Monday, March 30, 2009

Cox Strips Away the GM Level

Cox/Atlanta, widely considered the market’s best and most successful cluster, implemented its third layoff in 6 months last week.

When all was said and done, two of radio’s best and most respected executives were cut out of the picture, apparently victims of the struggling economy. First Chris Wegmann, Atlanta Market Manager, and then David Meszaros, GM of WSB-FM and WSRV-FM, were sadly shown the door. Wegmann has since accepted a job with Radio One as Market Manager over Dallas and St. Louis.

Marc Morgan, Cox Radio Executive VP/COO, had already been spending more time at the WSB complex recently. Now Morgan will divide his time between Corporate and overseeing the Atlanta cluster.

Dan Kearney, GM of WSB-AM, and Tony Kidd, GM of WALR-FM and WBTS-FM, received (and allow me to coin a term) a demotion-promotion. Both are no longer GM’s. Kearney is now Market Manager-Sales, and Kidd is Market Manager-Programming.

Each station still has its own General Sales Manager. WSB-AM, WALR-FM and WBTS-FM each still have their own PD; one PD continues to handle both WSB-FM and WSRV-FM.

At first glance, what happened at Cox seemed emblematic of what is happening around the U.S. Clear Channel and CBS now have Market Managers overseeing multiple markets. The same thing is starting to happen with Program Directors.

Take a closer look. This so-called cutback has added a management level. The PD’s were reporting to the GM’s; now they are reporting to Market Manager-Programming Tony Kidd.

The logical thing would have been to name Dan Kearney Market Manager and David Meszaros Director of Sales. The Cox brain trust must have felt Tony Kidd was not expendable. Kidd is Cox’s urban format mogul and considered important to the programming of urban stations across the Cox chain. Moreover, and this is just a guess, perhaps making Kearney the Market Manager could have created a political problem with Kidd. Unfortunately, Meszaros was the odd man out.

So both Kearney and Kidd find themselves a step below their former perch as a GM. Yet both now gain responsibility over more stations. Kearney has long been perceived as a fast tracker and the future leader of Cox/Atlanta. At some point, when the economy improves and advertisers start spending again, Kearney will find himself on top. Kidd had been a GM with Cox for a long time, first in Miami and then here. Nevertheless, management has always perceived him as a programming-oriented manager. I would not be surprised if being appointed Cox’s corporate head of programming was in the cards for Kidd, possibly in tandem with a future Kearney promotion.

New PD for B98.5 & The River
Jeff McHugh has been hired as the new PD at B98.5 FM and The River. McHugh has tons of experience as a PD and has done a variety of interesting things in the broadcasting business. He is the man who paired former Atlanta personality Mitch Elliott with a female longtime TV and radio legend in Portland, OR. I’ve heard their afternoon drive show, and it’s terrific.

I looked at McHugh’s website, and he’s an idea guy. So I’ll ask the obvious question: How will such a creative person fit in as PD of B98.5 and The River?

B98.5 is known to be Cox CEO Bob Neil’s favorite station. Neil of course was the architect of Cox’s AC format but also has historically been very hands on at the Atlanta flagship. The station’s PD’s executed the format based on Neil’s firm direction, down to the music clock. Was hiring Jeff McHugh akin to bringing in Michelangelo to paint the garage?

In the past couple of years, Bob Neil has wavered from his strict philosophy of music-intensive morning shows. First, he agreed to bring Rick & Bubba to WZZK-FM in Birmingham, which has paid big dividends to Cox. Second, Neil gave his nod to hiring Steve & Vikki for B98.5, a move that seems to have brought revenue to the station.

Unless The River decides its eroding ratings mean the audience is tiring of the station, Steve & Vikki are the only element in McHugh’s two stations that could possibly be in the same sentence as “creativity.” And if McHugh plans to add or subtract anything from the morning show, I would bet he has the endorsement of McCoy and Locke.

We never did find out why Paul Ciliano was fired from the B98.5/The River PD position. He apparently was well liked and worked hard. He also had the confidence of Bob Neil. Before the Steve & Vikki era, then B98.5 GM Dan Kearney was commenting to me on the differences between Kelly & Alpha and the market’s other morning shows. Kearney’s exact words were, “My PD has a coronary whenever music isn’t playing.”

