Monday, February 7, 2011

B98.5's Predictable Predictability

In a 1977 interview, vaulted programmer Bill Tanner, who had led Y100 to the top of the Miami ratings, described his station's format as "predictable unpredictability."  Is B98.5 (WSB-FM) the polar opposite?

B98.5 FM is clearly a well-oiled machine.  We know a liner promoting the 98 at 9 is coming after the next song if not after this one.  We know the first words that the talent will say when coming out of a song.  In fact, we pretty much know all the words that they will utter during the time the mic is open.  We know the jingles and when they'll air.  We know the music.  According to some, B98.5 is the station that's a parody of itself.

The midday and afternoon drive personalities, Jordan Graye and Kelly McCoy, respectively, have been in place for years.  They both fit in well and are among the market's best sounding though they stick to the script for the most part.  In my almost 17 years in Atlanta, B98.5 has probably been the market's most predictable...and one of its most successful.  It's a handcrafted thingamabob.  (That means a Bob Neil creation.)

One area, however, has been slightly shaky at times, and that's mornings.  When I arrived in Atlanta during 1994, Dale O'Brien was doing the morning show with Trevor Johns.  I was immediately impressed with O'Brien's great voice, broadcast delivery and wit.  And apparently ratings were high, as they had been with O'Brien's first partner, Kari Dean.  For whatever reason, B98.5 let O'Brien go, and that started a rough road.  The legendary Gary McKee came in but did not shine as brightly as he had years earlier at WQXI.  McKee left after a few years to join Z93 (WZGC-FM).  Then B98.5 went through Eddie Bauer & Christie Tanner and later Chandler Steele (Heidi Mason) before settling on Kelly & Alpha in 1999.

Kelly Stevens and Alpha Trivette did a personality show within B98.5's tight more-music confines as well as anyone could.  They handled mornings successfully for 10 years until B98.5 got the itch to pick up the displaced Steve McCoy & Vikki Locke in 2009.  The deal was to let Steve & Vikki be Steve & Vikki, deviating from Bob Neil's Cox AC philosophy, even in mornings.  Nevertheless, actually putting on the show caused cognitive dissonance for someone, probably Neil himself.  Just less than a year ago, before a hefty raise was to kick in, Cox fired Steve & Vikki.  Then, the company turned around and rehired Vikki.  Her contract is rumored to run through June, 2011, but that might or might not be accurate.

Vikki Locke is a talented personality, and B98.5 allows her a little room to operate.  However, I find the program lacking without Steve.  When people lose a family member through death or divorce, they often find their surroundings empty and move.  So perhaps that's happened to me with B98.5's morning show.  Since Vikki started flying solo last spring, ratings were steadily declining but rebounded some in the fall.  Then came Christmas music so the next few months will be telling.

If Vikki's contract does indeed end in June, will the station retain her?  Was the reason that Vikki was kept while Steve was sent packing that B98.5 wanted a big name but with half the talk?  Or did Cox want to break up the team to keep them from competing in the future, before bringing in a new show?  What will the ratings say this spring?

If Cox did say, "Adios, it's been real" to Vikki, what would B98.5 do for mornings?  Kelly & Alpha could be resurrected, but Kelly Stevens seems comfortably ensconced in afternoons on 97-1 The River and weekends at B98.5.  The station could move PM drive icon Kelly McCoy into mornings, give him some breathing room, and have an instant heritage morning show with a music-intensive format.  Hiring someone for afternoons would be far less chancy than bringing in an unknown quantity for wake-up duty.  Of course, Kelly might not relish the idea of getting up at 3AM.

As we journey through the next few months, mornings at B98.5 might be a topic of conversation.  Instead of being predictably predictable, B98.5 just might adopt Bill Tanner's description of Y100, predictable least until June.

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