Monday, November 29, 2010

Star 94 Dances The Lindy

Don't you love reading about people who find treasures in items discarded by others?  Well, Lincoln Financial Media CEO Don Benson and VP/Programming John Dimick have proven themselves masters at this.

When longtime General Manager Mark Kanov retired in 2008, Benson did not have to look far.  Rick Mack, one of the most qualified candidates in the business, was passed over for the GM job at Citadel/Atlanta, where he had been General Sales Manager.  My guess is the company wanted a Citadel, rather than ABC, veteran in the slot.  Citadel tapped Paul O'Malley.  But lucky for Star.

Star 94 needed a Program Director, one who would step up in a big way.  Rumors flew that John Dimick was willing to wait out the contract of Alice 105.9/Denver and former Q100/Atlanta PD Dylan Sprague.  But in August, Clear Channel/Atlanta released super programmer Scott Lindy; so Dimick saved on moving expenses while getting one of the best.  Mystery shrouded Lindy's departure from CC, but word swirled that he had made an unkind remark to a higher-up.  Clear Channel's loss was Star's gain.

Now that Scott Lindy has guided Star 94 for several weeks, I can discern his philosophies and like them.  For one thing, he's a big believer in personality and apparently effective at bringing it out.  Heather Branch, who sounded good from day one, has leaped into the ranks of the market's best over the past month.  Even the already lively Darik Kristofer in evenings has revved it up a notch.

Lindy also believes radio should be entertaining and that humor is a means to that end.  I'm a fan of the clean, quick imaging that Star has been deploying.  Lindy has sprinkled in a number of longer, unplugged sweepers that apparently reflect his dry wit.  "What can you say about a perfect Star song that keeps you from throwing a stapler at the boss?" is one example.  They slow down the pace slightly but add some depth.  The just-added Hot AC positioner "Your life and your music are on Star 94" should help Star establish a stronger identity.  Finally, coming out of weather with "In Atlanta, it's always Star 94" is not original but is the radio geek's rapture.

Lindy also believes in the power of social media as station tie-ins on Facebook, Twitter and My Space are receiving increased mentions.  And the jocks seem to have taken a liking to the new boss, as indicated by their enhanced energy.  Finally, Star 94 continues to use its promotions to maximum benefit, such as creating appointment listening for giveaways.

So is all this good stuff enough to move the ratings needle?  Star 94 lives in crowded territory with B98.5 and Q100 hugging it.  Mornings have been the crux of Star's problem.  Lindy has some morning cred after pairing Jason Pullman with Kristen Gates on 94-9 The Bull.  That show features lots of music and listener interaction, both already characteristics of Cindy & Ray on Star 94.

B98.5 (WSB-FM) gets a fair amount of criticism for its short playlist of focus group-driven songs.  But the Cox AC has managed to forge a distinctive sound musically that jumps out.  I mean surprises such as "Tubthumping" by Chumbawamba and "Come On Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners give B98.5 several degrees of separation.

I have expressed in this column that Star needs to compensate for its morning woes by doing more to break out via music.  But I wonder if adjusting the playlist is next on Lindy's agenda.  On the ride home from the airport on Saturday after a week away, I heard Eve 6, a pleasant diversion from the usual Matchbox 20 and Counting Crows.  (I also heard some new sweepers intended create a lifestyle and emotional tie to the new positioning.)

Whether Scott Lindy's work so far will take Star 94 to the next level remains to be seen.  But the station has a skillful pilot in the cockpit.

New Station Hits the Air: The area's newest station, WWGA in Carroll County, west of Atlanta, launched on November 22.  The Class A FM station (equivalent to 6,000 watts) was made possible by Gradick Communications winning the allocation at last year's FCC auction.  WWGA signed on as "Christmas 98.9."  Its real format will be revealed on December 26.

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

WGST Has People Talking

Radio is full of surprises, and the latest was sprung on us by a most unlikely source.  WGST (640 AM) has brought in nationally-syndicated host Rusty Humphries for a live-and-local Atlanta show in afternoons.  The Clear Channel talker also hired Rob Johnson from KMPH-AM in Modesto for mornings.  Humphries will continue his national program from 9PM to midnight as Johnson makes the big move from market #113 to market #7.

When I came to Atlanta in 1994, WGST was neck and neck with WSB-AM, and each station was going for the other's jugular.  The following year, however, saw the start of the WSB resurgence and WGST decline.  The factors contributing to WGST's eventual collapse were: 1) the tremendous improvement in WSB, 2) WGST's loss of the Braves to WSB, 3) WGST's introduction of Planet Radio, 4) Clear Channel's decision to strip WGST of its FM (105.7), 5) the decimation of the WGST news department, 6) the move to syndication in morning drive and 7) the continued growth of the market's outlying areas.

WGST has not been a ratings factor for several years and pulled in at #22 among total persons in October.  A long time has passed since the visionary Eric Seidel was leading the station to greatness.

A basic business tenet is that money spent should result in more money made.  That adding Johnson and Humphries will make WGST a better station is without question.  And it's not impossible that ego combined with this year's upswing in revenue prompted the improvements.  But I doubt it.  CC/Atlanta President/Market Manager Melissa Forrest is a savvy business person.

Let's think about this.  WGST's 50,000-watt daytime signal covers the metro well, but the station powers down to 1,000 watts at sunset, limiting clear reception to about a 10-mile radius around downtown.  We are headed into the months with the least amount of daylight, meaning WGST will miss most of the market for half of morning drive and half of afternoon drive.  To add to the dismal prospects, the addition of WSB's FM signal has removed a significant number of talk listeners from the AM dial.  The reality is the new local talent will add absolutely nothing to WGST's audience and presumably its revenue while costing Clear Channel money.

Why did WGST add Rob Johnson and Rusty Humphries if the new hosts will only hurt the bottom line?  That's a great question that has understandably sparked speculation.  Does Clear Channel plan to flip one of its Atlanta FM's to a WGST simulcast?

I recently was told by a well-connected and credible senior executive in Atlanta radio that Clear Channel has mandated that 94.9 be turned into a talk station.  Moreover, someone involved in radio about 30 miles outside the Perimeter informed me that Premiere Radio Networks, Clear Channel's syndication arm, has blocked access by stations near Atlanta to certain talk programming though the shows are not currently on an Atlanta outlet.

While I believe these people, I do not for a minute think that Clear Channel will mess with 94-9 The Bull.  After all these years of pain and suffering, the company finally has a winner in Atlanta, its achilles heel.  But what about one of the other FM's?

WSB's addition of the 95.5 signal was a game changer.  WGST once did well with 105.7, but along with WGST's inadequate AM, the 105.7 signal would work no more.  To compete against WSB, Clear Channel would have no choice but to pair WGST-AM with 96.1 (WKLS-FM).  I have a hard time imagining this happening, but it's far from impossible.  The station now riding the signal, Project 9-6-1, has done well in its target young-male demos, making it a natural buy for beers, razors and other categories.  Nevertheless, it probably bills nowhere near what a high-ranking talker would.

Given Clear Channel's success with CHR in other markets, I once thought 96.1 could take the hits to the top of the Atlanta ratings charts.  However, the company's investment in The Groove, a Rhythmic CHR, has made that extremely unlikely.

We will keep close watch on the Building of Death in early 2011.

Correction - In the column about Rome Radio Partners 2 weeks ago, I stated the stations were built by Mike McDougald.  I received an email from Steve Gradick, President of Gradick Communications, informing me that his dad, Les Gradick, built 107.1 FM, 1220 AM and 1360 AM in the Rome area.  Steve added that his father also owned the 93.5 frequency.  All of these stations are now owned or leased by Rome Radio Partners.  Mike McDougald did built WRGA-AM and WQTU-FM, also owned by RRP.  Thanks for the correction, Steve.

Happy Thanksgiving.  We will be back in 2 weeks.  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, November 8, 2010

106.7 Sounds Like A Plan

The low point in True Oldies 106.7's life was probably its launch.  It was born out of a need to help save its sinking parent Citadel some dough, and provide an Atlanta affiliate for Scott Shannon's True Oldies Channel and Imus.  However, local Citadel management has slowly been building something on the powerful move-in signal, which city grades all of Atlanta.

The station has two identities, however.  From 6-9AM and 4-7PM, its moniker is "Atlanta's Greatest Hits, 106.7."  The other 18 hours, it's the True Oldies Channel.  This makes me wonder whether the Atlanta folks want to distance the station from the "O" word and will eventually do so.  Recent actions point in that direction.

Like he does with 106.7's (WYAY-FM's) country sister Kicks 101-5, Operations Director Mark Richards has put out the best product with what he had to work with, which at the start wasn't much.  Providing an Atlanta affiliate for Imus was a Citadel directive.  Not that Imus' target audience of older men was that inconsistent with the Oldies listener, but the show impeded the station's ability to establish the format in the morning and carry listeners through the day.

