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.

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