This is only a wild guess; no one has suggested to me what happened to Ciliano. But old habits die hard. I wonder if something that he heard on Steve & Vikki was giving Ciliano “chest pains.” And if so, instead of heading up the street to Piedmont, did he head to McCoy and Locke?

Terrell’s Got Game
Cox’s Kiss 104.1 will certainly get competition from Radio One’s new Urban AC simulcast at 107.5 and 97.5. Steve Harvey’s morning show will really take it to Tom Joyner on Kiss. And Michael Baisden, while not having the track record of Harvey, gets ratings in a lot of markets.

I must say, however, that Art Terrell, who is against Baisden on Kiss, is sounding absolutely great. His combination of voice, delivery and attitude combine for some terrific radio. When Terrell first replaced Mitch Faulkner, I was disappointed because the difference in voice seemed drastic. Faulkner had a tremendous deep voice but little personality on the air. Terrell eventually won me over and is now sounding better than ever.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to email me at

Roddy Freeman

Link to Rodney Ho’s AJC Radio & TV Blog:

Monday, March 23, 2009

Star 94 Rearranges The Pieces

Just 2 and a half weeks after firing The Morning Mess, Star 94 has mornings and afternoons set for its renewed competition against Q100. Cindy & Ray take over AM drive, and “On Air with Ryan Seacrest” shifts to the PM ride.

Both changes make some sense on a couple of levels. But I must admit some disappointment with the Seacrest move although it had been rumored.

Cindy & Ray in mornings is a logical move for reasons recounted in our March 9 post, not the least of which was taking Star 94 back to a music-intensive direction during afternoons. C&R pretty much kept the station’s ratings afloat last year although the show was sinking in recent months. The ratings decline might have been due to the new PPM measurement, which has not been kind to talk-oriented programming on music stations, with mornings a possible exception.

The original rationale for Cindy & Ray was to bring “different radio” to afternoon drive on Star, which was experiencing ratings erosion with its regular music clock. With C&R out of the daypart, the challenge became filling the slot with something compelling. And you could argue that Ryan Seacrest will bring a star quality (no pun intended) to afternoons. In fact, Star 94 could get more mileage out of Seacrest than most stations because it all started there for the multimedia personality.

The C&R and Seacrest moves also make sense from a budget perspective. Lincoln Financial Media appears to be in a cost-cutting mode, and the new Star 94 schedule appears to recognize that. And while LFM might be getting its station P&L’s propped up for a future sale, the company does not have the debt that most of its competitors do.

The reasons that the Seacrest move disappoints me—and makes me wonder whether Star 94 will catch Q100—are that I do not think the show is especially good, and I haven’t seen evidence of ratings growth in other Seacrest markets during middays.

The problem I have with Seacrest is not so much the same run-of-the-mill celebrity news that you hear on morning shows everywhere or the trite interviews with American Idol contestants and judges in season. My reason for not caring for the show is that it requires eliminating many of Star 94’s hourly formatic elements, which causes On Air to lack the depth of the station’s regular sound.

For the past 3 weeks, overnighter and production director Doug Miller has been handling the 10AM-noon shift. Ryan Seacrest going to afternoon drive opens up the midday shift to 10AM-3PM again. Star 94 has not been promoting middays, but my guess is that Miller will be handling the shift, either totally voicetracked or voicetracked from noon to 3, until the station brings in someone.

Miller is a definite decline in quality from Tripp West although I realize the jock is not critical in this music-intensive daypart. Here’s my question: Creative Director Danny Wright fills in on weekends and sounds a lot better than Miller. Why not have Wright voicetrack middays and just keep Miller on overnights? Star 94 music director Michael Chase is also a very good jock though I know his plate is full.

An additional rumor is that eventually Star 94 intends to voicetrack evenings, where Darik currently does a good job. I hope the rumor does not pan out. (Come on economy!)

Star 94 has also made a change in its imaging voice. Following a year of Dave Kampel, the station has retained Joe “The Voice Guy” Szymanski out of Columbus, OH. I don’t know whether the change was a result of cost-cutting, but Szymanski should work out fine. His sound is cross-generational, which is appropriate for Star 94, and consequently he straddles the CHR/Hot AC border.

