Sunday, May 31, 2009

Is Viva the Ticket for 105.7?

When Clear Channel started leasing 105.7 in the early 90’s, the purpose of the WGST-AM simulcast was to extend coverage of the Braves. After all, the AM had no nighttime signal in 105.7’s primary signal area north of Atlanta. When I came to Atlanta in 1994, Peach 94.9 also was carrying the team’s evening games.

Back then, WGST AM-FM was neck-and-neck with the once-mighty WSB-AM in ratings, and slightly ahead of WSB in ad billings (likely due to the Braves). WGST was programmed by Eric Seidel, who had an incredible knack for culling new talent—Neal Boortz, Clark Howard and Sean Hannity among others. Part of the reason for WGST’s success was an extensive series of missteps by WSB.

Across town, Greg Moceri was rebuilding WSB-AM into a power. Along with GM Marc Morgan’s charge to retake the lead came Cox’s bottomless pockets to reclaim the now champion-caliber Braves. Jacor’s inability to outbid Cox for the 1995 play-by-play was probably the first step in WGST’s decline. Further WSB programming changes made by Moceri accelerated WGST’s decrease in audience.

The biggest mistake that WGST owner Jacor made early on, in my opinion, was replacing Eric Seidel with Nancy Zintak. Yet, despite a series of poor decisions and the departure of Sean Hannity, WGST AM-FM still had saleable ratings as late as 2000.

WGST eventually moved 105.7’s transmitter site from just off I-575 to its new perch atop Sweat Mountain near the Cobb/Cherokee border. This noticeably improved the signal over Atlanta and a vast swatch of land to the north. Still not as strong as the 100,000-watt FM’s that are actually in Atlanta, the one area the new signal did not city grade was south of I-285’s bottom end.

After Clear Channel consumed Jacor, CC management, consisting of talk guru Gabe Hobbs and others, decided they wanted another profit center. And 105.7, with its enhanced coverage, would fill the bill. From what I remember, the FM contributed about half of WGST’s audience at the time. Did the CC brain trust feel much of the audience would move to WGST-AM? If they did, they were not paying attention to the potential of WGST-AM’s nighttime signal. By the way, Clear Channel eventually consummated the purchase of 105.7 from McClure Broadcasting.

In 2005, Clear Channel Radio embarked on a push to create Hispanic stations, which made a lot of sense in several markets, including Atlanta. The market had a smattering of AM Latino stations that covered pockets of the area but none with full coverage of the Hispanic population, which was at 7% and rocketing. Flipping an FM station, especially one having limited ability to compete with high-powered facilities, was a no-brainer. WLKQ-FM, a limited coverage operation in Gwinnett County, had made the switch successfully a year earlier.

Clear Channel’s flip of 105.3 (at first) to a Hispanic station that year seemed completely logical. What did not seem so obvious was the type of Hispanic format that Clear Channel chose. The new Hispanic Contemporary format targeted white collar Latinos primarily from Central and South America. Atlanta’s Hispanic population was and is at least 70% of Mexican descent and of the blue collar variety. A listen to Atlanta’s AM Spanish stations would have revealed the accordions galore that are part and parcel of the Regional Mexican format.

What seemed like format miscue did not matter. Viva 105.3 was Atlanta’s first almost full-market Hispanic signal, and it took off. Then in 2006, Clear Channel made the decision to move Viva to 105.7, killing off the frequency’s moderately successful Oldies format. The switch was smart since 105.3’s primary signal does not make it to Gwinnett County, a hotbed of Hispanic growth, while 105.7’s does.

Things were humming along until later in the year when Clear Channel's "The Buzz," which had taken over 105.3 after Viva moved, left the signal to merge into a new Rock format at 96.1. CC filled the vacancy with El Patron, a new Regional Mexican station, giving Clear Channel and Atlanta their second Hispanic FM.

At face value, Spanish programming was a good choice for both signals given their coverage disadvantages. They were filling a void in a high-growth Hispanic market. Nevertheless, advertisers were (and are) still becoming educated about Hispanic radio. For one thing, Spanish is a language, not a format. Yet clients tend to assume they are reaching the Hispanic community and fulfilling their commitment by advertising on a single Spanish station. As a result, two Hispanic stations tend to cannibalize the ad dollars on each other.

The bigger concern was Clear Channel was launching a Regional Mexican format, which basically mirrors the Atlanta Latino populace, on a signal that did not reach Gwinnett County with 60 dBu penetration. And the company was keeping a Latin American-oriented outlet, admittedly successful prior to El Patron, on arguably the best signal for delivering the market’s Hispanics.

The new 105.3, El Patron, quickly grabbed a very large portion of the former Viva audience. Arbitron’s most recent (April) PPM shares (12+, Total Week) show El Patron with 3.0 and Viva with 1.6. (The 1.6 actually is not bad since the Hispanic listening universe is still a small portion of the total.)

Having two Hispanic stations at this point in time, plus one in Gwinnett, seems premature for the reasons stated. If El Patron and Viva simply traded frequencies, El Patron’s ratings probably would increase somewhat while Viva’s fell a bit. The same would most likely happen with revenue. In fact, Viva might be left off buys altogether so a frequency switch would probably not be the best idea.

Here’s my plan, not that I have any real input with Clear Channel. I would move El Patron to 105.7 and put Viva in storage for now. It makes sense that the market’s most successful Hispanic station be on a signal that serves the entire Latino community. That should bolster El Patron’s ratings, and CC’s Hispanic revenue loss would likely be nil.

So what would CC then do with 105.3? While it does not penetrate Gwinnett County with a primary signal, it is the more powerful station of the two in terms of coverage radius.

Clear Channel’s original rationale for separating 105.7 from WGST was to create another profit center. But, while all of the above was going on, did CC/Atlanta lose a profit center in the name of WGST?

My idea is for 105.3 to give WGST an FM counterpart. With a little effort and budget, WGST could compete again as a talk station. FM Talk stations in other markets are exploding: WIBC, KSL-FM, WPGB (which is Clear Channel) and others.

The 105.3 signal would not be perfect for WGST since news/talk’s target audience is most likely greater in the northern environs, where the 105.3 signal does not travel with authority. But the station does boom into Marietta, Smyrna, Douglasville, Carrollton, Powder Springs and other important suburbs. It also blankets vital in-town areas such as Buckhead, Vinings and Sandy Springs.

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Rodney Ho’s AJC Radio & TV Blog:

Monday, May 18, 2009

The McCoys of Atlanta Radio

They both have the last name of McCoy, at least on the radio. They both have been on the air in Atlanta far longer than the radio life expectancy of talent in any major market. They both have handled drive time over their entire Atlanta career. According to their friends, they both are quality people off the air as well as on. They both also were Georgia Radio Hall of Fame nominees in 2008. Needless to say, they both have considerable talent. And, they now work at the same station, B98.5 FM.

Radio stations once in a while make news by stealing a major talent from the competition. And occasionally, disc jockeys relieved of their duties turn up on another station, sometimes smaller, in the same market. However, Steve McCoy is the only air personality I know of who has done mornings on four leading stations in the same market. Moreover, each one was at or near the top of the ratings while he was there. His first stint in Atlanta was at then CHR powerhouse Z93.

After 5 or so years at WZGC, Steve moved to the new Top 40 ratings king, Power 99. He left the market for a year in 1989 for afternoon drive at legendary KVIL in Dallas. Not finding Dallas to his and his family’s liking, it was back to Atlanta and Star 94, which was emerging as the new CHR giant. Steve suggested Star bring over Vikki Locke, one of his former cohorts at Power 99, which of course they did. Having witnessed Steve & Vikki’s stellar 17-year run at Star 94, B98.5 grabbed the radio couple last year to break the longtime Cox AC mold of a music-intensive morning show.

John Young was Program Director at Atlanta’s Z93 in 1981 when popular morning duo Ross & Wilson left for WABC in New York, creating a risky void. The competition was Gary McKee, and John needed a morning show with star potential. He had come to Atlanta from Nashville and was familiar with Steve McCoy’s work on that market’s 92Q, a 3,000-watt FM station making inroads against 100,000 watters.

John tells the story of meeting with Steve and his wife in the lobby of Nashville’s Doubletree Hotel, trying to convince them to move to Atlanta. The couple was comfortable in Nashville. Having come from Spartanburg radio, Steve had already done more than he had imagined. His wife worked on Nashville’s Music Row. Little did Steve McCoy know what he was to accomplish in Atlanta over the next 25 years.

I asked John what made him so confident that Steve would succeed in mornings at Z93. John answered, “It was not just what he did on the air but the relentless availability he had off the air. Clients loved him. But what I noticed was he loved people. Anyone willing to be that available to people stands a chance of being heard and remembered. All I remember was his consistency, his likeability, his willingness to stay at it, and his ‘presentability’ to clients and listeners.”

Still one of Steve’s biggest fans, John added, “He’s a student of radio…he’s a good example of what a broadcaster, citizen, husband and father should be.”

I first heard Kelly McCoy shortly after arriving in Atlanta during 1994. My initial thought was this is a gifted guy in terms of having one of those special radio voices that sound great.

Kelly grew up in the Atlanta area, breaking into radio at a small station near Lake Hartwell. His first Atlanta radio experience was at Quixie (WQXI-AM), where he entertained for 6 years, from 1978 through 1984. In January, 1985, he jumped to B98.5 in afternoon drive, and the rest is history, history that’s still being written.

Kelly works the B98.5 AC format just fine. Yes, he is restricted by Cox CEO Bob Neil’s ultra-strict talk limitations. Yet Kelly handles his shift with aplomb, always speaking with just the right inflection. And he manages to get in some comments within the format. All in all, he’s the perfect fit for afternoons on B98.5.

I’ve met Kelly, and I can tell you that he’s very capable of excelling in a less restrictive format. But why mess with a good thing for both Kelly and B98.5?

Steve & Vikki (as a duo) have been nominated this year for induction into the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame. I have no doubt that both Steve McCoy and Kelly McCoy ultimately will be enshrined. They both continue to contribute big time to Atlanta radio and the community, and hopefully will for years to come.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Taking Country Radio’s Temperature

Last week, I mentioned that an entire 12+ point has gone missing from the market’s Country share. I came to that conclusion by looking at Atlanta’s two biggest Country players, WKHX and WUBL. WKHX has lost the point that I was talking about.

The comment prompted an email from an old friend, Dene Hallam. I take Dene’s comments seriously because he has been one of radio’s best programming minds for years. He guided a number of Top 40 and Country stations, taking the reins of former New York Country blaster WHN at the age of 28. Dene is one of only two people to be named Billboard’s PD of the Year in two formats (the other being Scott Shannon).

Programmers of Dene Hallam’s caliber have limited options in today’s consolidated environment. Happily, he found a home directing the programming of Moby in the Morning, heard on 10 stations. Dene was once Moby’s boss when both worked for Atlanta’s (formerly) ABC Radio stations.

Dene pointed out that Country’s ratings have actually grown since Arbitron’s PPM measurement entered Atlanta. And he correctly noted that 3 stations carrying Moby, WNGC, WTSH and WEKS, are contributing to that growth. Of course, these stations are not competing head-on with Kicks and The Bull but are doing well in their respective corners of the market.

Dene’s email got me thinking. I recently mentioned to some Atlanta radio people how one would expect Country to be big in this southern market; but that Atlanta’s high African-American composition made scoring big ratings difficult for non-Urban stations. My impression was that AC, Rock and Country were all underperforming formats here.

I decided to take a look at the 12+ Country shares compared to those of other formats and had one of those “aha moments.” Here’s what I saw:

WKHX: Jan-5.3, Feb-4.3, March-4.4
WUBL: Jan-2.2, Feb-2.3, March-2.5
WWLG: Jan-.8, Feb-.9, March-1.1
WNGC: Jan-.5, Feb-.5, March-.4
WTSH: Jan-.4, Feb-.5, March-.3
WEKS: Jan-Not Reportable, Feb-.1, March-.2
WBTR: Jan-Not Reportable, Feb-.1, March .2

Totals: Jan-9.2, Feb-8.7, March-9.1

Conclusion? Country in Atlanta is pretty healthy; it’s just fragmented. Yes, Urban owned a whopping 31.1% of the audience in March. Outside of Urban, Country’s 9.1% share was lower than only Rock with 11.7 and News/Talk with 10.8 (8.2 of which was WSB-AM). As Jim Bakker once wrote, “I was wrong.”

Some might argue The River is not a Rock station, and some could feel the same way about Dave-FM. Eliminating just The River would decimate Rock’s share and move Country behind only News/Talk and Urban. AC, by the way, could muster up only 8.7% in its non-Christmas mode, but that’s if you include The Fish and J93.3; I consider them to be Contemporary Christian though most of their listeners would likely turn to AC in a pinch. B98.5’s share in March was 4.8%.

WNGC, Toccoa and WTSH, Rockmart (Rome) are in Polk and Floyd counties, respectively, both not in the Atlanta Metro. Yet these powerful stations attract enough audience within the Metro to appear in Arbitron. So do Kicks and The Bull have the ability to pull from WNGC and South 107? Or do listeners of these outer market stations find them more in tune with their local needs?

In any case, researching this week’s column was a revelation for me. Country passed its physical with flying colors, to my surprise. Urban radio’s dominance notwithstanding, Country overall is doing quite well in Atlanta.

WGUN Heads Toward Standards
WGUN-AM (1010) might still be “Atlanta’s Big Gun,” but it’s no longer “your station for gospel and guidance.”

Oh, it still offers plenty of guidance with its plethora of brokered shows. But the Gospel between brokered shows has been replaced with Standards. WGUN has hired Atlanta radio veteran Al Hardee to host its morning show from 7-9AM. Hardee also is a host on the syndicated Music of Your Life, does production for WKHX and WYAY, and handles an occasional weekend shift on Kicks. He’s been doing a Standards show on WGUN on Sundays from 2-6PM for the past few weeks and is sounding good.

WGUN becomes Atlanta’s only station that plays entire hours of Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Jerry Vale and the genre’s other stars. WMLB-AM (1690) airs some Standards, but they are surrounded by Country, Top 40, Classical and whatever else owner Joe Weber digs up from his personal collection.

Roddy Freeman

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Cindy & Ray Clicking in Mornings

It’s been over a month since Cindy & Ray moved to mornings on Star 94, and they are sounding great. I guess it was my aversion to a talk-intensive afternoon drive show on a CHR station that caused my being unable to listen for any great length previously. But the smooth Ray Mariner pared with the “valley girl” sound of Cindy Simmons has chemistry and smarts.

Speaking of smarts, Star 94 is being very smart in its constant and consistent promotion of the show, and in apparently getting a sponsor to pick up the $1,000 that it gives away each morning. Star is making its $1,000 giveaway sound like a much bigger deal than the same giveaway on the competition.

Star 94 is clicking on a lot of cylinders right now, and its formatics, imaging and music clock, with its short rotation of powers, suggests a keen knowledge and understanding of CHR (and PPM) by its programming brain trust.

Star has prudently returned to what made it successful, Adult CHR programming and a music-intensive sound outside of morning drive. Cindy & Ray fit the format to a tee.

The big question for Star 94 is whether the popularity of Ryan Seacrest and the fact that he started in radio at Star will compensate for how boring that show is. Will airing Seacrest in afternoon drive blunt Star 94’s mission to reclaim its former #1 CHR ranking? If Seacrest turns out to be wrong for afternoons, would Star have the financial wherewithal to bring in someone compelling?

With Star 94 now headed in the right direction for the most part, I’ll take the chance of sounding like a broken record, or maybe a stuck CD. How did Star get so “messed up?” And I’m talking not even as much about the morning show as about the station’s decision to throw its heritage away and suddenly go very young early last year.

You can blame former PD Dan Bowen. But you have to consider a number of higher-ups apparently signed off on the decisions, including former GM Mark Kanov, National PD John Dimick and LFM President Don Benson. Just think how different things might be if Cindy & Ray had moved to mornings and Star retained its Adult CHR format in January, 2007. The decisions made back then are almost unfathomable to me.

I personally miss jingles on Star and feel they added considerably to the station’s overall brightness. And I would like to hear some rhythmic product on Darik’s evening show, like Q100 plays during Adam Bomb’s shift. Q100’s music is so over safe during the day that Star, with its adult but more current rotation, would seemingly have a clear edge in music if it added some rhythmic at night.

Answers come fast these days, once a month to be exact. The April PPM numbers will be the first glance at Cindy & Ray’s morning performance.

Should The Bull Growl Louder?
An Atlanta Airwave Action a couple of months ago detailed The Bull’s complete overhaul and its tremendous improvement, which of course includes a new morning show.

In Adults 25-54, the March PPM showed The Bull tied at #11 overall. The station was tied for #13 in morning drive, at #12 in midday, #9 (and actually beating Kicks) in afternoon drive and #14 at night.

That’s not terrible since an entire 12+ point has gone missing from the market’s country share. But, I have not seen any advertising—TV or Outdoor—informing potential Bull listeners of the changes. People have sampled The Bull repeatedly and been disappointed. They may not go back without being convinced it’s worth another try.

Hopefully CC will find a way to create an enticing campaign, and the well-documented financial challenges at the company will not stand in the way. After all, what a shame it would be to have a Bull roast without the station putting forth its best effort to get noticed.

Roddy Freeman

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