Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When Banks Own Radio Stations

When Citadel filed its Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the company's lenders became its owners.  Citadel CEO Farid Suleman got to keep his corner office with the fancy couches.  So is it business as usual for employees and listeners?  The answer is no.

Two weeks ago, Atlanta radio lost Bill Celler from his 23-year on-air perch at Kicks 101-5 (WKHX-FM).  Celler moved to the Webmaster role at Citadel/Atlanta for a salary rumored to be way lower than his afternoon drive bounty.

Banks are reluctant station owners but are calling the financial shots.  They own stations because the radio business is upside down.  So while they wait and hope prices edge a little closer to the money lended, the banks will sure as heck operate the properties as cheaply as possible.

With Bill Celler's departure from the air, Kick 101-5 claimed a new distinction.  Outside of morning drive, where the blue-chip combo of Cadillac Jack and Dallas McCade hold court, Kicks has now completed a small-to-medium-market staff for the other 20 hours.

Celler's replacement, Tim Michaels, has improved since his debut as an evening part-timer.  Listening to him doesn't get me as out of breath as it once did.  Tim's bio says he worked at Los Angeles, Nashville and Huntsville.  Though I'm not quite buying that he was on-air in L.A., he did make it to the mic at WSM-AM in Nashville.

I have to hand it to Kicks PD Mark Richards.  No matter the on-air hand he's been dealt, he manages to keep the station sounding good with music, imaging and formatics.  And Kicks has excellent processing that makes the music come alive.

A sad part of the new radio paradigm is, outside of AM drive, personalities on most music FM's seem to have little effect on ratings.  A couple years ago, New York's Lite FM (WLTW), owned by Clear Channel, was staffed with top talents, some of whom had worked there for years.  Over about 12 months,  Clear Channel replaced every one with a no name and saved a ton.  The ratings?  As radio icon Bill Drake used to say, "Number 1 then and number 1 now."

It's hard to criticize Kicks for placing Sari Rose in midday, for example, when her ratings are near the top.  And I mean no ill will to Tim Michaels and Sari Rose; I'm sure they're nice people.  It's just the radio critic in me.

Thanks for reading.  Follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/atlantaairwaves, and we’ll follow you back. I would love to hear from you mailto:roddyfreeman@bellsouth.net

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

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jeff Dauler Stays Put; Elvis Has Entered the Building

When Jeff Dauler was pulled from Q100 because his deal ended on December 31, Atlanta radio was on the edge of its seat. I was very surprised and impressed by the volume of posts that the subject attracted on Rodney Ho’s AJC blog.

After all, while Jeff is smart and adds considerable substance to The Bert Show, he is still a co-host. If he had bolted, I believe the show would have recovered very quickly with hardly a quiver in the ratings.

The storm’s resolution made me feel good on a few fronts. First, Jeff stayed at Q100, his first choice, and probably did okay in terms of money. The outcome seemed far different from the rumors flying around during the negotiations. Second, Cumulus’ John Dickey for once might have realized, in light of the uproar, that employees represent more than just a salary. Third, Jeff indicated that staying at Q100 was most about being with his radio family.

While all this was going on, Jeff posted on his blog a parody of what had happened. In the post, he revealed he had received an offer from a competing station, which was later confirmed to be Star 94. Jeff wrote that Star had even “given him the keys.” And whether he was speaking literally or not, Star apparently wanted him pretty badly.

The offer at Star 94 was rumored to be afternoon drive. Jeff is obviously not a disc jockey so Star likely wanted him to start a Cindy & Ray-type afternoon show. At first, I wondered why Star 94 thought a former co-host would be a draw in afternoon drive. But after seeing the huge reaction to Jeff’s situation, I’m thinking Star could have been right.

Mornings are Star 94’s problem, and Jeff in afternoons left me wondering why the station would not have had Jeff debut a new morning show, and move Cindy & Ray back to afternoons. That was Star’s only option to steal from Bert. Moreover, mornings are holding Star back in other dayparts.

If the afternoon rumor was true, did Star 94 feel that Jeff’s big fan base notwithstanding, he would not have been able to pull listeners away from Bert? Did the station think afternoons would work better since there was no direct competition? Do Cindy & Ray have a contract that requires they remain in AM drive?

Star 94 is definitely in a box, given its inability to move a morning show that hasn’t been able to ding either The Bert Show or B98.5’s Steve & Vikki. So does the offer to Jeff Dauler smack of being an opportunistic idea or a desperate move? Star’s recent shift to Hot AC represents its best chance of separating itself from Q100.

