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.

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