Monday, October 25, 2010

The Bull Awakens

Melissa Forrest had been a star on the rise for some time.  Early in the decade, she was Director of Sales for Clear Channel/Detroit.  She then joined Entercom, first as a VP/General Manager in Seattle and then as VP/Market Manager in Austin.  Even from her early days in Texas, she was known to have exceptional radio acumen, both in sales and programming.  In 2008, Clear Channel named her to guide the company's troubled Atlanta cluster as President/Market Manager.

The Bull was the most logical place to start.  One of Clear Channel's two full-power Atlanta signals, it had gone through several modifications in its young life.  Something needed to happen, and many predicted a format change.  At least 96.1, the company's other big signal, was doing the job in its young male target demos.  Not long into Forrest's tenure, Cledus T. Judd was fired from mornings.  But, The Bull continued to put out a listless product.

The first hint that something was up surfaced during Thanksgiving week of 2008.  The Bull announced it was giving its listeners a gift starting on the holiday eve.  Of course, the announcement sent rumors flying.  From Clear Channel's perspective, the gift was 4 days of uninterrupted Country music; from mine, it was relief from a really bad radio station.

The Monday following Thanksgiving, a new and much improved version of The Bull was launched with zero fanfare.  Kristen Gates, who had been Cledus' co-host, reappeared in mornings.  Madison Reeves, who someday may get into the Guinness Book of Records for voicetracking the most stations, was the new midday personality, and she was excellent.  At 2 came Music Director and afternoon driver Lance Houston, also a holdover from the previous rendition.  New in evenings was Ty Bentli, then of Chicago's 103.5 Kiss FM and now of 104.3 My FM in Los Angeles.  Bentli is another of Clear Channel's master voicetrackers.  Though Reeves and Bentli were based at CHR stations, both were proficient at doing Country.

New imaging was in place.  Veteran Country programmer Scott Lindy was hired as PD.  This was indeed a different--and much more focused--Bull.  The station was to be tweaked and would get better.  Little by little, The Bull started gaining audience share.  While Kicks' losses would be minimal, The Bull's share was growing in small increments.

In 2009, Jason Pullman was added to the morning show with Kristen Gates.  The station continued its slow ratings progress as the Country format's share grew.  At year's end, Kicks reversed what had been a small loss while The Bull fell backwards.  But Clear Channel management stayed the course, and after a few months, The Bull dusted itself off and resumed its climb.  PD Scott Lindy was surprisingly released in August 2010, but the station's momentum pushed it forward.  In August, The Bull beat Kicks in Adults 18-49.  Then in September, it defeated Kicks in Adults 25-54 for the first time ever.  Kicks won the total (Person's 6+) audience because of its lead in older demographics.

The Bull has become a winner with talent, formatics and humor.  With the November 2008 relaunch, The Bull identified its enemy as Kicks and starting declaring the number of songs that it played versus the number on the enemy; and announced during music sweeps (i.e. Bull Rides) when Kicks was playing commercials.  The Bull's imaging voice is the very talented and versatile Cousin Deke.  The Bull's imaging sounds nothing like the Cousin Deke imaging on WLW-AM in Cincinnati.  It's just plain funny and very effective.

Both Kicks and The Bull stick pretty much to today's hot artists.  I compared recent logs, and just over 50% of The Bull's songs were currently charting compared to just under 50% on Kicks.

Cadillac Jack of Kicks 101-5 is arguably the most naturally talented Country personality in the market, with Dallas McCade, his co-host in mornings, possibly coming in second.  However, I'm finding Caffeinated Radio on The Bull about as compelling.  I named Jason and Kristen among the market's best shows but have also commented about Pullman's non-radio conversation style.  But, he sounds like he's super nice and having a great time, traits that I love.  And the show is loaded with creative and fun interactive features.  Pullman and partner Kristen Gates don't always see eye to eye, and that adds fun to the show as well.

The 2008 Citadel bloodbath left Kicks with a second-tier staff outside of morning drive.  At this point, except possibly against Cadillac & Dallas, The Bull has superior talent in every daypart.  I've touched on Madison Reeves and Ty Bentli, and yes, they're voicetracked.  But I doubt listeners give that a thought.  Lance Houston joined in 2006 as a young jock out of Montgomery's "Bama Country" (WBAM-FM) and has steadily grown.

