Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Santa Claus is Coming to…a Radio Near You

You better watch out. Thanksgiving is next week, and you might hear Christmas music on the radio without warning, all Christmas music that is.

Maybe I’m overreacting because things have calmed down since several years ago. I remember hitting the Peach 94-9 button one October and hearing a Christmas music preview weekend. (Or maybe that was one of the years when they weren’t supposed to say Christmas, so it might have been a holiday music preview weekend.) The temperature outside was in the mid-eighties, and I was not ready for what I was hearing; although I recognize that people in places such as South Florida are used to that.

When I was a kid, stations started adding Christmas songs right after Thanksgiving and increased the number per hour as the weeks wound down toward the big day. Soon after that, most formats played virtually no Christmas music for years. Then, in the middle of this decade came the onslaught.

It seemed to start innocently enough. I believe our late beloved Peach 94-9 was one of the pioneers in the new age of Christmas ditties. Around the early 2000’s, the station added holiday songs in season, and by that I mean after Thanksgiving. The songs fit just fine with Peach’s soft AC format. And a funny thing happened on the way to the Arbitron book; the numbers showed a meaningful increase.

The following year, Music Director Steve Goss was quoted in the AJC mentioning Peach would be all Christmas following Thanksgiving. The ratings hit the stratosphere, and wall-to-wall Santa would become a staple at AC stations around the country. AC’s were going all Christmas faster than that darn reindeer ran over grandma.

With audiences at a high, Peach and its musical brethren announced a holiday rate card that was no pre-Christmas sale. And retail advertisers have always known that holiday music put customers in a mood to jingle their change.

That the radio world knew all-Christmas music meant big ratings and big money for AC’s would cause craziness to erupt. In markets having more than one AC, the race was on to become the first holiday music station. The thinking was once radios were tuned to a Christmas outlet, they would stay there. This led to Christmas music playing while pumpkins were being carved. Correctly guessing when to go all holiday called for a panel of the nation’s leading radio minds.

Some oldies stations joined their AC competitors by digging out the Phil Spector, Chipmunks and Bobby Helms CD’s. Stations planning to change formats rocked around the Christmas tree as a transition to their new sound.

The insanity continued into January, when the fall Arbitrons were released. Salespeople tried to pawn off their Christmas numbers as the ratings for the coming spring. Competing stations were fast to point out the “Christmas kiss” enjoyed by the opposition. Arguments ensued about exactly when the competition ramped up its holiday playlist.

Some stations have already embarked on their all-Christmas marathon. One controversy that’s being thrown around is how all Christmas music will work in a down economy. Some say it makes people feel better, but others say it feeds depression. And this all started so harmlessly about 6 years ago.

Several years back here in Atlanta, B98.5 surprised a lot of folks, including most of its employees, by turning all Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving; after having ceded the Christmas audience to 94.9 for a couple of years. Of course, we all know B98.5 has been “your home for the holidays for 50 years.”

These days, little mystery exists as to what will happen. The odds are that 104.7 The Fish will start its Christmas music around Monday, November 23, and B98.5, which doesn’t really consider The Fish as direct competition, will make the move that Friday, November 27.

I’m looking forward to the holiday songs. Long ago, I came out of the closet as a Jewish guy who likes Christmas music. I was relieved, and the family didn’t disown me.

If we don’t talk until after Thanksgiving, enjoy the turkey…and of course the Christmas music on the radio.

Thank you for reading. Follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/atlantaairwaves, and we’ll follow you back. Email your comments to roddyfreeman@bellsouth.net.

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Atlanta’s CHR Face-Off

Star 94 (WSTR-FM) had a tumultuous 2008 and early 2009. The station brought back JR Ammons to be PD, and he made a number of changes. Q100 (WWWQ-FM) recently altered its music clock, most likely in response to summer gains by Star 94.

At this point, both of Atlanta’s CHR stations have their product in place, and it’s probably an appropriate time to take stock of where they are.

Atlanta, much to the frustration of CHR devotees, is an unusual market in that both stations go head-to-head on the adult side of CHR. Star 94 and Q100 leave out a slew of songs that are monsters nationally, and they both continue playing certain songs long after they are hits, at least in other markets. Q100 has a more liberal policy at night, when some Hip-Hop is added.