My wondering about the move of Seacrest to afternoon drive notwithstanding, the changes will make Star 94 a better station. It will have a somewhat older-skewing morning show consistent with its target audience, a show capable of stealing listeners from both The Bert Show and Steve & Vikki; done by a duo that already has a fan base albeit in afternoon drive. Most important, Star 94 will be consistent with the successful CHR paradigm, a personality-driven morning show and a music-intensive clock for the rest of the day.

One final thing: I noticed a formatic adjustment on Star 94. I love the hooks of upcoming songs that CHR stations have used going into a stop set, and Star 94’s was no exception. Nevertheless, I heard Arbitron’s VP/Programming Gary Marince tell a group of PD’s not to announce that a stop set is imminent, which the song snippets do. The minute-by-minute PPM numbers show listeners switch stations when a stop set starts and switch back toward its end. Star’s new strategy of inserting a shorter coming-up-next song promo in the middle of a stop set is smart.

I have a strange feeling that we might not yet have seen the end of the changes at Star 94. Who knows?

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Monday, March 16, 2009

The Bull Charges. But Is It Too Late?

Clear Channel’s 94-9 The Bull seemed mired in a deep slumber almost since its launch 27 months ago. With mediocrity in all areas, the only listener buzz the station attracted was when it hired Cledus T. Judd. The only industry buzz it attracted was when it promoted its PD, Clay Hunnicutt.

Several weeks after new President/Market Manager Melissa Forrest arrived, I asked a salesperson if she had much interaction with the new boss. The response I got was, “She’s very focused on product, and she’s been all over The Bull.”

Well, I have to guess that Forrest owns some red dresses that look an awful lot like a cape to a bull. The station has finally awoken and gone into attack mode. And it’s sounding pretty darn good.

Melissa Forrest’s programming smarts are well known to those who have worked with her. One of her former co-workers at CBS Radio in Dallas, where Forrest was once employed as a sales rep, said she always had strong feelings on programming issues, suggesting songs to be added and formatics to be adjusted.

With the addition of the new morning show with Jason Pullman and Kristen Gates, The Bull’s quiet revamp is apparently complete. And for the first time, I can say The Bull is a very good-sounding station with the possible exception of its weekend air staff. Weekends are made slightly less painful by Kristen’s recorded Sunday afternoon feature show and Lance Houston’s Saturday shift.

I am really impressed with Pullman, who was the morning fill-in from the time Q100 signed on in early 2001 until several weeks later when The Bert Show debuted. Back then, he was Jason Dean. Following his temporary stint in Atlanta, Dean took over evenings at Hot AC Mix 107.3 in Washington, D.C., where posters on universally panned him. I must admit that he sounded like a minor leaguer when he filled in on Q100. Wow, he has come a long way.

The Dunwoody High graduate replaced Ryan Seacrest in afternoon drive on Star 98.7 in Los Angeles, where he worked from 2003-2005. He has also built a huge voiceover business, doing work for some of the biggest and best TV networks and marketers in the country. Pullman is a definite high achiever.

With new Matador—excuse me, Program Director—Scott Lindy guiding The Bull, is the station now poised to lock horns with Kicks 101-5? Lindy comes highly recommended.

Pullman and Gates seem to have good chemistry, and the morning show appears to be top-tier. I liked Kristen Gates on Star 94, where she reported traffic and chatted with Cindy & Ray. I also enjoyed her as Cadillac Jack’s partner on Kicks. Nevertheless, she did not seem to fare well at all when she tried to carry the brunt of the morning show post Cledus. The new dual arrangement appears to be working for her.

As great as mornings on The Bull are going to be, Cadillac Jack & Dallas on Kicks will still be formidable. Both are beloved heritage Atlanta personalities. I’ve heard it said that Cadillac Jack is not a morning man. But not being funny should not be confused with not being good. The show is not meant to be funny. I guess the majority of morning shows try to be funny, but few succeed. Cadillac and Dallas both sound excellent.

Midday personality Madison Reeves and evening personality Ty Bentli on The Bull are voicetracked, and both have immense talent. In fact, they far outshine the jock whom they sandwich, live afternoon personality Lance Houston. I guess what Houston lacks in talent, he makes up in enthusiasm.

Middays and evenings are where Kicks is most vulnerable. Citadel cutbacks have left Kicks depleted of major market talent in those dayparts. While 94-9 The Bull is voicetracked in middays and evenings, its talent is far superior. And I doubt listeners have a clue that Madison and Ty were recorded in other markets. After all, aren’t they “live from the Hardy Automotive Group Studio?”

The Bull’s imaging, music and formatics have improved exponentially. The music is now familiar, and the all-time favorites are culled from the best country of the past couple of decades. The Bull on air has identified an enemy, Kicks 101-5, and has positioned itself as the more-music station.

Kicks has very effective John Willyard imaging, and Program Director Mark Richards makes magic out of formatics. The signals of the two competitors are comparable.

Overall, I would have to say The Bull is a slightly better station by virtue of its far more-talented people in middays and evenings, voicetracking notwithstanding. A problem for The Bull, however, could be its recurring repositioning and the mediocrity of its first 2 years. The station introduced as an in-your-face country outlet with “the biggest stars, the biggest hits,” soon followed by the laid back “real comfortable country,” followed by just plain lethargy. And there was Big D & Bubba, then Cledus and then Todd & Kristen. The Bull has been a disappointment to many who have tried it, and possibly tried it repeatedly. At what point is the boy crying wolf?

My feeling is The Bull still can succeed over time, but its strategy for marketing itself in other media is paramount. (Hopefully, The Bull can afford an ad agency.) The station’s history has made attracting listeners a more difficult proposition. Also, keep in mind the country audience is said to be among the most loyal. (By the way, I would still love to know what Clay Hunnicutt was thinking during the first 2 years.)

In any case, it’s now or never for The Bull. The station’s credibility as a product worth trying is most likely nearing its end. Will Clear Channel ride The Bull to success? This will be fun to watch. Ole!

Roddy Freeman

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Can Star 94 Clean Up Its Mess?

The shoe finally dropped on Friday when Star 94 (WSTR-FM) fired The Morning Mess.

I can only guess the reasoning in keeping the show this long and then letting it go. The Morning Mess’ contracts reportedly ran through December of this year. Star performed acceptably in the first 2 months of Arbitron’s PPM. Perhaps management hoped to save money by allowing The Mess to stay through their contracts. The disastrous January PPM numbers might have forced management’s hand.

Unlike almost everyone else, I feel The Morning Mess has some talent and could do well on certain CHR stations. Star 94 was just the wrong station for this very youthful show. Its contrast from the long-running Steve & Vikki was just too drastic and drove away multitudes of listeners.

The story has been well chronicled in this blog (on December 30). Star 94 incredibly allowed the cancellation of a morning show to heavily damage the station. This has happened before in the business but not usually as the result of concurrent programming changes. For example, when Howard Stern jumped to satellite, many of his broadcast affiliates were harmed inordinately. When Rick & Bubba changed stations in Birmingham, their former home base died and flipped formats. But as talented and respected as Steve McCoy and Vikki Locke are, they are not Howard Stern or Rick & Bubba, and their departure should not have caused that kind of harm to Star 94. Star just made some bad decisions.

Star 94 held the Adult CHR position in this market for years, yet management decided to ditch that and go straight-ahead CHR. The station hired a young morning show with a hot sound but kept a duo appealing to older listeners in afternoon drive. For years, top-40 stations have had an adult show in morning drive but have gotten hotter as the day progressed. Star 94 became the polar opposite of that.

Coinciding with these changes, former Program Director Dan Bowen started adjusting the station’s processing, which can be done from the studio by remote control. According to sources, Bowen kept changing his mind but ultimately attempted to make the station louder than Q100. One employee told me that eventually Bowen turned up the sound as loud as the processor would allow, ruining what had been good processing. The employee reminded Bowen that Star’s target audience was women, not men.

We all know that bringing in a successful morning show is one of the most difficult achievements in radio. But Star 94’s most-listened-to show was in afternoon drive, the talk-heavy Cindy & Ray. Moving C&R to mornings might not have taken the station to new heights, but it would have kept things stable.

Star 94’s thinking apparently was that moving Cindy & Ray to mornings could have ruined two dayparts. However, not doing so ruined the station. Cindy & Ray were hired to bring something different and compelling to afternoon drive; to stem the erosion to newcomers including Q100 and 95-5 The Beat. That was valid rationale for keeping Cindy & Ray in afternoons, but PM drive would have been a far easier problem to overcome than mornings. Star could have given afternoons to Steve McCoy or even Nudge.

