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.

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