Q100 was the winner among Persons 12+ in the October PPM, continuing the trend of the past few months. Q100 had a share of 3.4%, ranking #12, while Star 94 was listened to by 3.1% of the audience, landing in a tie for #15. In Adults 25-54, one of the demos that really matter, Q100 was significantly ahead with 4.3% of the listeners versus Star 94’s 3.2%, with the stations coming in at #7 and tied for #14, respectively.

The total week (6AM-Midnight) 25-54 numbers make it appear that Q100 is beating the pants off Star. And that is the case in morning drive. The Bert Show on Q100 absolutely devours Star 94’s Cindy & Ray. In Adults 25-54, the shares were 6.7% for Q100 and 2.8% for Star. In middays, things are much closer with Q100 somewhat ahead, probably a result of its stronger lead-in. In afternoon drive, things are tight, with Q100 holding a slim lead over the syndicated Ryan Seacrest on Star.

The Morning Mess on Star 94 and the absence of Steve & Vikki from morning radio for 6 months last year gave The Bert Show a great opportunity which it capitalized on. Had Star 94 immediately replaced Steve & Vikki with Cindy & Ray, the station might be in a better position today. But, it is what it is.

So what do you do if you’re Star 94? The answer is probably not a lot. The station still has brand equity in the market and is competitive after 10AM. The product is still saleable. A format change seems out of the question.

I continue to feel Cindy & Ray is the right morning show for Star. C&R reestablished Star as an Adult CHR after it had gone off track for over a year. Moreover, changing morning shows again would convey an aura of uncertainty, both within the station and among listeners, and would give competitors a convincing argument to advertisers.

When Cindy & Ray moved to mornings, Star found a way to make giving away $1,000 a day sound like a major deal. Maybe an exclusive C&R giveaway of some sort would help. Perhaps the show’s content can be spruced up. In any case, changing morning shows is not an option for Star.

While Star 94 is an Adult CHR and apparently wants to reinforce that position, I fail to understand its aversion to anything leaning the least bit rhythmic. The station waited until Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” hit #1 before adding it. And I still have not heard Britney Spears’ “3,” which is #8 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Neither of these songs is anywhere near hard-core Hip-Hop. Maybe Star associates playing Kanye West and Flo Rida last year with down ratings, and Flo Rida might have been pushing it a bit. But Kayne’s “Stronger” was a pop song that seemed perfectly appropriate. Star had far bigger problems than that at the time.

What about Jason DeRulo’s “Whatcha Say,” the #1 song in the country? Where are Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams” and Jay Sean’s “Down,” both of which are played by Q100 all day? Yes, they lean rhythmic but are huge national hits being played by virtually all CHR’s in other markets. Perhaps not coincidentally, when Star 94 was more aggressive with new music last spring, ratings were higher.

Here’s a question for both stations: When should a big song be dropped? “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon was a smash that crossed over into multiple formats, even Adult Alternative. It’s still #20 nationally but on the way down. Yet Star 94 and Q100 play it like it’s still at the top of the chart.

I am also a bit puzzled regarding how songs from a year or two ago are among the most played on Atlanta’s CHR stations. Q100 is probably slightly guiltier of this. But I may just smash the radio if I hear “Sorry” by Buckcherry on Star one more time.

Since the Star 94 brain trust is probably not singing my praises right about now, I might as well add that bringing back jingles would brighten the station. I also would love to hear Chase Daniels, who has proven he can entertain, in place of Seacrest. By the way, I will not be going anywhere near Maggiano’s for lunch in the foreseeable future.

Despite what you have just read, Star 94 is in a much better position than a year ago. Of course, mornings will continue to be a challenge. But with a few tweaks, Star could be able to make the battle tighter.

Thanks to Jonathan Hirsch, who helped with his CHR insight and music expertise.

Thank you for reading. Follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/atlantaairwaves, and we’ll follow you back. Email your comments to roddyfreeman@bellsouth.net.

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

CC’s Mays Demotion Has Implications

The financial troubles of Citadel, Clear Channel and Cumulus have been well chronicled. The companies all have mountains of debt that they probably will not be able to service by 2010. You might have been dreaming about station clusters being dismantled and sold to smaller operators who are broadcasters, and not conglomerates just using radio as their money-making vehicle. I certainly have. Unfortunately, from what I've been reading in the past few weeks, that will not happen in the short term.

The three C’s—and CBS Radio is not included—are apparently negotiating with their lenders behind the scenes. What most likely will happen are debt-for-equity deals through which banks and holding companies will own large shares of the station groups. Initially at least, current management will probably stay in place. But, the lenders will by and large be calling the shots.

The banks of course do not want to be in the radio business, but the problem is the huge multiples at which the three C’s purchased stations, multiples as high as 12 times net cash flow. Truthfully, stations were never worth anywhere near that, but the urge to rule the radio world overshadowed rationale thinking. Although radio stations are not their cup of tea, the lenders do not want to sell at the current going rate, as low as 4 or 5 times cash flow. So you can expect banks and holding companies to own broadcast properties for the foreseeable future.

There will be some exceptions. In Portland, OR, Alpha Broadcasting, whose CEO is Citadel founder Larry Wilson, cobbled together a super cluster by purchasing the stations owned by Rose City and then CBS Radio. Bonneville, which reportedly has wads of cash, is rumored to be swooping over a number of the former ABC stations now owned by Citadel.

Last week’s demotion of Clear Channel CFO Randall Mays was not a tremendously publicized event. But, it was noteworthy because it suggests the investment banks are already pulling the strings. Clear Channel CEO John Hogan will likely be a highly-paid puppet of the lenders. And that does not auger well for the affected radio conglomerates.

The banks and holding companies are going to be all about keeping costs down. That increases the likelihood of more rounds of layoffs, and greater use of voice tracking and syndication. I don’t expect much in the way of investing in air talent and content.

The groups that have been fiscally responsible, such as Cox, Bonneville and others, might have the option of going for the kill by out-programming voice-tracked operations. Will they spend the necessary dollars to do that as the economy improves, or will they stand pat or cut back, taking advantage of their dramatically pared-down competitors to improve profits?

Best of Atlanta Part-Timers
Last week’s Atlanta Radio’s Best & Brightest column generated some email regarding the glaring omission of several personalities. Only full-time people were considered for selection, and I certainly was remiss in not mentioning that. If I had included part-time air talent, the choices would have been Mark Arum for his Saturday talk show on WSB-AM, Matt Jones for Organic X on 99X and JoJo Morales for his weekend work at Q100.

Mouse Out of Intensive Care
Russell Smith, Radio Disney (WDWD-AM) Chief Engineer, checked in to report the station is back to 12,000 watts during the day. As you probably know, the adjacent creek’s rise to at least 25 feet above its stream bed brought 12 feet of rain inside the transmitter building. Ironically, the flood hit immediately after the station had boosted wattage from 5,000 and was waiting for FCC approval to use the new antenna system fulltime. Planning for the new signal commenced in 2003.

WDWD made a wise decision on September 21, when access to the site was cut off, to cease operation and kill the power. By 4 that afternoon, everything inside the building was submerged.

On September 24, crews from Belfor Property Restoration began cleaning, and on September 28, Belfor technicians began dismantling all the equipment and processing it through chemical baths, autoclaves and convection ovens.

Belfor was able to restore three transmitters and almost all other gear to working order. Because the power had been turned off, equipment was dirty but undamaged by electrical shorting in nasty water. One piece of gear was not salvageable since it was connected to a phone line. Many of the small porcelain insulators in the antenna system were broken and took several days to replace as did rewiring and reinstalling the restored equipment.

Radio Disney was silent for a week, coming back on from an emergency 1,000-watt transmitter on September 28.

Russell was previously the Chief Engineer for the ABC/Citadel cluster of WKHX-FM, WYAY-FM and WDWD, which was retained by Disney after Citadel purchased the other two stations. Russell left Citadel to manage the estate of Country singer Travis Tritt and handles Radio Disney on a contract basis. I usually reject pleas for plugs in this blog, but Russell is a friend and a great guy. So I’ll mention that he is looking for AM stations that need site rehabilitation, mowing, clearing, have a drainage or wildlife problem, or require ground and antenna system repairs. You can get in touch with him at afllc@bellsouth.net.

Thanks for reading. Follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/atlantaairwaves. Email your comments to roddyfreeman@bellsouth.net.

Link to Rodney Ho’s AJC Radio & TV Blog: http://blogs.ajc.com/radio-tv-talk/