Monday, June 27, 2011

I Have To Hand It To Lew

The mention of his name evokes strong emotions.  His company has become the poster child for everything wrong with corporate radio.  Lew Dickey and Cumulus Media are lightening rods in the presence of radio people.

Lew Dickey and Cumulus are known professionally for taking economizing to new lows; while taking voice tracking, sales commission cutting and vindictiveness to new highs.  They also have a reputation of questionable treatment of their staffs, though I know senior Cumulus employees in 2 markets and with Corporate who love working there.  Cumulus has been a blessing to one company, Clear Channel Radio, grabbing the spotlight from the broadcaster that used to be the most hated.

Lew Dickey is also legendary on a personal level.  As people drive by his huge house--make that compound--in Buckhead, they are reminded of the time he told his fiance, former news anchor Kimberly Kennedy, that he changed his mind about getting married, at the rehearsal dinner with both families present.  Lew is known for his finely-tailored suits and impeccably combed hair as well as his continuous array of girlfriends, all of SI Swimsuit caliber.

All of that notwithstanding, I have to hand it to Lew.  He has pulled off some business moves that I would never have thought possible.  In 2000, Cumulus, then a small and medium market broadcast company, was close to going belly up.  Lew Dickey became CEO and quickly made some shrewd deals that saved the company.

In 2005, the smart money was on an employee group headed by Susquehanna President/CEO David Kennedy to win the Susquehanna Radio auction.  The leading bid was just under $1 billion.  Then Cumulus, hand-in-hand with Bain Capital, Blackstone Group and Thomas H. Lee Partners, pushed the bidding to $1.4 billion.  Ego driven or not, that bid was the winning one, and Susquehanna was acquired by the new Cumulus Media Partners, to be run by Cumulus.

Many feel Cumulus has turned the former Susquehanna stations, thought to be radio's cream of the crop, from a Lexus into a Yugo.  Taking on such immense debt resulted in the initial bloodbath that accompanies most acquisitions, and forced Cumulus "not to breathe" in their operation of the properties.

Noted radio columnist Jerry Del Colliano foresaw doom and gloom at Cumulus Media.  The company, voted worst place in radio to work in his poll, would not be able to service its debt, he predicted.  When Cumulus announced equity funding from Crestview Partners to acquire stations last year, Del Colliano said it was smoke and mirrors driven by Lew Dickey's considerable ego.

I respect Jerry Del Colliano and know his opinions were based on solid fact.  Yet in March, 2011 came the surprise of surprises.  Cumulus agreed to acquire Citadel, the company that turned the former high-performing ABC-owned stations into its own little Yugo.  While the acquisition will substantially increase Cumulus' debt, that debt will be a smaller percentage of total assets than now.  Lew Dickey had pulled the proverbial rabbit out of a hat...again.

With Citadel under its wing, Cumulus will gain 2 more big FM signals in Atlanta, Kicks 101-5 (WKHX-FM) and Atlanta's Greatest Hits 106.7 (WYAY-FM).  As mentioned here recently, Atlanta FM licenses are to kill for.

Over the past 2 years, Cumulus Media has launched 3 additional FM signals in the Atlanta market.  These are not full-power FM's, mind you, but stations that fill the inside of the Perimeter with primary-grade signals.  Aside from Radio One, which obtained an FM translator by settling a lawsuit, Cumulus is the only radio company that had the wherewithal to increase its Atlanta FM signal stock in this imaginative way.  Once again, Lew Dickey's business acumen--and that of his staff--win the day.

One of the translators, 93.7, is now owned by Cumulus Media's alter ego, Dickey Broadcasting, and is used to simulcast 680 The Fan.

FM translators are a creative means of getting FM signals in market number 7.  But can translators really compete for ratings and revenue in Atlanta?  We'll discuss that in the next Atlanta Airwave Action, which will appear in 2 weeks.

Thanks for reading.  Have a safe and enjoyable July 4th holiday.  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, June 20, 2011

B98.5 FM's Redux

B98.5 FM (WSB-FM) is the flagship of the Cox AC's.  It has featured Bob Neil's research-based, jock-on-a-leash format for years.  In fact, the former Cox Radio CEO is said to have "invented" the format.  B98.5 was his baby, and he even created the station's hourly clocks, not the most usual activity for the CEO of a major broadcast company.

The playlist was atypical of an AC station, mostly Hot AC from the 70's, 80's and 90's.  Hearing Lee Ann Womack and Chumbawamba in the same hour was nothing to write home about.  Then 6 months or more later, after new focus groups, the playlist would evolve.  B98.5 was the station voted last by record promotion people; their songs might get spun in a couple of years.

B98.5 has always sounded like virtually everything played and said came out of a focus group.  Strict limits on talk time pertained even to mornings.  PD's lived in fear of morning talent violating the keep-it-brief dictum.  Bob Neil was the maestro, and what he directed, based on research and intuition, was the law.

It's hard, however, to argue with success.  B98.5 always did well in its target audience of women 25-54.  It outlasted its former AC rival, Peach 94-9, which skewed to an older audience.  During Star 94's last heyday in the late 90's and early 2000's, B98.5 held its own.  The station has always commanded advertising rates above the marketplace relative to its ratings. And AC stations have been the darlings of media buyers.

While B98.5 has stayed the course, the market around it has changed.  Q100 has become a ratings and revenue powerhouse.  And Star 94 has climbed atop B98.5 in audience.  This has made B98.5 #3 among the 3 stations vying for the women 25-54 space.  Third among the 3 main competitors is the position that makes stations switch from a fruit to an animal.

Early this year came the first hint that changes were afoot at the Cox AC, now guided by VP/Programming Tony Kidd and Program Director Cagle.  Two huge songs from Spring 2010, Train's Hey Soul Sister and Lady Antebellum's Need You Now, were added.  Both have been used as hooks by Hot AC's and CHR's since they first charted.  B98.5's playing songs that "new" had been unheard of.  In fact, the station has been airing them in such heavy rotation that I've wondered whether it's frantically trying to make up for lost time.

Mornings have been an issue for the past year.  Steve & Vikki had kept ratings up, but the duo was probably costing the station far more than their predecessors, Kelly & Alpha.  Following Steve McCoy's dismissal, ratings in morning drive lagged well behind middays, afternoons and evenings.  After an initial decline, Vikki Locke on her own started making ratings inroads.

A few months ago, Kelly Stevens of Kelly & Alpha was added to the show.  The station's research indicated that Stevens, who had been hired back for weekends and fill, had high name recognition.  Both Locke and Stevens are talented, but the chemistry does not seem to be there.  And ratings have slid over the past 2 months.

More recurrents started showing up on B98.5.  Katy Perry, Pink and Maroon 5 quickly became mainstays.  Next, 90 minutes of commercial-free music at 4:25PM was introduced.  Somehow, hyping the 98 at 9 and then saying, "We do it again with 90 minutes..." sounded a tad awkward.

All of the sudden came a stunning reversal of B98.5's music policy under Bob Neil.  Currently-charting songs were added, including Adele's Rolling in the Deep, the #1 song in America.  In fact, B98.5 is playing 4 songs from Billboard's Hot 100.  F**king Perfect by Pink, Just the Way You Are by Bruno Mars and Katy Perry's Firework are the others.  I had assumed Star 94's ascent was the reason for the current adds.  Yet Magic 94-9 in Tampa and Crater 96 in Honolulu, both Cox AC's, have similar music mixes, as does Sunny 99.1 in Houston, a Clear Channel operation.

Still more astounding news was to come.  B98.5 ended its 98 at 9, which it had touted endlessly for years, as well as its new 90-minute music sweep at 4:25.  The station's at-work positioning is now 50 minutes of nonstop music, 11 songs in a row, during the workday.  That of course means a 10-commercial stop set between the music sweeps.  All of this excitement has pushed into the background what us radio junkies would normally talk about, B98.5's elimination of jingles and a new music bed for weather.

Most cakes are better with icing, and B98.5 has introduced random commercial-free hours during the workday.  Finally, to place a cherry on top, B98.5's longtime station positioner, "Atlanta's best variety of soft rock," was replaced by "your favorite songs from the 80's, 90's and now."  And as the station has added current songs, it has eliminated everything prior to 1980.  I personally am burnt out on B98.5's Big 80's Weekend, but the station gets its best ratings on Saturday and Sunday.

B98.5's cume has been huge, but its average audience has been hurt by very short time spent listening.  So B98.5 is betting the 50-minute sweeps will keep listeners from touching the dial, and outweigh the audience decline during ultra-long stop sets.  But substantial audience loss or not, what percentage of listeners are going to remember spots in the middle of a 10-unit stop set?

I have heard ad agencies question the effectiveness of radio when spots are in the middle of 5-commercial stop sets.  I like to think that when advertisers use radio, it should be a win-win situation.  If the advertising works, both the station and the advertiser win, as does the consumer if the product is good.  In a sense, the 10-commercial stop set could be to the detriment of radio, something Cox might not be thinking about in its pursuit of ratings.  As mentioned last week, CMG's 97-1 The River has adopted the same policy of nonstop music followed by one long stop set.

Long music sweeps and PPM ratings go together like bread and butter.  And all of B98.5's positioning elements should combine to create a perception of playing the most music.  The super-long stopsets aside, B98.5 is sounding good, especially in middays and afternoons.  Atlanta's battle for women is in high gear, and this is going to be fun to watch.

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, June 13, 2011

Cox Feels the Heat

Atlanta is a Cox kind of town.  The company's media presence here is palpable, even without Cox Cable in the market.  The name engenders some well-deserved respect among residents.  And the firm's broadcast stations, now under the Cox Media Group umbrella along with its newspapers, have long been considered among the industry's more desirable places to work.

Not surprisingly, CMG's Atlanta radio stations typically take the lion's share of the Arbitron ratings.  In the 6+ shares from the April PPM, Cox captured a 21% share compared to 15% for Radio One, 13% for CBS and 12.5% for Clear Channel.  Recently-retired Cox Radio President Bob Neil was known for being super smart, research oriented and disciplined.  His being at the helm positioned Cox as a programming-oriented radio group.

Cox's radio ratings success notwithstanding, I felt some of Neil's strategies helped weaken radio.  He launched 95-5 The Beat without any air talent, which was fine when they were playing 10,000 songs in a row.  But long after the nonstop music came to a halt, the station remained jockless for what seemed like forever.  The slots got filled one by one over the next year and a half, but it wasn't until Q100's launch 2 years later that The Beat was pushed from automation to a morning show, the short-lived Woody & the Morning Beat.

Subsequent to The Beat's arrival, the song-segueing strategy seemed to become a money-saving paradigm for launches and even established stations around the U.S.  Moreover, Neil's meticulously-scripted stations, with music, sweepers and one-liners galore, seemed to suck a lot of creativity from radio.

Over the past 3 months, some surprise changes have come to CMG's Atlanta FM's.  All have been under strong attack from the competition.  It's not that Cox hasn't reacted swiftly and smartly before; its WSB simulcast last summer is an example.  Yet that change was not to the formulaic makeup of the FM music stations.

When Cox launched 97-1 Jamz in 2003, it modified Kiss 104.1 (WALR-FM) from Urban AC to "Old Skool R&B" in order to separate the two stations musically.  After Jamz vanished in 2005, I expected Kiss to add back current product.  But it didn't happen.  The station was highly successful, and its format had been emulated by other Urban leaders, such as Philly's WDAS-FM.

It's been a few years since Radio One/Atlanta got back into the Urban AC business with its Majic 107.5/97.5.  And Kiss 104.1 had been fending off the onslaught quite well.  However, the Kiss audience has been aging, and Majic has won the advertiser-friendly 25-54 demo for several months in a row.  Two weeks ago, faster than you could say Mix Master Mitch, Kiss added current songs and refocused its older product on the past 20 years.  This should be a positive move, and I look forward to continued war between Kiss and Majic.

In March, 97-1 The River (WSRV) underwent a minor surgical procedure.  The Classic Hits purveyor, occupying a perch between 92-9 Dave-FM (WZGC) at the younger end and Atlanta's Greatest Hits 106.7 (WYAY) at the older side, recast its clock for 50 uninterrupted minutes of music and just one stopset each hour.  It also replaced its original voice talent, Doug Paul, with the more aggressive imaging of Scott Fisher.  The River then installed B98.5 and The River promotions guru David Clapper in afternoon drive.

B98.5 is arguably the most important FM in the CMG portfolio and was reputed to be Bob Neil's personal favorite.  The AC, one of three stations butting heads over the market's women 25-54, has made perhaps the most significant changes in the cluster.  Some of them have been turning heads.  We will review and comment on B98.5's adjustments next week in Atlanta Airwave Action.

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, June 6, 2011

Project Gets A Real Morning Show

Project 9-6-1 (WKLS-FM) has hired a morning show.  Not a producer who wanted a shot at being a host; and not a sidekick who was promoted after a budget cut.  Kidd Chris (aka Chris Foley) is the real thing.  He has years of morning show experience at WYSP-FM in Philadelphia and KUFO-FM in Portland, OR.  He also has been a regular contributor to the Howard Stern Show.  Chris became available when KUFO was blown up for a news/talk format.

That said, Kidd Chris is a shock jock and has a reputation as a one-trick pony.  And hiring Chris does not mean Clear Channel is shelling out big bucks.  Radio does not have a slew of openings for someone with Kidd Chris' unique qualifications.  Nevertheless, he should be a good match for Project 9-6-1's young male audience and the station's best chance at snagging Regular Guys devotees.

Clear Channel has a history of poor decisions with its Atlanta cluster, but a good deal of the drama had seemed to stop under current President/Market Manager Melissa Forrest.  Then we learned last Friday that Operations Manager Dan Persigehl was suddenly gone.  Of course, the stations--specifically 94-9 The Bull--had been enjoying forward momentum last year when the cluster made one of its bad decisions.  It released the best Program Director in the market for what was rumored to be a "heat-of-the-moment" reason.  He has since gone on to hoist a competitor to new ratings heights.

Clear Channel's highest-ranking stations in total (6+) audience are #15 and #16, respectively.  Project 9-6-1 does well, however, in its target audiences of Men 18-34 and 18-49.  And that gets the station on buys for beers, cars and other manly goods.  It does not lift Project to a spot among the market's highest billers.

Not many Active Rock stations are in the upper echelon for ratings and billings.  Baltimore's 98 Rock, Tampa's 98 Rock and Detroit's WRIF are exceptions.  Project 9-6-1 has one of the market's giant signals, which gives the station top 10 potential with the right programming.

Clear Channel has chosen to enjoy the station's success with young men and forgo a real battle for the top.  And at this point, I agree with them.  Establishing a new format and fighting for ratings dominance is an expensive and unsure proposition.

The cluster's best shot for a top-10 station at this point is 94-9 The Bull (WUBL-FM).  The Country outlet had made it to the mountaintop last year, beating heritage Kicks 101-5 in the demos that matter.  Then suddenly, it fell backwards.  Some attribute the plunge to the departure of PD Scott Lindy.  Others note that Arbitron replaced 23 PPM panelists at one time in October.

The Bull sounds the same as in its recent heyday to me, and the music is still programmed by Lance Houston.  The station was Dan Persigehl's primary responsibility; in addition to being the cluster's Operations Manager, he served as PD of The Bull.  He was unable to move the needle during his brief tenure.  Bringing The Bull back is the logical next step to a respectable presence for Clear Channel/Atlanta.

Wild 105.7/96.7 has really come together under new Program Director J.B. Wilde.  It sounds better than the former 95-5 The Beat but unfortunately will not approach The Beat's ratings because of its signal.  We have talked about this ad nauseam, but Wild could easily break a 3 share in 6+ by moving to the 105.3 signal; its current signals are of less than listenable quality in Atlanta.  Although Clear Channel cites the Hispanics in Gwinnett that Wild attracts on 105.7, they make up too small a portion of the station's audience (approximately 24%) to get Wild on Latino media buys.

El Patron (WBZY-FM) would benefit from the Hispanic ratings and billings in Gwinnett that it now abdicates to Davis Broadcasting's La Raza (WLKQ-FM) and La Mega 96.5 if the signal relocated to 105.7.  With such an easy way to lift the ratings and billings of two stations--Wild and El Patron--I'm at a loss as to why Clear Channel does not switch the frequencies.

With Kidd Chris in mornings, Project 9-6-1 should continue to perform well under PD Chris Williams.  The next "project" for CC/Atlanta is bringing 94-9 The Bull back to ratings prominence.

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: