Monday, July 25, 2011

An Urban AC Uprising

Radio is kind of like the Middle East.  Things stay quiet for a while, but ultimately someone fires a shot.  Two months ago, unfriendly fire came from Cox Media Group's Kiss 104 (WALR-FM) and was aimed squarely at Radio One's Majic 107-5/97-5 (WAMJ/WUMJ-FM).

Until 2 years ago, Kiss had little Urban AC competition.  Radio One used its limited 3,000-watt 102.5 signal for the format.  Then the competitive landscape vastly changed, when Radio One put Urban AC on 2 signals, 107.5 and 97.5, to insure 60 dBu coverage of virtually the entire market.  Kiss withstood the challenge well for almost the entire 2 years, as the format's share expanded.

Being the heritage station in a format can be good, not so good and misleading.  Look at Kicks 101-5 (WKHX-FM), Atlanta's heritage country station.  Heritage was good when Kicks fended off Clear Channel's 94-9 The Bull (WUBL-FM) for the newcomer's first few years.  It was not so good when Kicks started losing its younger listeners to The Bull in 2009.  And it was misleading when people looked at the 6+ PPM numbers; despite being overtaken in 18-49 and 25-54, Kicks appeared to still dominate.  (Kicks rebounded, and today is beating The Bull in those important demos.)

Like Kicks, Kiss appeared to remain the format leader, but Majic had been quietly chipping away at the younger demos.  When the now defunct 97-1 Jamz hit the air in 2003, Kiss dropped straight-ahead Urban AC in favor of "Old Skool R&B."  Even after Jamz signed off in 2006, Kiss continued with older product and kept winning.  Majic, meanwhile, deployed a state-of-the-art Urban AC playlist.  Despite Kiss 104's bigger Persons 6+ share, the heritage station was overtaken among 25-54-year olds by Majic this year.

After losing to Majic among 25-54 listeners for 4 months, Kiss reverted to a conventional Urban AC playlist a couple of months ago.  The station has also adopted the Cox/Atlanta "at least 11 (songs) in a row without stopping" complemented by 10 commercials in a row.  Results in the June PPM were excellent as Kiss recaptured the 25-54 lead.

Majic is led by PD Derek Harper, who works under OM Hurricane Dave Smith.  Kiss recently (and surprisingly) laid off the highly-regarded Jay Dixon as its PD; for now, programming mastermind Tony Kidd is handling the PD chores.

The 2 stations are now very similar in music selection, playing tunes from the 70's through recently.  Both stick their toe tepidly into the current or recurrent waters; I hear Cee Lo Green occasionally on Majic and Marsha Ambrosius on Kiss.  Aside from playlists, Kiss and Majic are quite different.  Kiss emphasizes music, and Majic is heavier on personality.

Both competitors air famous syndicated voices in morning drive, Kiss 104 with Tom Joyner and Majic 107-5/97-5 with Steve Harvey.  As in other markets where the 2 shows go head-to-head, Harvey wins among younger demos.  Though Kiss regained the 25-54 lead in June, Harvey edged out Joyner in that key demo during morning drive.

In middays, Kiss has the corporate-sounding yet effective Cynthia Young while Majic features Carol Blackmon, longtime co-host on V-103's Mike & Carol morning show, who exhibits more personality.  Art Terrell, who exudes personality even in his limited talk time, hosts afternoon drive on Kiss.  Majic goes a different direction in PM drive with the syndicated Michael Baisden.  The show was coerced into playing music by the PPM but still emphasizes talk.

The stations diverge in evenings as Kiss 104 features Slow Jams, a love songs show, while Majic 107-5/97-5 maintains its regular rotation.  In terms of personalities, I have to give a considerable edge to Majic, which features the talented and smooth Si-Man (Silas Alexander) versus Kiss, which recently installed former part-timer Charles Mitchell in the slot.

Both Kiss and Majic are working to bolster their signal.  By November, the 107.5 signal will increase from 21,500 watts at 361 feet to 33,000 watts at 607 feet, which should give Majic the better Atlanta coverage of the 2 stations.  I wonder whether 97.5 will still simulcast the 107.5 signal; Radio One could simulcast a new format on 97.5 and its 102.9 translator.  But whether the company has that kind of vision remains to be seen.

