Monday, June 21, 2010

Defying Radio's Law of Gravity

Something is in the air at 104.7 The Fish.  Salem's Contemporary Christian outlet is an oasis of stability in the characteristically unstable business of radio.

The Fish (WFSH-FM) surfaced in Atlanta during September, 2000 as the result of a deal among Cox Radio, the Dickey family (of Cumulus fame) and Salem.  Cox's purchase of Dickey's Kiss 104.7 (WALR-FM) left the company with too many FM's in the Atlanta market.  Cox moved the WALR-FM call letters and Kiss intellectual property to 104.1, and traded 104.7 to Salem for an FM in Houston.

The Fish's first General Manager, Allen Power, now a Senior VP with Salem, put the station on the air.  Under the cover of 40 days of uninterrupted music, Power swung into action, quickly assembling a staff.  Two of his first hires were Kevin Avery and Taylor Scott, who do the morning show to this day.

Power named Kevin Avery the PD, and Kevin brought in Parks Stamper for middays and Dan Ratcliffe for afternoon drive during the first few months.  Parks and Dan remain in their original shifts.  Mike Stoudt, who handles evenings, joined The Fish in January, 2001 as a copywriter and weekend personality.  A year later, he became Music Director and moved into his current slot.

Some might argue that WSB-AM has been stable for longer.  Scott Slade has been at WSB since 1982, originally as a traffic reporter, and Neal Boortz and Clark Howard have been there since the early 1990's.  And Atlanta radio has some individual cases of incredible longevity.  Kelly McCoy recently celebrated 25 years in afternoons at B98.5, and that station's Jordan Graye first joined in 1989 as a part-timer and became full time in 1991.

The Fish somehow seems different.  In addition to the on-air team, the sales department has been pretty much intact for just as long.  Staffers say the atmosphere is unlike any other radio station that they have experienced.

In what space does 104.7 The Fish compete?  The Christian Contemporary format has elements of both Adult Contemporary and Gospel/Religious programming.  As someone who takes stations apart and analyzes them, I hear a state-of-the-art AC when I listen to The Fish.

When we radio junkies talk shop, 104.7 The Fish rarely or never makes its way into the conversation.  Nevertheless, the station's use of sweepers, song tags, jingles and promos reflects a sophisticated understanding of programming elements.

The Fish is a finely-tuned machine, which is not surprising if you know anything about PD Mike Blakemore.  General Manager Mike Moran hired Blakemore 2 1/2 years ago to take the station to the next level.  Mike grew up listening to Chicago's WLS and dreamed of working there.  Although he never joined The Big 89, he has successfully programmed stations in a variety of formats around the country.

Unlike stations in other formats, whose positioning involves the music they play, 104.7 The Fish positions the station as being "safe for the whole family."  Words such as "uplifting" and "positive" pop up in sweepers.  While maintaining the perception of continuous music, Blakemore gives his personalities breathing room; and they often use it to converse with listeners, whose comments contribute to the station's message.  He also skillfully uses Kevin & Taylor, the established and trusted morning duo, as a centerpiece across the other dayparts.

In this age of specialization, personalities in each format usually have a sound inherent to that format.  Contemporary Christian jocks should connote such traits as wholesomeness, family and sincerity, and both Taylor Scott and Parks Stamper fit the persona perfectly, as do weekender Margaret Cheeley and traffic reporter Heidi Rew.  Kevin Avery, Dan Ratcliffe and Mike Stoudt are steadfast radio pros who uphold the station's image as well.

Contemporary Christian is a niche format and not expected to challenge the big boys.  Yet 104.7 The Fish has been earning shares in the mid 4's among total persons 6+, good enough for 9th place in the May PPM ratings.  In its target audience of women 25-54, however, The Fish came in at a stellar #6.  Moreover, Arbitron indicates that 90% of the station's women 25-54 average quarter-hour audience are "preferred" listeners, indicating a high degree of loyalty.

The 104.7 signal is one of the numerous FM move-ins that recognized Atlanta's transformation from a medium to large market over the past 30 years.  As such, The Fish must still throw a city-grade signal over its original city of license, Athens, GA.  Thus, the transmitter site is approximately 25 miles east of Atlanta, creating somewhat of a signal-strength disadvantage compared to the true Atlanta-licensed facilities.  Several years ago, Salem erected a new 1,762-foot monster tower in Loganville, making the signal more competitive.

So, why does 104.7 The Fish have such stability and is, according to employees, a terrific and unique place to work?  Of course, ratings and billings success tend to foster high morale and longevity.  But, staff members say there's more to it.  I asked a few of them to provide their thoughts.
  • Mike Blakemore, Program Director: "We are not just providing first-class radio entertainment, but real lives are being changed through the music we play and the stories shared by our listeners and DJ's.  All of this makes working at The Fish not just another job, but a job with a mission."
  • Parks Stamper, Midday Personality: "I can only speak to my personal experience, which is pretty simple.  I love our listeners, and I love what I get to do everyday."
  • Michael Howell, Sales Executive: "There is an underlying current of trust among the salespeople. No backstabbing like at other places.  Kevin Isaac (General Sales Manager) is like a teacher, calm, collected.  He filters everything through the sales team."
With cost-cutting and voice tracking all too prevalent in the industry, 104.7 The Fish proves that live and local programming created by caring radio professionals is still a winning formula.
    Thanks for reading.  I would love to hear from you at roddyfreeman@bellsouth.net.  Follow us on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/atlantaairwaves, and we'll follow you back.

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

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