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.

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Link to Rodney Ho's AJC Radio & TV Blog:

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