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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