Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Has WKLS Made a Giant Mistake?

Last Friday’s news that the Giant Show’s Brian Carothers had left Project 9-6-1 brought yawns for the most part. Co-hosts Shafee and Jefe will stay on with a “music intensive show.”

No one outside the Building of Death knows definitively the reason for Giant Brian’s departure. Chris Williams, the station’s Program Director, told the AJC’s Rodney Ho, “Brian’s contract expired in July, and we were unable to agree on terms for an extension. Williams added, “A big part of this post-baseball era is a recommitment to being Atlanta’s rock station 24/7. As we get back to our core value of playing music, Shaffee and Jefe are staying aboard to host a music-driven morning drive program.”

The Giant Show was not exactly headed for the National Radio Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, I thought it was pretty good and fit Project well. And though it was edged out by Rock 100.5’s The Regular Guys, its demo ratings were decent.

The consensus outside the building is that budget was the driving force; that Clear Channel did not offer the big guy a respectable salary to renew. It that’s true, it’s just another example of the sad stripping down of radio.

Will the new Music Mornings—oh wait; that’s already been taken—will the new music-intensive show adversely affect Project’s ratings? Possibly, but in the whole scheme of things, the effect will probably be negligible.

Since its inception, I have somehow thought of Project 9-6-1 as one of Atlanta’s underachieving giant signals, with Dave FM (or whatever the 92.9 signal has carried in the past 15 years) being the other prominent member of that club. I admit that WKLS’s long and legendary history as 96 Rock played into my thinking.

Active Rock stations are a rarity these days. In the top 10 markets, only Atlanta and Dallas have the format. In the August PPM results, Project 9-6-1 ranks #16 while Dallas’s KEGL-FM comes in at #21. The Detroit market is an exception with the historic WRIF-FM tied for second place.

Project 9-6-1 does have something going for it. It’s the market’s #1 station for Caucasian men 18-34. That puts it in the thick of things for advertising dollars from certain beers, cars, clubs and other categories. But stations targeting the 18-34 demographic typically do not bill anywhere near what the top 25-54 stations bring in.

The Atlanta landscape is full of stations going after persons 25-54 or 18-49. While their billing potential is huge, not everyone is going to win. The original full-signal Atlanta stations, of which WKLS is one, have the edge. Of course, signal is not everything; pulling down top ratings requires tremendous effort and significant dollar investment. Maybe Clear Channel has made a prudent decision to take WKLS down the path of least resistance.

I do not mean to imply that Clear Channel does not expend dollars or effort on Project 9-6-1. Aly, Chris and Knox are all very substantive personalities, and the station sounds very good for what it is. PPM shares among persons 6+ have hovered around 3%, which is noteworthy for a niche station.

Project’s sister station The Bull has been making a consistent climb without the benefit of much promotion. Like Project 9-6-1, The Bull has one of the market’s best signals, and it has the potential to be among the ratings and billings elite. Project probably sits where it always will in terms of ratings. Billings will likely grow when the economy heals but rank about where they do now.

If Clear Channel’s Atlanta cluster is truly CC CEO John Hogan’s Achilles heel, as it is reputed to be, WKLS’s current direction will not move Clear Channel any closer to Cox in terms of market dominance.

Clear Channel/Atlanta President/Market Manager Melissa Forrest has a reputation as a motivated leader who knows what she wants and how to get it. For the past year, she has focused her attention on The Bull. But I would bet she wants her two big signals, 94.9 and 96.1, to be market leaders.

We’ll see what happens in the years ahead. If Clear Channel accepts WKLS’s current success as all it needs, my guess is that decision is a function of dollars available to invest. Although it would encounter 25-54 beasts at every turn, its signal certainly qualifies WKLS as a candidate for the gold.

Jeff McHugh Out at Cox Radio
When Jeff McHugh joined Cox as PD at B98.5 and The River only months ago, we questioned what he could accomplish there. His resume was filled with creativity, about the furthest thing from those two stations. The only whiff of creativity was Steve & Vikki on B98.5, who probably had more say over their show than McHugh.

Since then, a new ingredient has been added to the mix. Tony Kidd was named VP/Market Manager, Programming, meaning McHugh now reported to him.

Let’s look at the organization chart. Cox Media Group’s Bob Neil is the architect and creates the format clock and its restrictions. Then Tony Kidd hones the station with his considerable amount of expertise. Kidd knows exactly how he wants every facet of his stations to sound. Next in the hierarchy is the PD.

That does not sound like a situation conducive to someone such as Jeff McHugh, nor does it sound like a comfortable spot for any seasoned programmer, the job market’s tightness notwithstanding. We wish Jeff luck in his future endeavors.

Former Atlantans Shine
I spent some time in Orlando a couple of weeks ago. Driving in during the afternoon, I listened to “Stick on the Radio” on XL106.7 (WXXL-FM). Stick was the first personality on 95-5 The Beat in early 2000.

Wow, how far he has come. Stick did a personality-based show and sounded excellent. Surprisingly, given it’s a Clear Channel station, XL106.7 has to be one of the best CHR’s in the U.S. It’s not as repetitive as WAPE-FM in Jacksonville (which sounded almost identical to Atlanta’s Star 94), and is formatted in an interesting way with less imaging and more jock freedom.

Downtown Billy Brown is another former Atlanta radio guy who is now in Orlando. He does the morning show on Sunny 105.9 (WOCL-FM), a classic hits station.

I first heard DBB in 1989 when I lived in Baltimore. He did nights on then-CHR B104. I thought he was horrendous and could not even listen. After leaving Baltimore, he worked at Atlanta’s Power 99 among other stations. He returned to Atlanta in 1995 to take over evenings at Star 94. I could not believe the difference. He had grown tremendously; his delivery was so much more mature and controlled.

Brown left Star 94 in 1999 for Nashville and eventually took over the morning show on Miami’s country station, WKIS-FM. Then it was on to Orlando.

As much of a transformation as he made from B104 to Star 94, Downtown Billy Brown amazingly improved just as much from Star to his current home at Sunny 105.9. He sounds incredible and has realized his considerable potential.

Glenn Beck as a CHR Man
All the attention that Glenn Beck has attracted in recent weeks got me thinking about his days as the morning man at B104 in Baltimore. He worked there around 1989-1991.

Glenn Beck & the Morning Guys was one of the better CHR morning shows that I’ve heard. Beck was not outrageous, as is his image these days, and the talent was quite evident.

Roddy Freeman

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your comments. Just email me at roddyfreeman@bellsouth.net.

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

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