The rest of the day--and nights and weekends--starred Scott Shannon, who created the True Oldies format in his home studio.  Shannon was frustrated by the extremely tight, focus-group-driven playlists used by Oldies stations.  It was just the ticket that Citadel CEO Farid Suleman was looking for, a format that his stations could run on the cheap.  I have followed Scott Shannon's work for years.  He's a genius programmer and loaded with creativity.  But a disc jockey he is not.

The slow building process started when Richards held on-air auditions for the afternoon drive slot.  Budget limitations restricted the tryouts to Kicks and former Eagle part-timers Freddie Brooks, Rob Lee and Steve Boomer Sutton.  Brooks prevailed, and at least the station had a live and local PM driver.  After a while, True Oldies 106.7 added Spiff Carner, the out-of-work half of the Randy & Spiff duo, to what became the Fred & Spiff Show.  Fred & Spiff; darn that sounded strange.

Next, the station edited the Imus show and inserted music, still clearing the national spots.  The custom Atlanta version sounded incoherent, but Citadel needed an Imus affiliate in market #7.  Citadel/Atlanta management's prayers were answered when WCFO-AM, a talk station, decided Imus would make the perfect morning show.  No longer hamstrung in mornings, True Oldies 106.7 moved Fred & Spiff to the wake-up shift.

The other shoe dropped about a year later, when Randy Cook joined Spiff in morning drive.  When Randy departed WGST, the pairing became a no-brainer provided the money was in the till, and apparently enough was there for Randy to choose the job over unemployment.  The station was now anchored by the guys synonymous with Oldies in Atlanta.  Fred Brooks jumped back to afternoons, and some semblance of a real radio station was in place.  Scott Shannon's True Oldies syndication remained in middays, evenings, overnights and weekends.

Rumors persisted that Scott Shannon, who is reputed to have considerable input, did not care for Fred Brooks' sound, and that he wanted Atlanta veteran JJ Jackson in the slot.  Several weeks ago, Brooks was indeed relieved of his duties.  His replacement, however, turned out to be Tripp West, who spent 10 years at Star 94 and about 6 months at The Groove.

Tripp West is a talented personality with a sound that cuts across demos.  He was perfect for both Star 94 and The Groove, and is just as perfect for True Oldies 106.7.  Tripp was not around when the songs he's playing were popular, but is into music and will quickly come up to speed.

The question remains, however, as to why Mark Richards chose to overlook JJ Jackson, someone who, like Randy & Spiff, is associated with Oldies in Atlanta.  Couple that with the dichotomy to which I alluded above, "Atlanta's Greatest Hits" in the drivetimes and "True Oldies" the rest of the hours.  That combination of thoughts sets the mind aflutter.

Will 106.7 continue to have 2 identities?  Will the music stay the same with a much younger personality in afternoons?  Or will 106.7 manage to grab a little of Farid Suleman's post-bankruptcy cash stash and break away from the True Oldies syndication?  Citadel's WLS-FM in Chicago has managed to separate itself from Shannon except in middays.

True Oldies 106.7 has been getting good Persons 6+ numbers, but the demographics have been old.  Demos too old for most advertising buys has pushed many Oldies stations away from the 50's and to some extent the 60's, and much more into the 70's and 80's.  And most have fled from the Oldies positioner to Classic Hits (which will not be used by 106.7 because of 97-1 The River).

So here are my short-term predictions for 106.7: 1) Middays and possibly evenings will be filled with new voices, perhaps voicetracked. 2) During these hours, the station will be called "Atlanta's Greatest Hits," with "True Oldies" relegated to overnights and weekends. 3) Music in the "Greatest Hits" hours will shift more into the 70's and 80's.

I suspect we'll know whether my prophecy becomes reality in the very near future.

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

Monday, November 1, 2010

When In Rome . . .

As a reader of this column, you've probably noticed that I'm a real radio junkie.  So I could not have imagined that I would have been unaware of a prominent figure in Atlanta-area radio.  But I was.

Several months ago, my longtime business acquaintance and friend, Tony Conti, emailed to say his boss, Howard Toole, wanted to show me his 6 transmitter sites.  Tony works for Rome (GA) Radio Partners and knows just how deeply my interest in radio runs.  I thought Tony's offer would make for a good opportunity when tower hunter king Scott Fybush next came to town, which he does every so often.  I informed Scott and let Tony know.  But Tony was persistent; he continued to email that his boss wanted to show me the sites.  So on a Thursday morning 2 weeks ago, I was somewhat reluctantly on my way to Rome.

Before leaving, I did some homework on this Toole fellow and was slightly taken aback.  Howard had been a Top-40 disc jockey of the nighttime variety on some legendary stations, including WBBQ in Augusta, WAKY in Louisville and WNOE in New Orleans.  He then was General Sales Manager at Atlanta's V-103 and subsequently a General Manager in Dallas.  He later ran the Dallas Metro Networks office for 5 years.  Pretty impressive, I must say.

Rome Radio Partners is a nifty operation.  It's comprised of 3 FM's and 3 AM's, including South 107 (WTSH), Q102 (WQTU) and 93.5 Life FM (WSRM) on the FM side; and WRGA, WZOT and WGJK on AM.  South 107 is an LMA (leased from Woman's World Broadcasting); Life FM is an LMA but will soon be fully owned by Rome Radio Partners.  Next year, RRP will sign on a new class A (smallest full FM signal) on 104.9 in Plainville, northeast of Rome.

Toole heads the company and owns the largest share; his main partners are Randy Quick and Cheryl Scott.  The stations for the most part serve Rome and Rockmart, but South 107 is the big stick and has FCC approval to increase to 100,000 watts once (and if) Radio One moves Atlanta's 107.5 to its new site.  WTSH would then throw a city-grade signal into Marietta.

Rome Radio Partners definitely has some air talent.  Country-formatted South 107 carries the syndicated Moby in the Morning followed by the exceptional Sandy Weaver, who does her show from Moby's studio.  Kevin Daniels, Operations Manager of the entire cluster and the firm's newest partner, takes over in afternoons.  AC Q102 has Craig Ross along with Maddox in mornings  The duo worked together in Atlanta at Y106.7, where Ross performed under the name Craig Powers.  He also worked at Atlanta's Kicks 101-5 using the name J.R. Butler, the moniker he goes by on his voicetracked evening slot on South 107.  And 93.5 Life FM has Pete (Michaels) and Brenda (Bissett) in the Morning, a married couple with oodles of major market experience.

As I approached Rome and checked out the stations, I immediately noticed the processing, which was exceptional, even on the AM's.  And the programming sounded good also.  I realized that I would be visiting a sophisticated operation.

Our tour started in the studio/office complex near downtown Rome, which also doubles as the transmitter site for "Magik 1360" (WGJK-AM).  The transmitter is tucked away on the second floor.  As we made our way through the nicely designed space, Howard informed us that we would be going to all of the transmitter sites except WRGA, which has snakes.  That was a good enough reason for me.

As Howard Toole, Tony Conti and I piled into the station truck, my reluctance was turning to joy.  I had a great time and tremendously enjoyed speaking with Howard.  It didn't take long to notice that he is a very talented man and relishes what he is doing.  He is the voice of Magik 1360 and sounds great.  He told me, "If I was good enough to be the voice of V-103 (from 1976-1983), I figured I was good enough for Magik."  Howard left no doubt of his obsession with radio when he enthusiastically mentioned he already has created the stunting for his new 104.9, whose sign-on is almost a year away.

Along our journey through the rolling hills of northwest Georgia, I noticed that Howard has several other favorable attributes.  He knows programming and sales from doing those jobs but picked up engineering from managing stations.  He also has excellent business sense and appreciates his employees.  We know a number of people in common, and when I brought up Howard to a few of them, they instantly echoed my sentiments.

Toole has been upgrading an already successful operation since taking over several years ago, and bringing in people like Conti is an example.  As South 107 prepares to build its new signal that will encroach on the Atlanta market, Howard made clear that South will always be a northwest Georgia station and super serve that area's population.  He does feel the new signal will help attract business from merchants in Cobb County.

Like all radio stations almost in the shadow of a major market, Rome Radio Partners has a challenge.  The company's story is that a significant amount of DMA population is being missed by advertisers who limit themselves to Atlanta stations; that for a very small percentage of the budget, they could add a substantial customer base.  With many stations, that pitch is without merit, but for the RRP FM's, given their quality and quantifiable audiences, it's a story that Atlanta advertisers should be listening to.  Toole wisely subscribes to Arbitron's DMA ratings and has encoded for the People Meter (although the home county remains diary based).

The environs to the northeast and northwest of Atlanta are home to some mighty significant radio; built by Mike McDougald, nurtured by Paul Stone, and now owned by Cox and Rome Radio Partners, respectively.

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