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?

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