Kicks has excellent imaging and formatics, but we wonder whether the station's talent limitations have come home to roost.  Atlanta has a legitimate Country battle for the first time in many years.  Where it goes from here will be interesting.

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, October 18, 2010

Bullish On Country

A male bovine has been quietly on a tear.  And what's miraculous is that the animal was in intensive care just 2 years ago.  Moreover, its owner is not known for saving dying herds.  The days of wondering whether the owner would go back to growing fruit are over.

Ladies and Gentlemen, 94-9 The Bull (WUBL-FM) is one of Atlanta's leading radio stations.  It's here to stay, and it's even found the morning show that will carry it into the future.

The story has been told here several times.  In December 2006, people enjoying their Christmas favorites were jolted out of their chairs by Country music and aggressive imaging as The Bull was born prematurely.  "The biggest stars, the biggest hits" was the positioner.  A little humor was interjected: "From our trailer to yours, Merry Christmas."  The baby station showed some promise.  Owner Clear Channel's seriousness was evident when Clay Hunnicutt, head Country programmer at the company, was dispatched to Atlanta to steer The Bull.

Unlike most format changes, The Bull was not born because of a hole in the market.  After all, Atlanta had heritage Country Kicks 101-5 (WKHX-FM) and its flanker sister Eagle 106.7 (WYAY-FM).  And the market was surrounded by South 107 (WTSH-FM), 106.3 WNGC and others.  It likely came into being because Clear Channel was desperate to grow its Atlanta billings and saw the revenue that Kicks was raking in.

The early promise fizzled out as The Bull's sound and positioning inexplicably changed after a few months.  A voicetracked version of Nashville's Big D & Bubba was placed in mornings on the now laid-back Bull.  Paul Koffy, a mediocre jock, was hired for middays.  A not too tantalizing used car giveaway was shared with other Clear Channel stations.  The Bull was getting clobbered by Kicks and beaten by Eagle.  If "The Bull" were an answer on Jeopardy, the question would have been, "What were they thinking?"

Realizing Big D & Bubba were not gaining traction, The Bull hired Country comedian Cledus T. Judd in early 2008 from Tampa's WQYK-FM for mornings.  But Cledus was not a host; in Florida, he was a sidekick who chimed in with funny lines.  And his hillbilly tenor as the main host did not behoove The Bull in this cosmopolitan market.  Now well into its second year, The Bull plodded along as a humdrum product with ratings to match.  Meanwhile, Clay Hunnicutt was rewarded for this disaster by being promoted to Senior VP and relinquishing day-to-day responsibility for The Bull.

The Bull caught a break on Leap Year Day, 2008, thanks to Citadel CEO Farid Suleman.  The Citadel chief did not understand flanking and questioned why the company had competing stations in Kicks and Eagle.  He also wanted an Atlanta affiliate for Citadel's nationally syndicated True Oldies Channel and Imus, and needed an operation that would run on the cheap.  The upshot of all this was the death of Eagle 106.7 and the release of its quality but costly air staff of Rhubarb Jones, Sandy Weaver and Steve Mitchell.  Only morning co-host Dallas McCade was spared and moved over to Kicks.  Suddenly, the format hole that was never there for The Bull started to take shape.

Suleman was not quite finished, however.  He also slashed the budget of Atlanta Country leader Kicks 101-5, resulting in the loss of most of its on-air staff.  Still standing were morning host Cadillac Jack and Kicks veteran Bill Celler, who slid from middays back into his former afternoon drive slot.  Dallas McCade, the sole survivor of the Eagle demolition, was paired with Cadillac Jack, actually improving the morning show.  Celler remained on the air for a while and then was taken off in an additional budget cut.  The stellar morning show of Cadillac Jack and Dallas McCade remained intact, but all other dayparts on Kicks were filled with part-timers and journeymen personalities.  Program Director Mark Richards stayed in place and continued to make the station sound as good as possible with formatics and music.

