atlanta really fumbled this one by dismissing the Smooth Jazz air staff long before the flip was made. That prompted questions, especially from WJZZ clients, regarding what would become of the frequency. Making matters worse, management told clients that starting on January 21, 107.5 would start simulcasting the programming of 102.5, making no mention of a new Urban AC station on 107.5.

When the simulcast did not start on January 21, clients were told it was because of engineering and call letter issues. Well, simulcasting a station within a cluster is basically a matter of throwing a switch. And, call letters need be mentioned only once per hour. The real reason for the delay was apparently that the Urban AC format was not ready to roll.

Given radio’s competitiveness, most stations adhere to the Nike rule: Just do it; make the flip and then announce it to staff and clients. Radio One should have retained WJZZ’s air staff until the new format was set to go. Flipping and then explaining is understandable; not telling the truth is not.

Mend Quickly Scott Slade
The anchor of WSB-AM’s “Atlanta’s Morning News” suffered a broken leg last week. Scott is a master at running that show. That he loves what he’s doing comes right through those speakers.

My email address is Thanks for reading.