Cox has earned a reputation for having a smart and aggressive engineering team, led by Chief Engineer Charles Kinney.  The company has been working to strengthen the Atlanta signals of its 3 rimshots, 95.5, 97.1 and 104.1.  Several years ago, Cox increased the power of Kiss 104 from 60,000 to 100,000 watts.  But the transmitter's distant location, just north of Newnan, still causes some holes in places such as DeKalb County.

Kiss now has a construction permit to half its antenna height in order to move much closer to town.  The proposed site is the Tyrone tower that houses the 107.9 and 96.7 antennas.  According to reports, Cox's need to add a few feet to the tower has met with resistance from Clayton County, but Cox is hopeful of a favorable resolution.

So which station is likely to win the dust-up?  I personally prefer music, and therefore my preference is Kiss.  I feel the station's imaging, handled by Derrick Jonzun, establishes the right mood for Urban AC.  Majic's imaging, voiced by the controversial Kipp Kelly, also sounds great, but I prefer the ambiance that Jonzun creates.

Majic will have a better signal in Atlanta, at least short term, even if it relinquishes the 97.5 frequency.  It should be stronger where more population is concentrated and better penetrate buildings.

I wonder whether the power of Steve Harvey in mornings will give Majic a big edge in winning the younger demos for the day; now that the market seems to have sampled the station.  If that was the case, I would expect Kiss to take the older demos and garner the larger 6+ share.  But the talk-heavy Michael Baisden in afternoon drive on Majic complicates any conjecture.

If I were forced to predict, I would say both Kiss and Majic will remain strong for years to come.  Both Cox and Radio One have too much riding on the stations to drift away from their A game.

Thanks for reading.  We will be back in 2 weeks.  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, July 18, 2011

The 10-In-A-Row Stations

This week's title used to mean one thing, get set for radio ecstasy.  In the past 2 months, it's come to mean something else, as Cox Media Group's B98.5 FM and 97-1 The River give us 10 nonstop commercials.  The flip side of course is nonstop music for the rest of the hour.  So does that make up for the 10 spots?  How did we get to this point?  And is it music radio's new paradigm?

I started listening to the radio as a kid in the 60's.  In those days, radio was kind of, shall we say loose?  Like laptops, iPods and smartphones, the music sweep had not been invented.  In fact, scientists of the time had not yet perfected the twin spin.  There was not even such a thing as 2 commercials in a row without something in between.  Radio was full of personality, and it was fun.

The 1960's were notable for their AM Top-40 wars.  The format dominated radio in that decade, and lots of stations wanted a piece of the action.  In Los Angeles, KRLA was battling KFWB, the longtime #1 station and launching pad for Wink Martindale, Gary Owens and other TV talent.  In 1965, RKO's KHJ, a sleepy station clinging to the bottom ratings rung, decided it wanted a piece of the action and hired consultant Bill Drake, who had cut his teeth in Atlanta radio.

Drake installed his Boss Radio Top-40 format, and KHJ catapulted to the top, where it stayed for the next decade.  Boss Radio was a streamlined Top-40 format that maximized music and eliminated unnecessary talk.  Drake's KHJ was the start of music sweeps and stopsets, as commercials were clustered without anything between them.  It also was the station that introduced talking up the ramp and the concept of a big station voice; on KHJ, that voice was Drake himself.

KHJ's success and notoriety prompted RKO to hire Drake for most of its other AM's, all of which dominated the ratings.  By 1970, virtually every Top-40 outlet in the country was heavily influenced by Drake formatics, which also spilled over to other formats.  Radio had evolved to a less junked-up, more music presentation.

The 70's kicked off with a variation of Boss Radio, Buzz Bennett's Q format, which started at KCBQ-AM in San Diego.  The Q format was an even faster, no-nonsense Top-40 format, whose trademarks were its "shotgun" jingle and super-tight jocks talking up the ramp, and its integration of the Q into its formatics, i.e. "Here's a Q Tip" and "Stay on Q for your chance to win."  KCBQ owner Bartell launched Top-40 FM's, including WMYQ/Miami and KSLQ/St. Louis.  The hourly clock of music sweeps, stopsets and a big station voice had now made its way onto the emerging FM dial.