Kicks 101-5's quality had been severely compromised.  Yet 94-9 The Bull, anchored by Cledus Judd, sounded worse and was unable to take advantage of the gift from Mr. Suleman.  Before long, Clear Channel Market Manager Chuck Deskins was replaced by Melissa Forrest, and things at The Bull were finally about to change.

Join us next week for the story of The Bull's turnaround.  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, October 11, 2010

No Secrets On The Radio

Competition is a good thing in any industry.  In radio when there's competition, the listener wins, and many epic on-air battles have taken place.  Unfortunately, radio wars are not as bloody as they once were for a couple of reasons.  First, consolidation has dramatically reduced the number of competitors.  Second, the niche nature of radio has resulted in less stations in a market doing the exact same format.  Competition does exist though, especially among consolidators, and I love seeing it.

Stations sometimes forget one fact of competition, however.  Once something goes out over the air, it's public knowledge.  If a competing station decides to fight back by copying it, that's fair play.  And while copying might show lack of originality, it's also indicative of being at full alert and determined to win.

One summer Sunday afternoon in the mid-80's, I was in New York's Central Park with my Walkman tuned to Power 95 (WPLJ-FM), then in a heated CHR battle with Z100 (WHTZ-FM).  At the time, Michael Jackson was the world's most popular entertainer.  Over the prior week, Power 95 heavily promoted that on Sunday, it would broadcast the details of Jackson's upcoming tour dates; and that it would have the information exclusively, due to its relationship with Ticketmaster.

Well, it didn't take long.  Mere minutes after WPLJ started releasing the tour dates, air personality Pat St. John announced that Program Director Larry Berger was about to take to the air with an important announcement.  Berger complained that Z100 was getting the information from Power 95 and then broadcasting it.  The rest of the afternoon, St. John frequently repeated the accusation.

What had Berger been thinking?  How can you have an exclusive when you're broadcasting the information out to everyone?  In a sense, what Z100 did might have been tacky, but it was also smart and indicated a motivated competitor.  By the way, the silliness continued into Monday morning, when Power 95 played the voice of the Ticketmaster representative saying that she had given the information only to WPLJ.  Over at Z100, in response to a listener complaining about an inaccuracy, PD and morning man Scott Shannon suggested the person call the Ticketmaster rep.  In typical Shannon fashion, he said, "That's who we were getting it from."

Around the year 2000, B98.5 FM and Peach 94-9 were still in a tussle over Atlanta's AC crown.  Peach PD Vance Dillard decided to introduce "The 8AM All-Music Hour."  Exactly one week later, "The 9AM All-Music Hour" debuted on B98.5.  The only thing that surprised me was that B98.5 did not attempt to make the title even slightly different.

At the time, I was writing another radio column and spoke with Dillard by phone.  He told me that the 8 o'clock hour was the bigger one in terms of listeners.  He also asserted that most of the liners on B98.5 had been written by him (read: copied).  He was not especially elated that B98.5 had taken his ideas.  But again, once it's out there, it's out there.

Early this year, Star 94 started its "Commercial-Free Ride."  Eliminating the first of 2 stop sets in the 5PM hour resulted in no spots between 4:50 and 5:45.  How long did it take for Q100, Star 94's closest competitor, to react?  In seemingly no time, Q100 was promoting its own "Commercial-Free Ride."  Ironically, Q100 had not eliminated any commercials but was touting the illusion during its music sweeps.  I heard from an outside source that Star was none too pleased, and I certainly understand the frustration.  But Q100 did what a competitor on high alert should have done.

Once something leaves the antenna, there are no secrets in radio.

GRHOF Induction is Coming
I'm becoming excited, as I do this time every year, about the annual Georgia Radio Hall of Fame Induction Dinner.  It's a perfect place to hobnob with Atlanta radio people, past and present; and to see some of the greats recognized.  GRHOF President John Long tells me that a few tickets are still available at  One special thing slated for the event is getting the induction certificate and medallion of late Quixie (WQXI-AM) personality Pat Hughes into the hands of his sons, whom John was able to find on Facebook.

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, October 4, 2010

Atlanta's Got Talent

Billy Currington is pretty good at drinking beer, but some Program Directors in Atlanta are pretty excellent at doing radio.  In fact, as much as we all moan and groan about the state of radio, some of Atlanta's programmers are among the best in the business.

I started thinking about this 2 weeks ago when Clear Channel announced it had hired Dan Persigehl as Atlanta Operations Manager and PD of The Bull.  Persigehl brings years of programming experience at Clear Channel/Phoenix, and Entercom in Portland and Kansas City, and has an excellent reputation.  While Market Manager Melissa Forrest and Senior VP/Programming Clay Hunnicutt are known to have their fingers in the pie, I doubt the company has hired Michelangelo to paint the bathroom.

CBS Radio/Atlanta Market Manager Rick Caffey, a believer in personality radio, told an audience of clients that he searched long and hard for the best programmer for 92-9 Dave FM (WZGC); and that he got that person in Scott Jameson.  Who would be more qualified on paper than a man who spent years successfully programming the leading Classic Rock and Alternative stations in the Indianapolis market?  As I've said before, Dave-FM is a little too pop as an AAA station for my taste, but I must say that Jameson has impressed with his attention to detail and to his audience.  He has a top-10 station in the money demo, Adults 25-54.

Jameson's counterpart at sister station V-103 (WVEE-FM), Reggie Rouse, also has a place in the ranks of programming heavyweights.  Having started at the bottom of the food chain at WPGC in Washington, Rouse has risen to VP, Urban Programming at CBS Radio.  Even without his programming credentials, Reggie is hard to miss when he walks into a room.

Speaking of Urban programmers, try mentioning Jay Dixon among Urban radio people; he's achieved legendary status.  These days, Dixon programs Urban AC station Kiss 104.1 (WALR-FM).  After starting out in the music business, Dixon spent 11 years as a producer at New York's 98.7 Kiss FM, part of that time working on Isaac Hayes' morning show.  He has an uncanny ability to know what sounds just right and what does not.  I met with Jay recently, and he told me something that blew my mind.   I complimented the Kiss jingles and the unusual way in which they are used.  Coming out of a stop set, the personality speaks over the ramp, and then the voices chime in.  Jay informed me that the jingles were purchased as acapellas, and that he searched the music library for a bed to go with them.  He certainly found the right one.

When Cumulus Media Partners acquired Susquehanna's Atlanta stations, the company brought in veteran programmer Rob Roberts to be its eyes and ears.  Rob spent 11 years programming Clear Channel's Y100 (WHYI-FM) in Miami to success and knows the format like the back of his hand.  And while it's hard to know how many decisions are made at the station level, a close listen to Q100 reveals that Roberts plays close attention to market developments and adjusts accordingly, keeping the station at the top of its game.

Chris Williams and Mark Richards might not come up in a conversation about heavy hitters outside the Atlanta market.  But both have demonstrated smarts and expertise.  Williams gained notice when as Music Director of the original 99X, he was charged with retooling the playlist after the Alternative station's audience had matured.  He executed the assignment flawlessly.  He went on to program The Buzz and competed against his former station while creating a unique product.  Chris then turned The Buzz and many of its elements into Project 9-6-1 (WKLS-FM), a still different station with an active rock emphasis.  He has presided over Project 9-6-1 as it scored ratings victories in its young male target audiences.

In radio as in life, you have to play the hand you're dealt, and Kicks 101-5's Mark Richards has done just that.  On February 29, 2008, most of his high-powered jocks were let go in a nationwide Citadel bloodbath.  The wreckage actually resulted in a better morning show, as Dallas McCade, who had been paired with morning star Rhubarb Jones on the now-defunct Eagle 106.7, joined Cadillac Jack.  Aside from mornings, Bill Celler was the only remaining veteran, and he was later taken off the air in a money-saving move.  That left minor leaguers behind the mic in all other dayparts.  Mark Richards, however, carried on, deploying formatic magic to compensate for the dearth of talent, and keeping Kicks on top.

In addition to the standouts above, Atlanta radio has excellent programmers up and down the dials.  I'm not going to mention the remaining names because I'd undoubtedly leave people out.  Suffice it to say that Atlanta can stand up to any market when it comes to program chiefs.

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: