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:

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