Monday, August 30, 2010

Cox Clones A Legend

I learned about WSB-AM as a young teenager in Baltimore.  When my radio fever took hold and I started tuning across the nighttime dial, WSB was always there with a reliable, clear signal.  When I made my first trip to Atlanta in 1975, three things were on my agenda, a Braves game, Underground Atlanta and a drive to White Columns on Peachtree, WSB's home.

To many living here in Atlanta, WSB was Atlanta radio.  In this land of poor ground conductivity and low-power signals, WSB was the one station that could be heard everywhere day and night.  In the 60's and 70's, the kids had Quixie (WQXI-AM), and their parents had WSB.  And former WSB General Manager Elmo Ellis was as much a legend as his station.

All of this created kind of a mystique to WSB, an allure above and beyond what it sent out over its signal.

As FM music stations took center stage in the 80's and 90's, WSB started losing its way.  The decline might have culminated in 1990, when the station let the Braves go to WGST just in time for the unanticipated championship season of 1991; and helped create a formidable competitor in the process.

Former WSB General Manager Marc Morgan, now a top executive at Cox Media Group, raided the kitty to pull Neal Boortz and Clark Howard, both proven talents, away from WGST in 1992.  With most of the key pieces in place, new Program Director Greg Moceri's immediate concern was bringing WSB's formatics into the 1990's, which he accomplished in resounding fashion.

In fall 1995, WSB rebounded to #1 in persons 12+, a position that it was to trade back and forth with V-103 over the next 15 years.  The station had gotten there with still more money, a lot of it, and a little luck.  As for the money, WSB had outbid WGST to reclaim the Braves, which had become one of baseball's best teams, effective with the 1995 season.  As for the luck, WSB tested reruns of Dr. Laura during early afternoons in 1996 and dethroned Rush Limbaugh on WGST.

WSB's market-leading position was the result of a number of things--premier talent, the Braves, super imaging and formatics, the market's top news department, its 50,000-watt signal--and that mystique surrounding the station.

WGST owner Clear Channel eventually did the inevitable, stealing Dr. Laura for its own Atlanta station.  After all, her show was syndicated by a Clear Channel subsidiary.  Laura was dragged kicking and screaming up Peachtree Street.  But the move neither hurt WSB, given its momentum, nor helped WGST.

When Arbitron brought its Portable People Meter to town in 2009, predictions were widespread that WSB's halcyon days were numbered; that WSB's ratings were partially due to the brand's high recognition, which had been manifesting itself in bogus diary mentions.  That turned out not to be correct.

Early this year, WSB-AM started seeing some audience erosion.  The rate of loss accelerated over the past 4 months.  Though the 6+ numbers bounced back some in July, the station fell from the top 10 in the money demo, Adults 25-54.  Decisive action was taken on August 16, when 95-5 The Beat was blown up and replaced with a simulcast of WSB-AM.

In 2 weeks, we'll talk about the rationale for the move and its likely outcome for WSB as well as its implications for other stations.

Thanks for reading, and happy Labor Day.  I would love to hear from you at  Follow us on Twitter at, and we'll follow you back.

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

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sports Radio's Front Lines

Last week, I talked about 680 The Fan's (WCNN-AM's) dominance over its direct Sports rival, 790 The Zone (WQXI-AM).  The reason probably is a combination of factors, marginally better daytime signal, much better nighttime signal, Braves and Thrashers, consistency.  The biggest reason for The Fan's ascendancy, however, is likely the talk hosts on both stations.

As I thought about each station's staff, I wondered whether The Fan's hosts are superior, or whether The Zone is doing things to drive listeners to the competition.  I mentioned last week that sports knowledge and broadcast talent do not seem to go together on Atlanta's Sports stations for the most part.

In morning drive, The Fan has Christopher Rude with Perry Laurentino and Leo Mazzone at his side.  I have always been a big Chris Rude fan back to his stellar run at 96 Rock.  He anchors the show with talent and professionalism, and keeps things on an even keel.  His background is not sports, but he's learned enough to conduct an effective show with the sports-minded Laurentino as co-host.  I am not a Laurentino fan; I find him a bit on the irritating side, and some of his opinions seem a little out there.  Mazzone is an Atlanta favorite, and his being there adds comfort, especially during baseball season.  But his tangible contributions to the dialogue are not exactly profound.