Top 40, which Radio & Records had dubbed CHR, continued its refinement along with other music formats.  In Miami, Heftel's new Y100 knocked off WMYQ with more music, huge promotions and top talent that perfected talking up the ramp.  The power of music on FM became evident.

In 1983, Malrite Broadcasting purchased the moribund WVNJ-FM and replaced its poor signal from New Jersey with a completely competitive one from the Empire State Building antenna.  Malrite hired programming genius Scott Shannon, who created the prototype for music radio today in all formats with his new Z100.  He established a morning show with high entertainment value; it was heavy on comedic talk and light on music.  He had done it once before at Q105 in Tampa, and Z100's Z Morning Zoo was imitated at CHR FM's across the U.S.  Shannon also created a clock for outside morning drive with long music sweeps and 2 stopsets an hour.

As programming to maximize Arbitron diary ratings became a science, formatics continued to evolve.  Talking over intros became less prevalent.  Five-minute stopsets, which could include :30's and :10's, became 5-unit stopsets for the purpose of eliminating clutter.

Arbitron's new methodology, the Portable People Meter, has now changed the game.  As the PPM picked up listening not reported in the diary, station weekly cumes exploded, most notably in AC and CHR.  The cumes dwarfed the other side of the average-audience equation, time spent listening.  With average audience the primary tool of media buyers, the programming challenge became increasing time spent listening.

Both B98.5 FM and 97-1 The River were sufferers of the high-cume/low TSL syndrome.  Ratings on a music station in a music hour peak during long music sweeps.  So both stations decided to maximize music sweeps to keep people listening.  Of course, doing that without losing revenue meant running 10 spots in a row.  It all makes sense on paper and quite possibly for the PPM numbers.  But what does it do to the effectiveness of advertising?

Music radio's framework of long music sweeps and 2 stopsets per hour was already being questioned by ad agencies.  I heard Arbitron's VP/Programming Gary Marince (now with Clear Channel) say listeners know when stopsets are about to start and tend to tune away.  Likewise, they know when music will resume and tend to come back near the stopset's conclusion.  Marince said that in effect, being the last spot is better than being the first. I don't know whether Marince's claims are grounded in research, but they sound logical.  Besides, who will remember commercial messages in the middle of a 10-spot stopset?

Both B98.5 and The River have long commanded ad rates significantly higher than the market's cost-per-(rating) point.  The stations feature a quality product and deliver upscale listeners.  When I worked on the Six Flags Over Georgia account, the client's one dictate was that B98.5 be on every buy; the station brought out "the right people," according to Six Flags.  But I wonder about the value of a spot on B98.5 these days.

The early ratings results for both stations have been good.  Arbitron's influence in the sound of today's radio product is beyond enormous.  However, will radio's quest for ratings and revenue help kill the medium?  I for one hope 10 spots in a row does not become the new paradigm, for the sake of radio and the people who pay its bills, the advertisers.

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, July 11, 2011

Atlanta's FM Translators: Are They Viable?

An Atlanta FM license is thought to be two-fold, serving as a license for a signal as well as a license to print money.  Consequently, broadcasters have come up with innovative ways to get one.  Starting around 1990, thanks to a relaxation in FCC rules, stations started moving into the Atlanta market while still putting a primary (60 dBu) signal over their original city of license.  Lately, broadcasters have been launching FM translators having power of up to 250 watts, albeit from a lofty height.

Atlanta has several FM translators, and two of them actually serve the purpose intended by the FCC.  At 89.7 in the non-commercial zone, a local signal translates WHHR-FM south of Macon, a Christian Contemporary station.  Then, there's the one I like, the mighty 92.1, with its 27 watts stretching from almost Tucker to almost Lilburn and translating WRAF-FM in Toccoa Falls, a religious station.  The 92.1 signal emanates from the church on Lawrenceville Highway with the transmitting tower in its parking lot.

Cumulus Media Partners, owners of Q100 and Rock 100.5, launched 3 translators--93.7, which is now owned by Dickey Broadcasting and simulcasts 680 The Fan; 97.9, featuring the recently-launched Journey format of 80's and 90's; and 99.1, the new home of Alternative 99X.  Radio One owns 102.9 and, to my dismay, simulcasts Hot 107-9.

The FCC has a history of not seeing the forest from the trees.  Case in point: Take a look at Praise 102.5 (WPZE-FM).  The Gospel station is licensed to Mableton, not Atlanta, and for good reason.  Class A stations, originally limited to 3,000 watts or less (and now 6,000), were intended for small markets, which they cover well.  But broadcasters, and I credit them for their smarts, found small markets--such as Mableton--that were adjacent to big markets with the intent of competing in the big market.

The class A licensed to 102.3 in Bethesda, MD is another example.  For years, it's competed for the Washington, DC audience.  And in recent years, current owner Radio One was able to move the antenna onto the American University tower in the heart of Washington, DC.  Yet, the station, now Majic 102.3, is still licensed to Bethesda.

When the move-in rules were relaxed around 1989, the FCC specified that stations moving closer to a major market still had to serve their original city of license.  When Cox purchased 95.5, licensed to Athens, and its construction permit to move into the Atlanta market, former Cox Radio President Bob Neil expediently announced that people living in the towns around Barrow and Walton Counties would now have their own radio station.  And he said it with a straight face.

The FCC established translators in 1970 to provide service in areas where a station's signal was unsatisfactory due to "intervening terrain barriers" or distance.  The agency did not create translators to simulcast an AM or FM HD2 or HD3 signal for the purpose of gaining access to the FM band.  Yet that's what Cumulus and others are doing, and just like many Class A's and move-ins, they are playing by the rules.

Cumulus was ingenious in launching 3 new Atlanta FM signals.  However, being successful with a translator in Atlanta requires a double dose of ingenuity.  The second piece is being able to monetize the signals.  Is that really possible in this highly-competitive land of 100,000-watt giants?  The answer is it's difficult but possible.  In the case of 97.9, for example, it's not unlike making a Class A successful because the signals are similar.

Praise 102.5, with its small class-A signal, is one of the market's top-rated stations.  Its antenna is in Ben Hill, just across I-285 from Greenbriar Mall.  You can bet Radio One, which has two smart and savvy engineers in Vic Jester and Johnny Bridges, has optimized the signal toward Atlanta.  The key is Praise throws the brunt of its signal over the areas having a high incidence of its target audience.  That signal might not be able to compete in Atlanta with any other format.  But Gospel was a super prudent choice.

As with class-A FM's, the devil is in the programming and sales strategies when it comes to translators in Atlanta.  In my opinion, 93.7's simulcast of 680 The Fan is a good way to go.  The FM translator is run very inexpensively, with no additional studio space or personnel.  The signal goes as far as Marietta and Norcross, communities missed at night by 680's directional pattern.  The station should pick up everyone in range who listens to FM and wants sports talk.  Some cannibalization with the AM is possible, but net net, The Fan probably is bolstering its ratings at virtually no cost and can brag that it's on FM.

Journey 97-9 is not likely to be a standalone profit center.  Its signal does not have the strength to penetrate office buildings, and its music is available at other places on the dial.  It will not have the budget to hire an on-air team, as already evidenced by Rick Dees in afternoon drive.  For that signal to stand on its own, the station would have to program something not accessible elsewhere on the dial. And that by definition would mean niche fare such as Smooth Jazz.

From a sales perspective, selling in combination with Q100, 80's and 90's music will not skew heavily female like Q100 and would therefore add too little female audience to justify a combo sell.  On the other hand, Journey 97-9 will likely not attract sufficient men to complement the women ratings of Q100 if sold in combo.  The best 97.9 probably can do in its present incarnation is be a bonus spot haven for Q100 clients.

99X, now on the weaker 99.1 translator, has pulled in some ratings and has a following among males, most heavily in the 35-44 age demo.  The Alternative outlet can bring in some dollars from local advertisers who target this group and probably cannot afford the big boys.  99X can also be sold in combination with Rock 100.5, whose audience is also largely male but slightly older, to solidify ratings.  So Cumulus' programming strategy with 99.1 appears sound.

Today's translator scenario reminds me of the old days when seemingly everyone wanted a radio station, no matter what kind of signal or hour limitations it would have.  Applying for a highly-directional AM daytimer whose signal would virtually miss the big concentrations of population was not uncommon.  I guess the objective was to get the station and then worry about how to bring in money.  It reminds me of the old movie, The Candidate, in which the just-elected senator asks, "What do I do now?"

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: