Monday, August 8, 2011

La Raza: Thriving In Gwinnett

La Raza 102.3 (WLKQ-FM) is accomplishing something extremely rare in the radio business.  The small-signaled station, in the shadow of the Atlanta giants, is getting good ratings and making big money.

The urge to own a radio station has always been kind of analogous to the sex drive.  People want it so badly that they sometimes act without thinking.  Going back to the early days of music radio, stations just outside major markets signed on as fast as families were moving to the suburbs.

Let's face it; people in towns like Carrollton, Griffin and Cartersville listen to Atlanta radio, and for good reason.  The Atlanta stations sound much better, pure and simple.  It's that way across the country in communities close to a major population center.

The thinking has always been that stations in towns near large cities can super serve their community and be a place where local merchants can afford to advertise.  And that's been true to some extent, but competing in the shadow of the big boys is a tough row to hoe.

For years, WLKQ-FM was Oldies Lake 102.  It was a station that was full of surprises because unlike major market Oldies stations, its music was not driven by research but by what the Program Director liked.  Lake 102 was considered a successful station, but success is relative.  Selling primetime spots for $25 is not everyone's idea of success.

When the Josephs retired in 2005, they sold WLKQ to Greg Davis' Davis Broadcasting.  Davis had owned Urban clusters in the Columbus (GA), Augusta, Charlotte and Macon markets, but had sold everything except in his hometown of Columbus.  I wondered why he bought WLKQ, and my guess is it made him feel like he owned a station in the Atlanta market.

When Davis first took over, the format was Classic Hits, like 97-1 The River plays.  I had expected Hispanic and questioned the format choice.  But somewhere, sometime, somebody planted the Hispanic notion in Greg Davis' head.  Davis sought out Brian Barber, who was VP of Sales for Spanish Broadcasting System in Miami, and asked what he thought about flipping to Spanish.  Barber responded that "it would be crazy not to go Hispanic," and the dye was cast.  Barber was brought in as General Manager.

At the time, Hispanic radio in Atlanta was limited to small AM's that were no longer viable as general market stations.  None served the entire Atlanta market.  Barber, in possession of Atlanta's first Hispanic FM, sensed he had a better mousetrap though the new La Raza did not put a listenable signal into most of the market.  He immediately increased Lake 102's rates fivefold.  I for one balked at paying that to be on a small Gwinnett signal that did not yet have ratings, but Barber persisted and billings skyrocketed.

The new La Raza was soon dealt a blow, however, when Clear Channel launched Viva 105.3, a much more powerful station that covered far more geography.  Nevertheless, La Raza still had a couple of big things going for it.  First, La Raza was a Regional Mexican station, consistent with Gwinnett's (and Georgia's) Hispanic population; Viva was a Spanish Contemporary Hit format and did not reflect Atlanta's Latino community.  Second, Viva's signal, emanating from southwest of Atlanta, did not penetrate buildings in Gwinnett.

A second blow was dealt, however, when Clear Channel/Atlanta, then under Jerry Del Core, shifted Viva to 105.7, a signal that boomed into Gwinnett, the state's largest Hispanic county.  Its mismatched format notwithstanding, Viva racked up some big ratings.  But La Raza hung tough with the super sales talent of Brian Barber and his staff, and the red hot Gwinnett advertiser market.

Clear Channel was not done, however.  The company added a second Hispanic outlet on 105.3, this one with the correct format for the market, Regional Mexican.  Predictably, the new El Patron cannibalized Viva, which Clear Channel eventually killed.

When the dust settled, La Raza was still standing, in fact standing pretty.  While it had a Regional Mexican competitor, La Raza had a far better signal in Gwinnett.  And La Raza could hone in on county advertisers who did not want to pay for the entire Atlanta market.

In the Gwinnett County Arbitron ratings for 18-34 and 18-49, El Patron holds a very small lead in average audience and weekly cume over La Raza despite a signal that does not penetrate buildings.  I believe the reason is many Hispanic Gwinnett residents travel across the market for work everyday, and La Raza has little signal south of Gwinnett.  Therefore, these Gwinnett residents tune to El Patron in their travels during the workday.  And El Patron can be carried on car radios back into and through Gwinnett.

La Raza's ad rates are now more than another multiple higher than its predecessor station's.  (Davis later purchased 100.1 in Canton, giving La Raza coverage in central and western Georgia, and ads on 102.3 are also heard on 100.1.)  Barber tells me that the station runs close to sold out.  I am not privy to how much La Raza bills annually but can take a good guess based on its rates.  It's a number competitive to some of the second-tier Atlanta FM's.

La Raza is a great story and one that defies the history of stations located in the shadows of a major market.

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