Mornings at 790 The Zone feature co-owner Steak Shapiro (when he's there), Chris Dimino and Nick Cellini.  All three have at least a modicum of broadcast talent.  I enjoy Dimino and Cellini very much.  They're the best baseball guys in town and do about as well with the other sports.  Shapiro is the lightning rod, thought to come across as obnoxious, and just as likely to talk booze, strip clubs and where he ate last night as he is to discuss sports.  Steak is actually good when talking sports although his sound does carry a tinge of obnoxiousness.  Mornings of course set the table for the rest of the day, and my feeling is that Shapiro has driven listeners over to The Fan's Rude Awakening.  I don't know how Program Director Matt Edgar tells an owner that he should be replaced with a new third voice, but such a move seems imperative for The Zone to get back into the fray.

In late mornings, The Fan carries ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd.  The Zone has Jeff Woolverton, up until recently paired with the much-maligned Brandon Adams.  While we have awaited word of Adams' replacement, Woolverton has been partnered with Sam Radin, John Michaels and Hans Heiserer.  Woolverton has a decent knowledge of sports, especially the NBA, but has an overbearing delivery that borders on abrasive.  I find him a difficult listen.

In early afternoon, 680 The Fan airs Chuck (Oliver) & (Matt) Chernoff.  Many consider these hosts, both formerly on 790 The Zone, as the market's best.  The show is intelligent, interesting and substantive.  But here's my question:  Where is the broadcast talent?  Chuck & Chernoff seem to do pretty well without a whole lot of radio aptitude, and I guess knowledge and intelligence override talent when you're talking sports.

The 1-4PM slot at The Zone is filled by The 2 Live Stews, brothers Doug and Ryan Stewart.  The Stews and their Doghouse originate from the 790 The Zone studios and are syndicated by Sporting News Radio.  Doug and Ryan are talented and know sports, but they're not for everyone.  The typical adult University of Georgia fan in Atlanta might not prefer the style of these young African-American hosts.  This is a case where the benefit of creating and originating the show probably pays bigger dividends to The Zone than a local show that attracted more listeners.

Buck (Belue) & (John) Kincade handle afternoon drive on 680 The Fan.  Belue is in the air chair by virtue of leading the Georgia Bulldogs to the 1980 national championship; and for his 93-yard touchdown pass that season to Lindsay Scott that led to beating Florida.  The Fan is fortunate that Belue found time to do the show while writing his best-selling book, How I Developed a Philadelphia Accent in Valdosta.  John Kincade worked at 790 The Zone and joined The Fan when it resurfaced in 2000.  He also hosts a Sunday morning show on ESPN Radio.

College football is king in Atlanta, and Buck & Kincaide accordingly did a college football-centric show.  Yet as their station has started airing the Thrashers and the Braves, they have done a nice job of increasing coverage of those teams.  That a show hosted by Georgia legend Belue would lure Atlanta sports fans, especially with its first hour competing against The 2 Live Stews, is no surprise.  Nevertheless, we get back to the issue of broadcast talent, and Buck & Kincade have little.  Moreover, the chemistry between Buck and John does not seem copacetic; you get the impression that they dislike each other.

Opposite Buck & Kincade from 4-7PM on 790 The Zone is (David) Pollack & (Mike) Bell.  In my opinion, this is Atlanta sports radio's best show.  This is a different Mike Bell from the comedian on Mayhem in the AM who talked about his sexual conquests and boozy adventures.  Bell has broadcast talent and keeps the show moving.  Pollack, a former All-American at UGA, has less radio ability but shows intelligence and is knowledgeable about several sports, especially football.  My only complaint is that Bell tends to dominate and often steps on Pollack.

