Monday, April 20, 2009

Cumulus Changes Rock Atlanta

Cumulus Media Partners delivered a double dose of new programming to the Atlanta market over the past 2 weeks. Rock 100.5 (WNNX-FM) modified its format, and 99X sort of returned to the terrestrial airwaves.

Rock 100.5 now plays “quality rock,” a positioner that’s been used at other stations and been most associated with the AAA format. In fact, Savannah’s Q105.3 makes use of it.

WNNX is playing what it considers the best rock of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and today. It encroaches on the playlists of Dave-FM, Project 9-6-1 and The River. The term “quality” is of course subjective, but I have to agree that what I’ve heard so far fits the descriptor.

What’s been eliminated is the heavy metal stuff from the 1980’s. Some active rock songs remain in the mix; the station seems to love Shinedown (is that even rock?), but the number of active titles is way down.

The consensus of the posters on Radio-Info is the station is DOA, and they usually turn out to be right. However, I’m going to take a wait-and-see attitude on this one for a couple of reasons.

Rock 100.5 had to do something. Its 12+ shares lower than 2.0 forced its hand. With sister station Q100 doing fine with a female audience and the 99X translator hitting the air with a young male target, keeping 100.5 male-oriented was a logical decision.

Atlanta’s crowded rock dial did not leave Cumulus with a ton of options. Going directly against the more powerful and established Dave, The River or Project would not have been wise. I applaud the CMP/Atlanta programming brain trust for being creative.

Throughout the history of music radio, mixing musical genres has of course not worked. When people hear a song outside their preferred niche, the finger hits the button. Nevertheless, does the way I described the new Rock 100.5—the best of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and today—sound familiar? It should, because it’s almost word for word the way many AC’s have successfully positioned themselves for years.

So is it possible that Rock 100.5 can borrow a page from the AC playbook and implement the same strategy for men as AC does for women? The obvious difference is that AC stations pick songs from the four decades that have pretty much the same tenor. Most Active Rock, AAA and Classic Rock have a markedly different sound. And rock fans tend to be somewhat polarized. Still, WNNX is playing “quality rock.” Subjective as that is, will the sound have enough of a common denominator to bridge the genre differences?

Whatever the size of its audience, I believe Rock 100.5 will skew slightly older than previously because its sound is somewhat softer. That’s probably a good thing since Cumulus will be able to sell Rock 100.5 to advertisers as a combo with the new 99X translator, which should be younger. Any ratings picked up by 99X could be neatly packaged with those of Rock 100.5.

Cumulus Media Partners struck a great deal when it traded one of its Albany FM’s for the 97.9 translator. Using the transmission line and antenna of Q100, the new W250BC has a very good signal, at least in a car. Yes, it’s only 250 watts compared to Q100’s 100,000 watts. But antenna height is as important as wattage with FM.

The new 97.9’s signal is approximately equal to the lesser category of Class A stations, which is 3,000 watts at 328 feet. Consider this: The primary (60 dBu) signal radius of such a Class A facility is 15.03 miles. Plugging 250 watts at 1,063 feet into the formula, 97.9's city-grade signal should travel about 14.6 miles. Keep in mind you cannot gauge the radius by the formula with complete accuracy because translators are not afforded the protection of regular commercial FM’s.

Bringing back the 99X format makes a bunch of sense for several reasons. First, 99X still has brand equity in the market. And my guess is was just not enough on its own to lure ad dollars. Together the translator and the online should attract small advertisers. Second, while the 99X format had waned, the station still had a loyal fan base. Though the billing potential was no longer commensurate with a 100,000-watt station, it's in line with the value of the translator. Third, the new 99X should help Rock 100.5 get on ad buys and bring in more revenue. Positioning 100.5 and 97.9 as one male buy would give Cumulus bigger ratings and higher ad rates. Finally, the predicted older skew of the new Rock 100.5 should provide the perfect opening for the younger 99X.

What I’m finding a little strange is “99X at 97.9.” Yes, I understand 99X is a brand and that John Dickey loved 99X well before he was involved in it. But how ridiculous will that positioning sound in three years? Why not say something like, “Your X is back, now at 97.9” or “Everything alternative is back, now at 97.9”? Everyone would get it.

The station is airing some amusing self-deprecating imaging. So how about adding “99X minus one, 98X” to the arsenal? Hey, maybe it’s just me.

I would love to hear your comments. Feel free to email me at Thanks for reading.

Rodney Ho’s AJC Radio & TV Blog:

1 comment:

  1. RE: 99X at 97.9 - I think they will probably capitalize on nostalgia and get the word out for at least six months or so, and then transition to something that makes a little more sense. (Although by that time, Cumulus may have decided to put 99X on 100.5, which might mean they could leave the name alone.)

    The format is weak, but they can't be spending that much more money on it than they were when it was internet-only, so it's a win-win. Still, I hope they take a few chances sometime in the future and make 99X more like it was in the 90's when it was a major player in Atlanta. They need to concentrate much more heavily on new music and when they do play older songs they need to be deeper cuts.