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.

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