Overall, 680 The Fan is more laid-back while 790 The Zone is more upbeat and flashy.  The Fan has been steadfast in its pursuit of local play-by-play rights.  After Clear Channel treated the Braves as an FM programming interruption, 680 The Fan embraces the team.  The Braves have also been leading 680 The Fan to record billings and its Cumulus FM cousin, Rock 100.5 (WNNX-FM), to record ratings.  And, Cumulus has stolen The Hawks from 790 The Zone for the Cumulus 97.9 FM translator signal, which is a pretty good one.  The Fan, being a blood relative of Cumulus, will carry a significant amount of Hawks coverage minus the play-by-play.

In summary, 680 The Fan is winning because of a combination of factors.  Some, such as better nighttime and pre-sunrise signal, and Braves play-by-play, provide an insurmountable advantage.  However, 790 The Zone could get back into the race by replacing Steak Shapiro on Mayhem in the AM with an effective third voice and hiring someone such as the AJC's Jeff Schultz or WXIA-TV's Fred Kalil for 11AM-1PM.

I want to thank Roger Tiberio, an avid sports fan and Sports radio listener, for his considerable contributions to this week's column.

Thanks for reading.  I would love to hear from you at  Follow us on Twitter at, and we'll follow you back.

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

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Fan Takes Charge

In what used to be a 2-team race, 680 The Fan (WCNN-AM) has taken a commanding lead over its direct rival, 790 The Zone (WQXI-AM).  And while The Fan's solid victory leaves no doubt, I am not convinced The Zone has fallen to the point indicated in the June PPM's, based on its numbers over the several months prior.

In the June Arbitron PPM ratings, Monday through Sunday from 6AM to midnight, 680 The Fan had 2.8 times the men 18-49 as 790 the Zone.  In radio's prime hours of Monday through Friday from 6AM to 7PM, The Fan attracted 3.4 times as many men 18-49 as The Zone.

Sports radio has been one of the few successful formats created in the past 20 years.  It's helped AM signals stay viable (although it's now found on FM in some markets).  While it generally does not get big 6+ (or 12+) ratings, it's a natural for certain advertisers--beers, cars, home supply stores and other categories--because of its audience purity and listener passion.  In key male demos, such as men 18-49, some sports outlets do well.

The Zone came to Atlanta in 1997.  Armed with a marketing plan crafted by former sports host Beau Bock, Andrew Saltzman, who grew up in the radio business, and Steve "Steak" Shapiro, former Boston sports talker, negotiated a lease (officially an LMA) with Jefferson-Pilot to take over WQXI.

WCNN had been Atlanta's first all-Sports outlet and was owned then, as is the case today, by Dickey Broadcasting.  However, in 1997, Cox Radio leased the station, keeping Sports for a short time and then flipping to News/Talk.  That left The Zone as the market's sole all-Sports option.

The Zone's early signs were positive as GM Saltzman demonstrated his radio acumen in hiring a staff.  The station's ratings were relatively small, but The Zone was bringing people back to AM.

Saltzman forged relationships with such clients as Coca-Cola and The Home Depot, assuring the station would be viable.  Management also became adept at turning spot buys into sponsorships and promotions, resulting in billings far exceeding what The Zone's ratings would normally have commanded.

As revenue grew, the syndicated Imus in the Morning was replaced by local programming (Mayhem in the AM), a move that resulted in an Imus nationwide over-the-air tirade directed at Saltzman.  By every measure, 790 The Zone was a major success.

The Cox LMA of 680 ended in 2000, and control reverted to Dickey Broadcasting.  After a few months of keeping the market guessing, Dickey announced it was taking the station back to Sports.  680 The Fan President David Dickey saw his station's position as advantageous, mentioning its 50,000-watt signal and The Zone's "New York" flavor.

Signal is not much of an issue during daylight hours.  Jefferson-Pilot  boosted The Zone's daytime power from 5,000 watts to 28,000 watts in the late 1990's.  Although The Fan penetrates Atlanta with 50,000 watts, The Zone's 28,000 watts non-directional from its Cheshire Bridge Road site makes the difference in signal strength negligible, especially among sports fanatics, who will seek out the format.

Night and pre-sunrise are a different story for both stations.  The Zone's 1,000-watt directional pattern is so limited that imagining WQXI as the 60's and 70's powerhouse that it was is difficult.  The Fan, meanwhile, beams 10,000 watts into Atlanta from its Dunwoody site but totally misses Gwinnett and Cobb Counties.  We have to give a major advantage to The Fan despite the signal's shortcomings.  Of course, nighttime listening is limited.