The announcement by 105.7 The Groove that the syndicated Elvis Duran would be its morning show brought groans from posters on Radio-Info. Their take is Clear Channel is being its cheap self.

The posters are right, of course. Yet the move by The Groove makes sense as a business decision. The Groove is on a small signal and has a relatively niche format. It will never bill a lot of dollars, especially in this economy.

Elvis Duran and the Morning Show has proven itself in its home base of New York as well as in Miami, Philadelphia, Cleveland and almost 20 smaller markets. It’s a far better show that 105.7 The Groove can afford to do locally.

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

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

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Four Questions – Part Two

In this issue, we move on to questions 2, 3 and 4. Question #2 is a station with a huge signal, 92.9 Dave FM (WZGC). It’s one of the real Atlanta signals, a relative rarity across the FM dial. Yet since 1994 when I moved to Atlanta, it rarely has had ratings commensurate with that signal.

The 92.9 frequency has had big ratings, but they date back to its CHR days in the 1980’s. Since Power 99 forced it out of the format, it has struggled with Classic Rock, then hodge-podge rock and now Adult Album Alternative. Its ratings showed some spark in 1999 when consultant Alex Demers plugged in his “7 Song Supersets,” but that success was short-lived.

Current Program Director Scott Jameson has polished Dave FM’s AAA format. The station seems so different in both tone and music from my favorite AAA station, KINK-FM in Portland, OR. But Scott’s take on the format sounds good to me. CBS Market Manager Rick Caffey has heaped praise on Jameson, and I trust Rick’s judgment. Moreover, Dave has a couple of super personalities.

If Jameson’s execution of the format earns kudos, and talent such as Mara Davis shine, is Dave FM’s problem that Atlanta is just not a market for the AAA format? And though Dave FM attracts one of the market's most upscale audiences and saleable age demos, its numbers have been consistently small. Shouldn’t 92.9 attract ratings and therefore billings in line with its signal?

Several years ago, I suggested that CBS turn 92.9 into Urban AC. Its Atlanta signal was so much stronger than Kiss 104.1 (WALR), and WZGC could have grabbed the ratings crown pretty quickly. I’m sure CBS brass would not have entertained the idea because an Urban AC at 92.9 might cannibalize the older end of sister station V-103. My response to that is Kiss was already stealing V-103’s older demos. If somebody was taking those listeners from V, why not close down Kiss and take them for yourself, even if the pilferage turned out to be a little bigger than Kiss?

It’s too late now for Urban AC because of Radio One’s Majic simulcast on 107.5 and 97.5. But, there must be something that would get 92.9 numbers that behoove its powerful signal.

Question #3 is Rock 100.5 (WNNX-FM), where it’s been trial and error over the past 2 years. The station is now on take three.

When Rock 100.5 launched in 2008, hiring The Regular Guys for mornings was the biggest no brainer in the history of earth, with apologies to the mortgage guy. TRG put Rock 100.5 on the map on its very first day.

The original Rock 100.5 was a mixture of Active Rock and Classic Rock with some “oh-wow” songs tossed in. After a year of Arbitron shares in the mid 1’s among Total Persons, the station’s playlist shifted to emphasize Adult Album Alternative songs but still retained Active and Classic elements. The new slogan was “Quality Rock.” But ratings remained in the dumpster.

About a month ago, the music evolved again. Rock 100.5 is now a Classic-based Rock station that includes some current product. This time around the track, no “oh-wow” tunes are part of the clock. As Cumulus Market Manager Gary Lewis told me last week, “You won’t be hearing Bare Naked Ladies.”

Rock 100.5 showed a nice ratings increase in the December PPM’s. So is this the start of a better 2010?

The Regular Guys is not the same show we enjoyed on 96 Rock. I wonder whether their two very unconventional firings at Clear Channel left the Guys shell-shocked. Or has Eric Von Haessler outgrown the fun side of TRG? Whatever the reason, the show is not fun and hilarious like it was on 96 Rock. Some listeners complain about the increasing emphasis on politics. But, TRG is still a leading choice for men in the morning and has the highest ratings on the station.

Then there’s the signal, an issue that’s been overblown since 100.5 came into the market in 2001. The original 3,000-watt signal, which got belittled by salespeople from competing stations, was actually equivalent to approximately 25,000 watts at 300 feet. The station simply chose height over wattage to send out its signal.

In late 2005, the power was upped to 12,500 watts, and the antenna height stayed just below 1,000 feet. The current signal is similar to the biggest stations in the Baltimore and Washington markets. But because Atlanta is the land of the class C’s, the 100,000 watters, the Rock 100.5 signal is considered small. In truth, the signal is plenty strong in the areas where it needs to be. The exception is northeast Gwinnett County, where WSSL in the Greenville market sometimes gets in the way.

I don’t consider signal more than a minor issue in the potential ratings success of Rock 100.5. In fact, after the power increase when the station was still at 100.5, Q100 grew a very substantial cume. This year, we should get a feel for whether Rock 100.5 will remain “Atlanta’s Rock Station.”

Question #4 is 94-9 The Bull, Clear Channel’s foray into Country. The story has been told before, including what made CC think the market had a hole for Country; and why the company thought heritage Country Kicks would lie down when faced with an inferior product. But that’s all behind us.

The Monday following Thanksgiving weekend 2008, Atlanta Market Manager Melissa Forrest took The Bull by the horns and re-launched with a much better product. Well-respected programmer Scott Lindy was brought in to guide the station going forward. Jason Pullman was hired to host mornings with Kristen Gates.

For a year, The Bull’s ratings increased; not a ton but steadily. Over most of the same months, Kicks’ numbers got a slight haircut but remained strong. The Bull finally made it into the prime consideration set for radio buys.

Things changed in October when The Bull held steady while Kicks showed a gain. In November and December, The Bull slipped, but Kicks remained flat. Now…November was the month when the 18-34 PPM results appeared fluky. The Bull actually increased in 25-54 but lost a large part of its 18-34’s. And December is a hard month to interpret because herds flocked to the Christmas music stations. (Get it? Herds flocked?)

Although the January PPM should be more telling, it’s obvious The Bull has gotten this far, but Kicks has succeeded in limiting any real damage and remains Atlanta’s dominant Country player.

The Bull now needs to come up with a game plan to get to the next level. Forrest and Lindy are highly-competent radio people. But so is Kicks PD Mark Richards, whose formatic wizardry overcomes some not-so-stellar on-air talent. I’m guessing that whatever 94-9 The Bull does will have to be accomplished with little or no promotional dollars.

So will The Bull be treading mud a year from now, or will it be able to charge into the Kicks lead?

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:

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Four Questions – Part One

Why is this year different from all other years? I have no idea. But, in 2010 I will be paying close attention to four stations that I envision having a question mark on their back.

Our first question is a station that once dominated but has seen its wheels come off over the past two years. Of course, I’m talking about Star 94 (WSTR-FM), probably this blog’s most written-about station in 2009. At the end of 2009, the longtime Adult CHR quietly transitioned its music to Hot AC, which apparently will be its direction.

A little history: Star 94 came out of the womb in 1989 as an up-tempo AC. Tony Novia, one of Star’s early PD’s, convinced GM Mark Kanov to move to Adult CHR. It worked and by 1998, Star was challenging for the market’s #1 spot and in fact captured the top position in an Arbitrend. In the late 90’s, young females had no place else to turn.

Things changed in Fall, 1999 when the 95.5 frequency moved into the market to accommodate 95-5 The Beat. The new choice for the young signed on with a rhythmic-leaning CHR format.

The Beat put Star 94 in a box. Should Star defend its CHR territory by shifting younger? After all, its signal was ions better than The Beat’s. If it had made that move, Star would have jeopardized its very lucrative older end. So Star stayed on course, looking helpless as its ratings eroded. Nevertheless, Star kept its older core as well as its huge billings. I thought Program Director Dan Bowen did a great job in his first 9 years.

In 2001, concurrent with Q100’s sign-on, 95-5 The Beat went all-out Rhythmic CHR. That left Q100, a straight-ahead CHR, as Star 94’s most direct competitor.

Fast forward to the end of 2007, when Star 94 made a series of bad decisions. After the contracts of Steve & Vikki were not renewed, the station brought in a youth-oriented morning team, The Morning Mess. The station veered away from Adult CHR closer to Mainstream CHR to be consistent with its new morning show. Yet Star kept an adult-oriented, almost-talk show, Cindy & Ray, in afternoon drive. I do not know who made these decisions, but some sources say Lincoln Financial Media National PD John Dimick was behind the removal of Steve & Vikki. In any case, the loss of Steve & Vikki did not have to damage the station like it did.

Some observers feel Star 94 should have held on to the still-lucrative Steve & Vikki and segued to Hot AC. Personally, I believe Star should have stuck with Adult CHR and immediately moved Cindy & Ray into morning drive. That would have restored the station’s music-intensive pace in afternoons and given morning drive a proven ratings grabber.

The 7 months of Atlanta radio without Steve & Vikki gave their fans, who fled The Morning Mess en masse, plenty of time to find a new show. The big winner was The Bert Show on Q100, which had just moved to the powerful 99.7 signal.

Star regained its composure in Spring, 2009 when new PD JR Ammons quickly restored the station to its heritage Adult CHR position. Ammons demonstrated a keen understanding of Arbitron’s People Meter and did all the right things formatically. Star 94 became more current than Q100 while keeping its distance from hip-hop-leaning rhythmic product. Cindy & Ray were finally moved to mornings.

For a while, Star 94’s moves paid off. The heavily-recurrent and musically-conservative Q100 still won handily in mornings, but Star caught up in afternoon drive and took the lead in evenings and on weekends; plus Star won the 6+ race for a few months.

Q100 reacted by adjusting its music to bring it more current. That combined with its blockbuster morning show was all it took for Q100 to jump back on top, eventually knocking Star below a 3% share in 6+. Star 94’s initial morning gains were pushed back, making it obvious Cindy & Ray were not about to put a ding in The Bert Show or Steve & Vikki, now on B98.5. And frankly, 2 Adult CHR’s in one market was so unusual that it felt like something had to give before long.

Atlanta had two format holes, a perceptual one and a real one. Its conservative daytime music clock notwithstanding, Q100 is perceived as the hip, youthful CHR. That perception left a big perceived hole between Q100 and AC B98.5.

In reality, there’s a big hole between Q100 and The Beat, and a sliver between Q100 and B98.5.

Star 94’s problem is mornings, but finding an Adult CHR show that could steal from Bert and Steve & Vikki would be neither easy nor inexpensive. Moreover, another morning show this soon could shake up things dangerously inside and outside the station.

Star 94 moving into the real hole between Q100 and The Beat, becoming a Mainstream CHR, would cause major upheaval and be expensive. The Star 94 brand would have to be scrapped given its series of confusing moves over the past 2 years. Though young CHR fans would quickly realize Q100 was not the young, cool station, WSTR would be starting almost from scratch.

Star wisely chose to fill the perceptual hole. The station can retain its heritage, its subtle shift notwithstanding. Its current air staff is compatible with Hot AC. Even the syndicated Ryan Seacrest should work; it's inexpensive programming that has held its own in ratings. And while Darik at Night plays to a young audience, his adult-friendly sound wins the approval of their parents.

The key for Star 94 will be successfully separating itself musically from Q100. As mentioned, the real musical hole is very small, and Q100 plays a lot of recurrents, one of Hot AC’s major components.

Hot AC is first the current songs minus the rhythmic product. It’s Kelly Clarkson, Lifehouse, Rob Thomas, Taylor Swift and Nickelback. Second, it’s recurrents, like ”I’ve Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas, “Paralyzer” by Finger Eleven and “You Found Me” by the Fray. Third, it’s modern-leaning songs by bands such as Theory of a Deadman and Muse. Fourth, it’s fairly recent older product, such as “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s, “Your Body is a Wonderland” by John Mayer and “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol. Fifth, it’s still older songs like “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne and “Kryptonite” by 3 Doors Down.

Some Hot AC stations distinguish themselves by seasoning the music with special old school artists such as U2, INXS and Squeeze.

As of now, Star 94 is still using its Hit Music positioning. Hot AC stations want to appear current and use a variety of monikers. WPLJ-FM in New York is a Hot AC that utilizes Hit Music positioning though most Hot AC’s do not. Positioning such as “Today’s Best Music” and “The Best Mix of the 80’s, 90’s & Today” are typical.  Star 94 of course has equity in Hit Music positioning.  But would staying with Hit Music sweepers make it harder to separate itself from Q100?

How should Q100 react to Star 94’s music adjustments? In my opinion, Q100 should not change a thing. Remember Q100’s young, hip perception. Young Caucasian listeners have nowhere to turn unless they want The Beat’s totally-rhythmic playlist. As long as Q100 owns the minds and ears of the market’s youth, why not try to capture the older end as well?

Will Star 94 be able to shine musically, separate itself from Q100 and show a ratings increase? The new year should prove an interesting one for Star 94.

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: