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.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to email me at

Rodney Ho’s AJC Radio & TV Blog:

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