The Zone held off The Fan in ratings for several years and reportedly way outbilled 680.  But, The Fan kept pressing, hiring former Zone hosts including Chuck Oliver and Matt Chernoff.  The Fan picked up the Thrashers and this season, The Braves, in combination with its Cumulus FM cousin, Rock 100.5 (WNNX-FM).  Eventually, The Fan edged out The Zone in ratings and reportedly started nullifying The Zone's big billings advantage.  In recent months, The Fan has held a significant and consistent ratings edge.

Why is 680 The Fan walking all over 790 The Zone?  Nighttime signal likely plays some role, but The Fan has been winning with content and consistency as well as two major sports franchises and the loyalty that they engender. In my opinion, however, neither station exactly approaches greatness.  Is it too much to expect Sports talk hosts to have both sports knowledge and broadcast talent?  With several exceptions, neither station's hosts have a huge amount of broadcast aptitude.

In part 2 next week, we'll look at the hosts and programs aired by each station, and delve further into why 680 The Fan is winning.

Let's Help Boomer
Our friend Steve Boomer Sutton, a longtime member of Atlanta's radio community, needs our help, and it's truly a matter of life and death.  Boomer is in need of a kidney transplant and is planning a charity golf tournament to raise funds.  The tournament will take place on October 4 at Callahan Golf Links in Waleska, Georgia.  The price of $500 per foursome includes 18 holes of golf, riding cart, range balls, a Subway snack and various awards.

Boomer needs 144 golfers to make the event a success.  He is also looking for sponsors as well as gifts from businesses for the first 25 foursomes who register.  A number of Atlanta radio notables will be in attendance, including Cadillac Jack, Dallas McCade, Randy & Spiff, Moby, Captain Herb Emory, Greg Talmadge and Dan Blankowski.

Visit for the details.  Let's help Boomer get the word out.

Thanks for reading.  I would love to hear from you at  Follow us on Twitter at, and we'll follow you back.

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

Monday, August 9, 2010

Q100's Music: Train Wreck or Stroke of Brilliance?

Q100 (WWWQ-FM) is categorized by virtually everyone as a CHR station.  Yet an hour's song log will reveal differences between Q100 and most other major market CHR's.

When Susquehanna Radio turned the keys over to Cumulus, Q100 was a state-of-the-art CHR.  Under Program Director Dylan Sprague, the station boasted of playing major hits that Star 94 ignored.  And Q100's music consisted of "all the hits," pure and simple.

Cumulus SVP/Programming Jan Jeffries is famous in the industry for programming recurrents.  It's a strategy that Jeffries deployed at stations long before coming to Cumulus.  In a now-famous 2009 interview, radio columnist Sean Ross posed the recurrent question to Jeffries early on.  Jeffries called recurrents "the backbone."  He said that while radio people think of the music as recurrents, to listeners they are good songs that have little burn.

Over the several months that followed the Cumulus acquisition, things at Q100 did indeed change.  Talk was tightened, and music became the undisputed star except in mornings.  As mentioned last week, evening personality Geller did not appreciate the gag order imposed on him and checked out.  Q100 got "10 times better" as the Cumulus 10-In-A-Row was installed.  And over the next several months, recurrents and recent gold became major parts of the music clock.

January 25, 2008 was a historic day in Atlanta radio.  99X, a station that blazed the trail for the Alternative format during the 1990's, breathed its last breath.  Q100 then moved from 100.5 to the 100,000-watt former 99X signal at 99.7.

Star 94 had made some big mistakes over the past year and a half.  The longtime Adult CHR ratings and billings winner had canceled Steve & Vikki.  Opinion on whether that was a prudent decision is to this day a mixed bag.  Star replaced its 17-year morning show with The Morning Mess, a successful morning drive team from Indianapolis.  The Mess had a mainstream CHR--some would say younger than mainstream--and not Adult CHR tenor and drove legions of Steve & Vikki listeners away.  That only strengthened The Bert Show.