Cindy & Ray became successful, but overall station ratings erosion did not abate. I have always wondered whether, while afternoon drive flourished, CHR listeners wanting music abandoned Star 94 for Q100 and did not come back when C&R signed off at 7.

So Star 94 now finds itself in the same situation, with the morning slot to fill and Cindy & Ray still in the afternoon. On Friday, reported that Program Director J.R. Ammons is looking for a morning show. Is recent history about to repeat itself? Probably not completely since the station will not bring in a 12-34 product this time.

Star 94 has a golden opportunity to make a comeback. That’s because Q100’s music clock is unbelievably conservative. It’s very heavy on recurrents; Q plays Kanye West, Flo Rida and Kardinal Offishall but only at night. Flo Rida’s “Right Round” is in Q100’s published top 10 but is never played during the day. Two factors have been propelling Q100 to the trouncing it’s been handing Star 94, the Bert Show versus The Morning Mess, and the heavy talk on Star 94 in afternoon drive.

Musically, Star 94 is now the far more current of the two stations. Star does play more recurrents in midday than a typical CHR station.

I predict that if Star keeps Cindy & Ray in afternoons, the station will not challenge Q100 for the CHR crown. And yes, Star did win when Q100 was on 100.5 and prior to Star’s programming changes. But now, Q100 is the established #1 CHR. Beating the Bert Show in mornings may not be a realistic goal for Star no matter what the morning show turns out to be. Yet, Star with Cindy & Ray could come close in the morning and win overall with its almost real CHR playlist. But beating the now-entrenched Q100 on its 100,000-watt signal is going to take music and a compelling personality in afternoon drive.

Consider this: New Program Director J.R. Ammons has made a significant adjustment to Star’s music. Powers have been turning over much more frequently than before, at 1:40 to 2 hours between spins, even in middays. The apparent thinking here is that Star now offers a higher likelihood that a hit will be playing, which is what CHR listeners want. But if J.R.’s thinking is that listeners want to hear a hit, how does he reconcile that with the likelihood that afternoon listeners are more likely to hear chatter than music?

Arbitron’s PPM has pushed many stations to program dead segues, including Star 94. But why play dead segues in Cindy & Ray when the show is so heavily talk? A final point is that C&R would give Star the slightly older-skewing morning show that it needs.

Other changes instituted by J.R. are that during Darik’s evening show, powers are played super-close together (though rhythmic is still left out), jingles have been virtually eliminated from the station; the filtered sound of the imaging was removed; and the sweepers have been rewritten.

So as we close, Star has an opening to right things again. Will the station seize the moment and move Cindy & Ray to mornings?

Thanks to young radio wiz Jonathan Hirsh of Savannah for his contributions to this week’s column.

Roddy Freeman

You can email me at Thanks for reading.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Rock 100.5, What Ails You?

This past week, my radio obsession landed me on the roof of the Westin Peachtree Plaza (see photo), home of the 100.5 (WNNX-FM) antenna, as tower hunter Scott Fybush ( came to town for a visit. As we all remember, the Westin roof was previously the home of Q100’s “bigger, clearer, more powerful signal.”

Rock 100.5, which replaced Q100 when that station moved to 99.7, is now a year old. Building a station takes time; Q100 took a couple of years to gain any traction, and it was only due to the unusual patience of its former owner, privately-held Susquehanna, that Q remained in the CHR format.

As early as 2003, some observers suggested that Q100 (WWWQ-FM) move to the full-power 99.7 signal. The frequency’s occupant, alternative 99X, with a history of racking up big ratings and winning awards, had started to flounder, as the alternative genre was waning. Back then, Q100 was a 3,000-watt station at about 960 feet, equivalent to 25,000 watts at 300 feet.

When Q100 was able to increase its signal to 12,500 watts at 978 feet in 2005, with just a slight null toward Gwinnett, the frequency-switch chatter quieted down. But of course a year ago, new owner Cumulus Media Partners did kill 99X and move Q100 to 99.7, creating the opening for Rock 100.5.

Cumulus’ strategy was a sound but possibly shortsighted one. Clear Channel had made what many considered a boneheaded move by throwing away the 30-year old 96 Rock brand. The company previously had terminated what some felt was the market’s best morning show for men, The Regular Guys.

Cumulus decided to bring back “Atlanta’s Rock Station,” and making The Regular Guys its morning anchor seemed a no-brainer. TRG would put Rock 100.5 on the map immediately. Q100 at the time was on the heels of longtime CHR competitor Star 94 and growing. Cumulus sensed Star was vulnerable given the departure of Steve & Vikki and their replacement by The Morning Mess. The move to 100,000-watt 99.7 would lift Q100 to new heights and put the fork in Star 94.

Rock 100.5 was not going to be a duplicate of what 96 Rock had been. Cumulus VP/Programming Val Garris and Cumulus/Atlanta Operations Manager Rob Roberts launched a product that featured musical creativity. The new station emphasized Classic Rock, including some deeper cuts, and also played some Active product. In fact, Rock 100.5’s Classic Rock element almost immediately pushed Project 9-6-1 to concentrate on Active Rock.

While it all made sense, I would have taken a longer-term view. Q100 at 100.5, despite trailing Star 94, was a highly-profitable operation that was growing. I would have bitten my lip, endured the #2 CHR position, and left it there. Even at 100.5, Q100 might have jumped ahead of Star 94 after the morning changes; we will never know.

In the minds of many, Atlanta had room for a second AC station, an opening created by Clear Channel’s questionable flip of 94.9 to country. I would have put such a station on the powerful 99.7 signal. Keep in mind this was before B98.5 hired Steve & Vikki. AC targets a somewhat older and therefore more lucrative demographic than CHR.

AC audiences historically have taken longer than CHR to build. And competing with B98.5 would have at first been expensive. But, had Cumulus Media Partners been willing to invest the time and money, the company could have had a more profitable combo than Q100 at 99.7 and Rock 100.5. Of course, taking the long view is not exactly a mantra for Cumulus.

Regarding a diagnosis for the ailing Rock 100.5, I will first mention what is not wrong. The most frequent diagnosis I hear is the “small signal.” Well, the signal is small only when compared to the market’s 100,000-watt properties. Yes, the South does have a bevy of 100kw blasters. But, most markets do not. In my hometown of Baltimore, Rock 100.5’s signal would be considered an excellent one. Rock 100.5 throws a city-grade signal almost to Cartersville to the northwest and Griffin to the south.

The real proof of the pudding, moreover, lies in the cume of Q100 when it occupied 100.5. Subsequent to the power increase, Q100 had a huge Arbitron cume but low TSL, true evidence that its signal was not problematic.

Another thing that is not the problem is the air staff. The Regular Guys are not what they were in their first several years on 96 Rock; that is, very edgy and provocative. Larry and Eric have been tempered by their misadventures at Clear Channel and today’s more restrictive environment. Although the show is not as compelling, it probably is still the best male-oriented program on a music station.

Erin in middays is a medium market talent, but I doubt that matters. Rock 100.5 is music intensive in the daypart, and the personality just has to be passable. Axel in afternoon drive is revered by local rock listeners. While I am not a fan of his weak radio voice, he is likeable and pleasantly conversational, and has name recognition in this market. English Nick, like Axel a known quantity in Atlanta radio, was a good choice for evenings.

With imaging another strong suit, our CT scan focuses on music. While the attempt at variety and creating a different kind of station were laudable, the playlist seems too scattered. The Classic Rock rotation, Rock 100.5’s focus, features too many unfamiliar cuts and repeats the most popular classics too infrequently in my opinion. And the Active Rock songs seem inconsistent with the station’s Classic Rock selections.

Rock 100.5 is operating in a crowded space. In the December PPM, 41% of Rock 100.5’s audience was in the 45-54 demographic cell. This puts Rock 100.5 pretty much in direct competition with Dave-FM and 97-1 The River, both of which are very slightly older. With Project 9-6-1 skewing heavily 18-34, the 35-44 cell is the most underserved by Rock stations. Would Rock 100.5 be wise to replace its Active Rock songs with a limited amount of somewhat older product more compatible with Classic Rock? In any case, more music focus might help Rock 100.5 step out of its ratings malaise.

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