Monday, November 28, 2011

An Atlanta Radio Road Test

I am a regular reader of Car and Driver.  The magazine frequently runs features comparing several models of the same class--luxury sedans, SUV's and compact cars for example.  This week, I'm going to do a similar comparison of Atlanta's radio clusters.  Like Car and Driver, the test will be a combination of science and judgment.

Unlike Car and Driver, I will not be rating vehicles of the same class.  Radio is "unfair" in that signal strength and location have a lot to do with audience size.  And the rankings will not take into account billings, the bottom line in radio.  I will just assume billings are proportionate to ratings, which is directionally true.  To be as fair as possible, rankings will be based on ratings and formats, compared to signal potential.  So here we go:

#1 - Cox Media Group - Cox has the biggest audience share with 23% but earns the top ranking for different reasons. Each station is properly purposed based on its signal and is aggressively programmed.  The anchor of course is the legendary WSB-AM.  When the station started faltering in 2010, management moved quickly and added the 95.5 signal.  While it removed 95-5 The Beat as a profit center, the move was a smart one and shored up Cox's leadership position.

The 95.5 signal was the one selected for the simulcast probably because it was the cluster's lowest-billing FM.  But it also made sense because the signal is a move-in transmitting from Hall County and putting its strongest penetration over the market's affluent northern environs, where the News/Talk format tends to excel.

Kiss 104 is also a move-in with its transmitter in Newnan, south of town.  It throws its strongest coverage over high-density African-American neighborhoods, consistent with its Urban AC programming.  And it scores mighty impressive ratings.  97-1 The River transmits from the 95.5 site, and its signal strength on the north side matches its Classic Hits format's audience.  B98.5 FM is one of the market's original big-coverage signals, and its mass-appeal AC format scores top-5 ratings.

#2 - Radio One - Radio One/Atlanta solved the puzzle of taking its signals and matching them to formats with perfection.  That's even more impressive with the format choices so limited, given the company's target audience of African-Americans.  But the biggest reason for tapping Radio One for second place was the performance of Praise 102.5 (WPZE-FM).  That a small Class A FM equivalent to 6,000 watts can tie for third place in the PPM ratings is eye popping in a market of Atlanta's size.  Praise's Gospel format simply pours its power over the areas where the music's audience resides.

Radio One's Hot 107-9 transmits from south of Atlanta in Tyrone.  In this case too, the move-in's strongest signal penetrates its young urban target audience.  Hot will soon get a power boost from 27,000 to 35,000 watts.  Majic 107.5/97.5 has already been covering the city and the areas surrounding the Perimeter.  It's been well positioned to serve the more affluent African-Americans in DeKalb County and other areas.  With its new upgrade, the 107.5 signal will soon boom across the market with more wattage and antenna height.

Radio One vied for the #1 ranking but was denied because it wastes 2 signals.  The first is its original Atlanta signal, 97.5, south of the city, which simulcasts 107.5.  Rumor has it that the company is attempting to sell the station, which will be totally redundant when the 107.5 power increase takes effect.  The other wasted signal is the 102.9 translator, which duplicates 107.9, a station needing no help in the 102.9 service area.

#3 - Lincoln Financial Media - LFM's flagship property, Star 94 (WSTR-FM), rejoined the ratings leaders this year.  The Hot AC station pretty much fulfills its potential as one of the 100,000-watt monsters.  The company's other Atlanta property, 790 The Zone (WQXI-AM), makes wise use of its signal.  During the day, its non-directional 28,000 watts, while not the 50,000 of 680 The Fan, are strong enough and then some.  The Sports format attracts the type of listener who will find the station.  The Zone's huge handicap, however, is its 1,000-watt directional night signal, which is listenable with good quality in very limited geography.  But LFM gets as much out of the station as anyone could.

#4 (Tie) - CBS Radio - CBS is one of the market's 2 split-personality clusters.  Urban V-103 always tops the ratings and has a massive signal to match.  Its sister station 92-9 Dave FM likewise has one of the original big signals but lives among the ratings challenged.  At times, it's shown a little spark, and its listeners have one of the market's best qualitative profiles.  CBS's WAOK-AM does Urban Talk, a smart format for its limited signal.

#4 (Tie) - Cumulus Media - Cumulus, with its recent acquisition of Citadel, is the market's other split-personality cluster.  Its two big signals transmitting from in town, Q100 and Kicks 101-5, are both powerhouses put to excellent use and pretty much fulfilling their potential.  The company's other two properties, Rock 100.5 and Atlanta's Greatest Hits 106.7, are underachievers.

