Sunday, February 28, 2010

B98.5 Still In That Holiday Mood

When B98.5 FM's Holiday PPM share went through the roof and into the stratosphere, the Cox Radio people apparently got just about as high.  Cox's lingering holiday mood was evident on Thursday when B98.5 handed its competition a late Christmas gift, axing Steve & Vikki from mornings.  Cox has given indications of both agreement and disagreement with that summation.

It's no secret that the past year has been a difficult one for radio.  Revenues were down significantly though B98.5 was one of few Atlanta stations to keep its advertising rates pretty high.  Even the rates at V-103 and WSB-AM crashed last year.  It was this thought that prompted me to call my friend Rodney Ho at the AJC a few weeks ago.  Mindful of the Steve & Vikki contract expiration at the end of June, I asked Rodney if he'd heard anything about B98.5's decision on whether to keep the duo.  He said he had not.

On Thursday morning, Rodney called and said he heard a rumor that Steve & Vikki would not be renewed.  This hearsay sounded quite possible though I personally felt it would be a mistake.  That afternoon, I received an email from a friend who is a radio insider saying Steve & Vikki were let go.  The insider explained Thursday was the deadline for Cox to exercise an option not to renew.  I was stunned and wondered why Steve & Vikki were not staying on for the 4 months left on their contract.

While salaries probably factored into this, the dismissal apparently was tied to Cox Corporate's belief, confirmed by a minute-by-minute analysis of the ratings, that talk and PPM success do not mix.  It seems obvious this came from above Tony Kidd, the Atlanta cluster's head programmer.  Here's a hint: During the station's highly successful Christmas music, Steve & Vikki were the "face" of B98.5, appearing in frequent vignettes promoting the programming.  Would they have played that role if the station thought they were not a draw?

Later came word that Cox had offered Vikki the morning show on a solo basis for a year, in other words the Kaedy Kiley special with 50 minutes of music and token talk.  The strategy was to break up the team in order to keep it from competing against Cox.  So Cox feels Steve & Vikki are not right for B98.5 listeners but worries the duo will take listeners from B98.5.  Is oxymoron the correct word?  As bad a position as this puts Vikki in, her husband is between jobs, forcing her to consider the offer.

My feeling is that a personality morning show was giving Cox's Bob Neil more stress than he could handle.  Consider my own history regarding B98.5.  About 5 years ago, I worked with Grey Advertising on the Georgia Aquarium.  I had done a successful buy on B98.5 for selling "fish scales" to help fund the Aquarium's education program.  Kelly McCoy had been our spokesperson on the station.

Aside from the buy, several morning shows had given Aquarium philanthropist Bernie Marcus lengthy interviews.  When the next buy was to be placed, the Aquarium's Marketing Director asked that I give favorable consideration to those stations.  I informed the B98.5 salesperson, who then requested such an interview.

B98.5's response was the station would do a 2-minute interview, but all questions and answers were to be agreed upon in advance.  (To this day, I wonder if the station heard incorrectly and thought the interview was with Hugo Chavez and not Bernie Marcus.)  B98.5 would then cut the interview into 4 30-second parts.  We would purchase a 60-second spot; the first 30 seconds would contain 25% of the interview, and the other 30 seconds would be a commercial.

I was somewhat taken aback and solicited help from Dan Kearney, then GM of the station.  Dan's response was, "My Program Director has a coronary whenever music isn't playing."  Another time, I was in a meeting with Dan, and he mentioned Bob Neil had just created a new music clock.  I thought, "The CEO of Cox Radio creating a music clock for an individual station?"  Soon thereafter, I asked the late WSB-AM news anchor Mike Kavanagh whether this hands-on style at the station level was not unusual for a CEO.  Mike answered, "Yes, but Bob has Marc Morgan to handle the business side."

Chris Wegmann, former Cox/Atlanta Market Manager, once told me, "B98.5 is Bob Neil's favorite station.  I told (former Clear Channel Market Manager) Jerry Del Core, 'If Lite FM gives away $5,000, B98.5 will give away $10,000.'"  I think you're getting the idea.

When Steve & Vikki left Star 94, I posted on Radio-Info that B98.5 would not hire them; they did not fit Bob Neil's vision of mornings on a Cox AC.  A few months later, Cox welcomed them with tremendous enthusiasm.  This was shortly after Cox's WZZK-FM in Birmingham, a country station, snagged Rick & Bubba, breaking a music-intensive clock.

Morning ratings did not increase much, but that's par for the course for AC, especially with the PPM.  Office listening during working hours generates the highest shares.  I'm not privy to revenue figures but am guessing the show increased billings, reinforcing my view that the firing was mostly due to Bob Neil's duress.

I felt Steve & Vikki were perfect for B98.5 and its audience.  They instantly provided a strong foundation, high name recognition and credibility.  They also likely fostered additional benefits--increasing B98.5's likability and trust, bringing in more listeners and ad dollars in other dayparts--that are not reflected in the morning PPM numbers.

So what is the closest morning show to Steve & Vikki in terms of target audience and tenor?  That would be Cindy & Ray on Star 94.  With Star veering toward Hot AC, this is quite a gift.  If nothing else, Star should advertise on and off air, "If your favorite morning show has left you, make the switch to Cindy & Ray on Star 94."  Heck, Lily could sing the lyrics of the Steve & Vikki song.  Of course, Q100's Bert Show might also benefit.

Steve & Vikki's future depends on whether Vikki accepts the B98.5 offer.  My feeling is the team still has substantial market value in Atlanta, but given the economy and the current morning situation, landing someplace soon will not be easy.  One long-shot candidate is their former station, Star 94, with Cindy & Ray moving back to afternoons, where they enjoyed success.  Another possibility is Country 94-9 The Bull, which has stopped gaining traction against Kicks 101-5.  Steve & Vikki could do mornings and bring the station out of its malaise.  A really long shot is 94.9 returning to some form of AC and bringing in the duo.

In any case, don't expect them to jump back onto the Atlanta airwaves any time soon.  Their contract has 4 months left, and a non-compete phase will probably follow.

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