Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Are The True Oldies Here To Stay?

Randy Cook is set to join his longtime radio partner, Spiff Carner, on the True Oldies 106.7 (WYAY-FM) morning show starting October 12. I heard it said that adding Cook to the show will not do anything for the station. Is that correct? More importantly, what’s the station’s future?

Will the re-pairing of Randy & Spiff lift the station’s ratings? Probably not except possibly as the result of some initial curiosity. As observers are saying, if you want oldies, 106.7 is your station no matter who is on the air. Will any staff benefit or get hurt by the change? Freddie Brooks, who has been doing the show with Spiff, should be the happiest about this because, after some initial doubt, he has been told that afternoon drive will be his alone. Spiff Carner, who has been working without a contract, might have gotten inflicted with a case of sibling rivalry; the doctor ordered a new contract and a raise. That’s an expensive prescription for Citadel, and whether they fill it is anyone’s guess.

Is True Oldies 106.7 needlessly spending money based on PD Mark Richards’ personal fondness for Cook and Carner? (He was their boss at Fox 97.) My opinion is the positives outweigh the negatives. Acquiring the Randy & Spiff brand should engender positive attitudes and loyalty among listeners, who have known the duo for years. The biggest benefit, however, should be bringing in advertisers who want to be associated with Randy & Spiff. That could make the dollars invested by Citadel pay off, especially if the guys agree to the proverbial sales calls.

From our perspective as radio junkies, airing Randy & Spiff makes True Oldies 106.7 a better station. That’s mostly because it’s created another live, local shift in afternoon drive and a break from all-Shannon-all-the-time.

True Oldies arrived at Atlanta’s 106.7 for three reasons. First, Citadel CEO Farid Suleman was a financial person whose background landed him as Mel Karmazin’s money man at CBS Radio. In 6 years at Citadel, whose stations were not in major markets, he apparently never learned what a flanker was. The fact that he didn’t, however, turned out to be academic when Clear Channel, lusting for billings like those of Kicks 101-5, ignored WYAY’s role in the ABC cluster and took 94.9 country. Second, the True Oldies format gave Imus a distribution channel in the Atlanta market, very important to Citadel when selling his show nationally. (WYAY has since been rescued by WCFO-AM.)

The biggest reason by far for flipping 106.7 to True Oldies was it would be dirt cheap to run. Citadel’s ongoing financial challenges have been well documented. True Oldies would bill less than Eagle, but operating it would cost far less.

True Oldies was created by Scott Shannon, apparently as a labor of love. Its first affiliate was on Long Island. Who knew it would be perfect for a key Citadel business objective, saving money? Citadel stations gave True Oldies mass distribution across the country in (former ABC) markets as large as the Windy City.

The radio industry has been waiting for Citadel’s other shoe to drop. Sooner or later—and later is defined as January, 2010—Citadel will need to pay down some debt. And, the consensus seems to be the company will be forced to shed stations, specifically some former ABC properties in large markets. If at all possible, Citadel would likely hold on to its legendary anchors, WABC and WLS for example. That would seem to make Atlanta’s non-legendary former ABC stations ripe for dealing.

A rumor that Bonneville will buy certain Citadel stations has persisted over the past several weeks. You can bet if Bonneville purchased WKHX and WYAY from Citadel, oldies would be a blast from the past. True Oldies has a 55+ audience and is hard to sell to advertisers. Moreover, Bonneville prides itself on its programming and would likely create a new format for 106.7.

WYAY is a move-in, but the signal is pretty good. Though not as intense as the original Atlanta FM’s, WYAY’s 60 dBu (city-grade) signal, transmitted from Loganville east of Atlanta, goes as far west as Douglasville. The station is capable of being competitive.

I am not saying Bonneville will purchase Citadel’s Atlanta stations or that they will even get sold. That Citadel would part with stations in other markets instead is quite possible. And, no one knows for certain that the company will sell stations at all.

Sooner or later, however, some owner will program a younger-skewing, not-canned format on 106.7. The signal is just too valuable. In the meantime, let’s welcome back the Randy & Spiff team and look forward to hearing folks like Gramps and Ed the Mechanic. Bill Hoger might even show up.

95-5 The Bizzeat
Every station we listen to occupies an image in our mind that’s probably molded by a combination of music, personalities, imaging, processing and everything else that goes out over the air. And, like with every other station, I have a mental image of 95-5 The Beat (WBTS-FM).

Each station is different from every other station in my mind; some are more different than others. But, my mental picture of The Beat is very different from anyone else. A big reason is the unique sound of the jocks.

Does anyone else agree with me that the fulltime jocks on The Beat are white people who are trying to sound like black people? CJ really honed that skill while at Hot 107-9, and Mami Chula, who hails from Wichita, Kansas, has become quite accomplished at it. Even afternoon driver Maverick, who was on the original Q100 staff, is mastering the art.

Okay, maybe I’m going a little too far. Maybe vaunted consultant Steve Smith, architect of the station’s current formatics, wanted to create a unique sound, and part of that was having jocks come across as novel while consistent with the music and the pace of the station; and was not trying to make them sound black. Remember it was Smith who dropped The Beat’s hit-music positioning and changed it to the unabashed “Atlanta’s new #1 for hip hop.”

The CHR/Rhythmic format was originally developed at stations such as B96 in Chicago to target young white people after hip hop burst into the mainstream. Over time, different degrees of CHR/Rhythmic stations have emerged. One of Steve Smith’s big successes was Hot 97 in New York; while defined as Rhythmic CHR, distinguishing the station from Urban was subjective. Even Big Boy’s Neighborhood, hosted by an African-American personality, has been added at a number of CHR/Rhythmic outlets that seemingly target a Caucasian audience.

Atlanta’s 95-5 The Beat shifted to CHR/Rhythmic from CHR/Pop in 2001 when Q100 signed on. Since then, the station has never attracted a mostly-white audience. In the July Arbitron PPM, 46% of its audience was African-American, 15% was Hispanic and 40% was “other,” meaning whites and Asians.

I certainly do not mean any disrespezzy to Smith. The Beat is considered a success though Smith has had some much bigger winners in other markets.

Roddy Freeman

Thanks for reading. Feel free to email any comments to roddyfreeman@bellsouth.net. I would love to hear from you.

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

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Arbitron’s PPM: Wobbly As She Goes?

We all knew the Arbitron diary was far from perfect. As a buyer of radio time, I was pretty excited the new Portable People Meter was coming to Atlanta. Soon we would find out what the ratings really were. However, after reviewing the PPM numbers for the better part of a year, I’ve been finding some inexplicable swings in individual station ratings from one report to the next.

Over the years, I’ve looked through countless Arbitron books in numerous markets based on the diary methodology. Overall I found the numbers very reasonable and logical. And I say that based not only on consistency but also on my knowledge of radio in those markets. Occasionally something looking fluky would be there. But, the mantra was to look at the past few books and not just the latest.

Ad agencies adhered to a policy of basing buys on a 2-book or 4-book average. Buyers probably would have told you that combining multiple books was done to nullify any unexplainable bounces, and they would have been correct. The reason that multiple books accomplished that was they doubled or quadrupled the small sample size of one survey.

In the Atlanta market, the monthly diary sample was 1,347, which came to 4,040 over the 3-month survey. Each participant kept a diary for one week. Atlanta’s PPM sample over 3 months is 1,335, about the same as one month of the diary. Nevertheless, Arbitron claimed a method to its madness; each PPM panelist would record his or her listening for 84 days per survey compared to 7 with the diary. The result would be 112,140 “days of observation” from PPM panelists compared to 28,280 from diary keepers.

Arbitron told us that we should shift our focus from sample size to days of observation. The fourfold increase in days would make the PPM methodology more reliable. Charlie Sislen of Research Director, Inc. told a group of CBS Radio/Atlanta clients that he saw no need to base buys on multiple PPM reports. Moreover, using only the latest data would factor in any changes in the market over the past 45 days; no more waiting 4 months. I was sold; my buys would be based just on the latest PPM report.

When I looked at the Persons 6+ shares for August, I saw that Star 94 (WSTR-FM) lost approximately 25% of its average quarter-hour audience in one month. And that was after trending at about the same share for the past 3 months. Star 94 had not changed anything in August, so was suddenly losing a quarter of its audience logical?

