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?"

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