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.

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