With a less adult-friendly morning show, Star 94 made a decision to shed most of its Adult CHR stance and become more of a straight-ahead CHR product.  In doing so after being an Adult CHR for 19 years, the station had thrown away the baby with the bathwater.  Suddenly, Star 94 had a different sound, with a new music policy and new imaging.  To complicate things, Cindy & Ray in afternoon drive was almost a talk show, better suited for morning drive and not exactly consistent with Star's now-younger sound.

Q100's powerful new signal and Star's injured status gave Q the perfect opportunity to best its long-time rival, and it quickly won the first PPM monthly after the frequency switch.  The marketplace had chosen boring recurrents over the confusion of Star 94.

During 2008, Star 94 replaced 10-year Program Director Dan Bowen with JR Ammons.  Ammons had a few years earlier been Music Director/Assistant Program Director of Star and had since gone on to program Mix 93.3 (KMXV-FM) in Kansas City and The Big Ape (WAPE-FM) in Jacksonville.  He was well-liked, smart and a CHR expert.

Ammons quickly did what he could, firing The Morning Mess, restoring Star to its heritage Adult CHR position, improving the imaging and moving Cindy & Ray to morning drive.  If the Cindy & Ray move had been made immediately after Steve & Vikki left, Star probably would have held on to its audience, and things would have been a lot different.

JR Ammons and Music Director Michael Chase got the music back on track and in fact became a little adventurous regarding songs added.  By Spring, 2009, Atlanta had a choice of current CHR without Rhythmic on Star 94, or current CHR and Hot AC recurrents weighted about equally with Rhythmic added at night on Q100.  Star 94 won fairly handily for a couple of months.  The Bert Show dominated mornings, but Star's ratings increased as the day wore on.  Star beat Q100 in the evening and on weekends.

The Atlanta CHR marketplace was not all that happy with Star 94, just more unhappy with Q100.  Armed with a fully-competitive signal, Q100 made some music modifications, mainly decreasing the number of recurrents, which probably caused Jan Jeffries to have convulsions.  That's all it took for Q100 to bounce back on top, where it has remained since.  In the past 2 PPM's, Q100 had the highest ratings in its history.

Over time, Q100's music has evolved.  Recurrents are frequent in middays and afternoons, and Rhythmic of both a general market and Urban flavor is played all day long.  I took a look at Q100's music log in an hour of midday, afternoon drive and evening.  Current product, including Rhythmic songs, is pretty consistent across all three dayparts.  Q100 is as likely to play Drake and Taio Cruz in midday as in the evening.

In the midday hour, 5 of the 12 songs played were not current, a definite difference from the great majority of major market CHR stations.  The recurrents/gold included Dani California (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Her Diamonds (Rob Thomas), Two is Better Than One (Boys Like Girls), Bad Romance (Lady Gaga) and You Found Me (The Fray).  All of these would fit just fine on a Hot AC station though all had hit big on the CHR charts.

During the PM drive hour, again 5 of the 12 songs were recurrents/gold, consisting of The Sweet Escape (Gwen Stefani), Watcha Say (Jason DeRulo), Fallin' For You (Colbie Caillat), Down (Jay Sean) and Second Chance (Shinedown).  In the evening (8PM) hour, 4 of the 12 songs were recurrents/gold, including Love Game (Lady Gaga), Big Girls Don't Cry (Fergie), Boom Boom Pow (Black Eyed Peas) and Sweet Dreams (Beyonce).  (Love Game has the most intense Urban flavor of any recurrent on the above list.)

Back to our question: Train wreck or stroke of brilliance?  Overall, Q100's music is not a train wreck for the simple reason that all of the gold/recurrents charted big on CHR, and Q100's audience had accepted them.  I must admit that the amount of Hot AC in the midday hour did cause a rather jumpy flow.  The gold/recurrents included more Rhythmic songs during the afternoon and still more in the evening.

Does that mean the heavy use of recurrents and gold is brilliant?  I doubt it.  For one thing, the strategy is probably a manifestation of Jan Jeffries' way of putting together a CHR clock and not the result of analyzing the Atlanta competitive landscape.

The philosophy might make some sense in Atlanta because Q100 is the only station playing all the current CHR hits.  If that's what listeners are looking for, Q100 has a captive audience and might as well try to extend its reach to the format's high-end demos.  Then again, some former Q100 listeners might favor The Beat's policy of excluding some general-market tunes to sitting through a bunch of recurrents.

What is Jeffries' real objective with recurrents?  CHR is based on familiarity, and recurrents are certainly familiar.  Yet CHR stations repeat current songs so frequently that familiarity is hardly an issue.  Recurrents and gold are already proven, but new CHR tunes prove their mettle pretty quickly.

Q100 is the top-rated non-Urban station in the June Arbitron PPM ratings among both women 18-49 and women 25-54.  The station's commercial spots are consistently sold out.  So saying Q100 is doing it wrong is difficult.  Those of us starved for a real CHR since the Cumulus acquisition of Susquehanna know that if such a station launched, Jan Jeffries would have to react by breaking his recurrent habit.  Or would he?

Our frustrations notwithstanding, Q100 is not a train wreck though it's speeding down an ill-maintained track.  On the other hand, the music policy does not appear the result of ingenious insight into the market.  But for Atlanta's current CHR landscape, with no other station playing all the hits and Star 94's music lacking an edge, I can't blame Q100 for playing it as broadly as possible.

Thanks for reading.  I would love to hear from you at  Follow us on Twitter at, and we'll follow you back.

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

Monday, August 2, 2010

Q100 Follows a Legend

Last week, we reviewed how the 100.5 signal came to Atlanta and Q100's formative years, culminating with a big power increase in 2005.

Also in 2005, Susquehanna Radio, which had no successor to retiring primary owner Louis Appel, sold its radio properties to a consortium of three companies, one of which was Cumulus Media Partners, controlled by medium-market owner Cumulus.  CMP was to operate the former Susquehanna stations.  Cumulus, known for running stations as inexpensively as possible, sat at the opposite end of the spectrum from Susquehanna, which enjoyed a reputation of investing in its product and caring about its people.

When Cumulus took over in Spring, 2006, the company implemented major staff reductions, which included longtime Atlanta General Manager Mark Renier, who had risen to Senior VP, Regional Manager at Susquehanna.  Cumulus retained Q100 PD Dylan Sprague (and much-honored 99X PD Leslie Fram) but brought in Rob Roberts, a leading CHR PD, from Clear Channel's Y100 in Miami to oversee both stations.

Cumulus CHR stations across the U.S. had some similarities.  One hallmark was the 10-in-a-row sweep that kicked off prior to the top-of-the-hour.  Another was a liberal use of recurrents and fairly-recent gold.  Even with the hiring of Rob Roberts, one had to wonder whether Q100 would be squished into the Cumulus mold.  Until then, Cumulus had owned CHR's in markets such as Montgomery and Fayetteville.  Would the same kind of music clock succeed in Atlanta and Houston?

Before long, the Cumulus version of CHR radio was on the air, and a quick casualty was nighttime personality Geller.  Geller entertained, and music on his show was secondary.  He could not operate under Cumulus' tight talk restrictions.  Geller departed before finding another job but today thrives at Raleigh's G105.  Eventually, Dylan's contract was not renewed.

Cumulus tried to revive legendary sister station 99X, even bringing back Sean Demery for mornings, but the Alternative format had pretty much run its course.  In early 2008, Q100 made history one more time, when it moved to the 100,000-watt 99X facility at 99.7.

Bert Weiss now had a major platform befitting his show's success and quality.  Furthermore, primary competitor Star 94, dominant for so long, had made some major mistakes in 2007 and 2008.  With the powerful 99.7 signal, which is transmitted from arguably the best FM site in the market, Cumulus and Q100 were going for the kill.

The new Q100 at 99.7 came out of the box with a quick score, handing Star 94 a defeat in the PPM ratings at the start of 2009.  However, Star made some changes and, despite Q100's dominant morning show, regained the lead in early summer, 2009.  The Star 94 victory really reflected how poorly programmed Q100's music had become.

In part 3 next week, we look at the evolution of Q100's music from the station's sign-on through today.

Thanks for reading.  I would love to hear from you at  Follow us on Twitter at, and we'll follow you back.

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