Star 94’s most direct competitor, Q100 (WWWQ-FM), had been correcting its music in recent weeks, so did Star listeners react to the change and go to back to Q100? Well, no. Q100 went from a 3.4% share to 3.6%, where it had been in June. And the third station in the CHR genre, 95-5 The Beat, went from 3.6% to 3.4%. Star’s audience apparently left the format yet Q100’s and The Beat’s listeners did not.

Since early this year, Dave-FM (WZGC) had been on an upswing. In the May PPM, the station slid from 3.2% in April to 2.7% but then bounced way up to 3.6% in June. We all thought April was a fluke. In fact, Market Manager Rick Caffey talked about Dave’s steady growth. Then, Dave-FM’s 6+ shares were 2.6 in July and 2.4 for August. Now the June share rather than the May number looks like the fluke.

When Mickey Luckoff, the highly-regarded GM of San Francisco’s KGO, complained that the PPM samples were too small, I thought he needed to see the PPM presentation that explained that days of observation were paramount. However, after reading an analysis of the New York PPM panel by a company called Harker Research, I’m edging toward Mr. Luckoff’s camp.

When Arbitron recruits diary keepers and now PPM panelists, the company attempts to closely match the market’s demographics. After the diary sample or PPM panel is in place, Arbitron determines how it compares to the market’s composition and weights accordingly. For example, if people 18-34 make up 10% of the population but only 5% of the sample, each diary keeper or PPM panelist who is 18-34 counts twice. The survey is more reliable when the percent of the sample is the same or very close to the percent of the population.

Arbitron told us that the PPM panel would be very carefully recruited to mirror the market’s demographics. This would result in more stable survey-to-survey trends than with the diary, according to PPM literature. In the New York market, based on the Harker findings, Arbitron has fallen considerably short of that promise.

Harker says the problem appears to be the panel; that participants are not consistently carrying their meter. Research Director, Inc.’s Sislen expressed concern that the reason the PPM is showing far less listening for females than males is that females have a difficult time carrying their meter in a place that picks up radio signals. As a result of these compliance problems, according to Harker, Arbitron has had to employ a dynamic weighting system to compensate for participants who come and go within the active panel.

Adding this weighting system to the demographic weighting, according to Harker Research, complicates things to the extent that swings in the ratings are inevitable. In the New York PPM report analyzed, the age and sex cells were off by an average of plus or minus 18% compared to the population versus 11% with the diaries. In other words, the PPM’s range of error was almost twice as high as the diary’s. That means some demographic cells are being weighted much more severely now with the panel than they were when Arbitron used one-week diaries.

The Harker Research study looked only at age and sex cells but not at ethnic weighting. Had it looked at ethnic weighting, contends Harker, the differences would have been even greater.

In fairness to Arbitron, the overall PPM results for Atlanta have looked reasonable. In some other markets, Washington, DC for example, most urban stations that were previously near the top of the diary ratings have taken quite a tumble. Furthermore, I’m extrapolating the New York situation into Atlanta, but I think that’s reasonable. I plan to evaluate stations for buys looking at the past few months while considering the most recent month if the market was going through major changes—format flips, personalities jumping from one station to another and the like.

The PPM does not seem like the ratings panacea that I had anticipated. I applaud Arbitron for jumping into PPM and realize that any needed changes could be costly. Stations, which pay big dollars for Arbitron compared to the pennies forked over by agencies, want better measurement but are not excitedly running to the piggybank to pay for it.

With Nielsen now in the radio fray and Arbitron talking about re-entering the TV ratings game, the next year will be an interesting one. Frankly, if Nielsen had continued to partner with Arbitron as was the case in the Houston PPM test market, I wonder whether both companies as well as the radio and agency communities would be better off today.

It’s Shout-Out Time
I want to salute Rob Stearns, who has left Star 94 after over 24 years of service. He was an account executive for 9 and a half years (starting at 94Q), Local Sales Manager for 5 years and National Sales Manager for 10 more. Rob is a solid person who contributed mightily to Star 94’s billings success over the decades. We wish him the best in his future endeavors.

Jeff Hullinger, as most of you know, was released from Cox Radio last week. At Cox, he worked long hours, starting his day as newsman on B98.5 FM during morning drive, and then walking down the hall to WSB-AM after lunch to anchor the afternoon news. Jeff is one of the most versatile broadcasters around, having also done sports on WAGA-TV’s early and late evening newscasts, both radio and TV play-by-play, and a morning drive radio show. We hope Jeff lands in the kind of top-notch position for which he is so well qualified.

Best of Atlanta Radio?
If you’re wondering what I’ve been doing the past few weekends, I’ve been looking for the right flak jacket. That’s because I’m thinking about devoting an issue of AAA to the best jocks in Atlanta radio. I want to be ready for any reaction from those not on the list.

Years back, I wrote a similar column for RadioDigest.com. A local personality called Stick, who was not on the list, emailed to inform me that I knew less about radio than anyone he knew.

Roddy Freeman

Thanks for reading. Feel free to email me at roddyfreeman@bellsouth.net.

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

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For

Who says there’s no longer creativity in radio? Radio still has plenty of creativity. It’s just shifted from programming to engineering.

Copywriters and graphic designers say they produce their best work when feeling inspired. In 1989, the FCC gave station owners all the motivation they needed—visions of dollar signs—to inspire their engineers. That was when the Commission relaxed the FM short-spacing rules. The ruling paved the way for outlying stations, perhaps 75 miles from major markets, to move closer and compete in those markets.

The engineers I know in Atlanta radio probably do not need inspiration since they are totally immersed in their craft. In any case, station engineers started getting very creative, plotting sophisticated ways to move their FM’s to serve major markets. And they were fortunate the FCC sometimes could not see the forest from the trees (e.g. “The city of College Park has no radio station.”). Did you know WALR-FM’s change in city-of-license from LaGrange to Greenville had to do with moving WBTS (95-5 The Beat) physically into Atlanta?

No market in America was in the dreams of station owners more than Atlanta, whose increasing population was making radio money grow on trees for the relatively small number of stations sharing in the riches.

Which are the “real” Atlanta (commercial) FM’s with solid signals across the market? They would be 92.9, 94.1, 94.9, 96.1, 98.5, 99.7, 101.5 and 103.3. I count eight. Now, which stations are the move-ins? There’s 93.3, 95.5, 97.1, 97.5, 100.5, 104.1, 104.7, 105.3, 105.7, 106.7 and 107.9. That comes to eleven, more than the real Atlanta signals in what once was an “underradioed” market. And then we have the suburban stations, 96.7, 102.5 and 107.5.

Three of the above FM’s are a different kind on move-in. WUMJ (97.5) replaced a station on 97.7 elsewhere in Georgia. WNNX (100.5) moved in from Anniston, AL, a well-publicized shift that took many years to get approved. And WHTA (107.9) had been a Macon station and moved totally away from that market. The remainder of the stations relocated partway to Atlanta from their respective cities of license, still covering their COL’s with a city-grade signal but also penetrating Atlanta.

Signal does matter, and the real Atlanta stations have had an easier time getting ratings. In recent years, the only move-in that has consistently placed in the top five is Kiss 104.1 (WALR-FM). Yet several move-ins, 95-5 The Beat, 97.1 The River, Majic 97.5 (formerly Praise), 104.7 The Fish and Hot 107-9, have achieved ratings high enough to make a very nice living. They all wished for Atlanta and got it, and in most cases were purchased from their former owners at prices that retired those owners.

Around 1998, Provident Broadcasting Christian Contemporary outlet, WVFJ-FM (then “The Joy FM”), had been doing well as a Columbus/Macon area station. GM Rick Davison saw an opportunity to become an Atlanta move-in. It was not a very-well thought-out move because WVFJ would lose most of its city-grade coverage of Columbus as well as Macon, and city grade only the southernmost smidgeon of Atlanta. The station would throw a strong signal over low-populated places such as Carrollton, Griffin, LaGrange and Thomaston.

To be fair, this was in the pre-104.7 The Fish days, and Contemporary Christian fans might seek out a weak signal to hear their music of choice. And at first, The Joy FM seemed to be doing okay in the exploding Atlanta radio market. Program Director Jerry Williams was hired in 1999 and upgraded the station’s sound. He also changed the moniker from The Joy FM to J93.3. Yet the signal, while huge in scope, was still too weak in Atlanta to bring in any meaningful ratings. In 2001, Salem’s 104.7 The Fish, also a move-in but with far greater Atlanta coverage, much more CCM experience and deeper pockets, signed on; and that pretty much crushed any Atlanta potential that J93.3 might have had.

Now, with Atlanta radio ad dollars in contraction rather than expansion mode, WVFJ reportedly is having financial problems that have put most of the staff on the street.

When WVFJ moved into the Atlanta market, or at least thought it was moving into the Atlanta market, it built a 1,555-foot tower near Greenville, GA. Don’t try to listen to Atlanta’s 92.9 anywhere near that site because you won’t be able to. Concurrent with the move, WVFJ reduced its power to 27,000 watts. When WZGC moved northeast from the roof of the Westin Peachtree Plaza to the Richland site in 2005, WVFJ was able to obtain FCC permission to bring its city-grade signal into more of Atlanta from a site just south of the current one. But, we’re not talking much more of Atlanta; it would carry just about to downtown.

If the new 1,440-foot tower is built, J93.3’s power will jump to 88,000 watts. But don’t expect ratings to grow in Atlanta. The brightest consequence of the move would be a big expansion of the city grade signal over Columbus (but not Macon). However, last year, WBOJ/103.7 took to the Columbus airwaves with a Christian Contemporary format and, its lower power notwithstanding, covers the market better than WVFJ would with its new signal.

What do you do now if you’re WVFJ? Giving up on Atlanta probably would be painful, but sooner or later, someone has to realize that “it is what it is.” Would J93.3 be able to move back to its former transmitter location? I don’t know, but that’s probably doubtful. These days, engineers are closely eyeing any move of a station on the same or an adjacent frequency; and are positioned to jump into the slightest opening.

If moving back is physically impossible, the next best thing would be to build the new site for which it has a CP. Then target Columbus and its environs. If Christian Contemporary does not work, and some say the format’s current music mix is part of the problem, at least WVFJ would have a competitive signal for a different format.

If building the new site is economically prohibitive, the only thing left would be to forget Atlanta and target J93.3’s primary coverage area, which would not be ideal by any means. For one thing, about half the coverage is in the shadow of Atlanta stations, which have a programming advantage.

An FM with a huge signal that’s a white elephant seems an anomaly, but if you take a look at the numerous move-ins in the U.S. since the short-spacing change, you’ll learn WVFJ is not alone. Seeing those dollars signs makes all of us do strange things. If J93.3 stays at its current site and hammers down the for-sale sign, some other company will be seduced by the potential riches of Atlanta radio and then fail at doing another format. Just ask P.T. Barnum.

Mickey Gets Louder
WDWD-AM/590 turned on its new 12,000-watt transmitter last week for its daytime hours; it remains 4,500 watts at night.

I first heard the 590 daytime signal in the 70’s, and it was huge. I remember it booming in just south of Greenville, SC. When I moved to Atlanta in 1994, I turned on 590 and could hardly get it. In fact, I called the station to find out if something was wrong.

I soon learned 590 had moved its transmitter from N. Druid Hills Road to Powder Springs, probably 25 miles west of the Atlanta city limit. While the daytime power was still 5,000 watts, nights had to be decreased to 4,500. I later found out that all kinds of things were wrong with the site and the construction, even before you got to Atlanta’s poor ground conductivity.

Former Disney/ABC Atlanta chief engineer Russell Smith was taking care of 590 along with WKHX and WYAY. But after Citadel took over the former ABC stations and turned a Lexus into a Yugo, Smith preferred to accept an offer from Travis Tritt to manage the singer’s estate. Although Smith was leaving Citadel, Disney/ABC hired him to continue handling Radio Disney/590, no longer a sister station to Kicks and True Oldies. Smith implemented the signal upgrade to 12,000 watts.

My home is in Northlake, on the complete opposite side of Atlanta from Radio Disney. Around here, the daytime signal is much improved. I still cannot pick up the station at night. Part of the reason might be my close proximity to WSB-AM.

WSBHistory.com is Back
After many hours of work, http://www.wsbhistory.com/, created by Mike Kavanagh, is back. Mike had requested that after his death, the site be turned over to and maintained by the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame. GRHOF President John Long reports that much more of Mike’s material still needs to be cataloged and published. Even now, the site is very worthy of being checked out.

Roddy Freeman

Thanks for reading. Feel free to email me at roddyfreeman@bellsouth.net.

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