#6 - Clear Channel - Clear Channel has 2 class C full-power FM's transmitting from the best site in Atlanta.  Yet neither is among the top 10 stations in the PPM ratings.  One of them, Country 94-9 The Bull (WUBL-FM), is not too far behind and at times has challenged format-leader Kicks.  At this juncture, however, it's not fulfilling its potential.  The other, Project 9-6-1 (WKLS-FM), has an Active Rock format with a fairly narrow target, men 18-49.  It performs well against the demo and probably makes some decent bucks.  But the potential of that signal is much broader and greater than what the station now delivers.

I hesitate to bring up Clear Channel/Atlanta's move-ins because the President/Market Manager, whom I respect, vehemently disagrees with me.  Yet each one's signal strength is greatest where the other one's most potential listeners live.  El Patron 105.3 has a powerful signal from Newnan that booms across the market, even significantly north of the Perimeter, more so than co-located Kiss 104.  However, its signal is weak in Gwinnett, the county with the most Hispanics in Georgia.  Has anyone noticed that La Raza 102.3, which covers Gwinnett only, has half the metro audience of El Patron, whose signal spans much broader geography?

Wild 105.7/96.7 covers Gwinnett and the northern counties well but has a hit-or-miss signal south of the top-end Perimeter.  Its CHR Rhythmic format does attract a high incidence of Hispanics, which makes covering Gwinnett somewhat logical.  Yet Latinos comprise only 24% of its audience, not enough to pull in Hispanic ad dollars.  The format also draws an above-average percentage of African-Americans, who make up 33% of Wild's listeners.  The remaining 43% consists of "Other," meaning Caucasians and Asians.  And most of the 76% of Wild's listeners who are not Hispanic reside where 105.7 is weak and 105.3 is strong.  Of course, I guess there's a reason why someone else and not me is Clear Channel's Atlanta Market Manager.

As 2011 concludes and the new year begins, a flurry of radio activity could be on the horizon.  My money is on the two split-personality clusters, CBS and Cumulus.

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

Monday, November 14, 2011

Jimmy's Birthday Gift

This weekend, when Jimmy Baron celebrated his 50th birthday with family and friends, he had a couple of reasons to revel, reasons like freedom and new beginnings.  Of course, that was not what he had in mind until Thursday, when Dave-FM General Manager Rick Caffey and Program Director Scott Jameson gave him their best wishes and a pink slip.

By releasing Jimmy, PD Jameson messed up Dave-FM's own plans for this past weekend.  It was to be a special weekend in honor of Jimmy's 50th birthday.  Instead, the station had to resort to honoring Neil Young's 66th birthday.

So with Jimmy and Yvonne out as the morning show, what's next for Dave-FM?  And were Jimmy and Yvonne the main cause of Dave-FM's ratings woes?  My guess is to a very limited extent.  The show's ratings did lag the rest of the station.  I am not privy to whether the station conducted any attitudinal research about the show.  My own judgment is Dave-FM has had structural problems above and beyond mornings.

The Adult Album Alternative format attracts the most discerning music fans in commercial radio.  If the music is right, they will find the station, morning show or not.  Keep in mind also that while Jimmy and Yvonne did personality radio, the show was still "Music Mornings with Jimmy & Yvonne."

It's interesting that the week before last, John Riemenschneider was fired as Dave-FM's General Sales Manager.  John once held that position at 99X and had moved to The Beat as Local Sales Manager after the Cumulus acquisition.  I am sure selling Dave-FM to ad agencies is not the easiest thing these days, although the station's small audience has some of the best qualitative demos in the market.  So Jimmy and Yvonne join Riemenschneider in being let go for situations that probably were somewhat out of their control.

In recent weeks, Dave-FM has been adding some older music and decreasing its emphasis on the 90's.  Like on Kicks 101-5, I find the classic product bringing depth to the station and making it a better listen.  It's ironic that KFOG in San Francisco, a legendary AAA station whose audience was in decline, is doing the exact opposite to win new listeners.

Dave-FM has added a new positioner, "Atlanta's Finest Rock."  It's not exactly original, and many say a positioner is irrelevant.  I tend to disagree.  I believe a station needs to tell its audience what it is, and Dave-FM had not been doing that.  I lived in New York when NBC's WYNY was an excellent AC station but had no overall positioner.  Another station entered the format and changed its calls to WNSR, standing for New York's Soft Rock.  WNSR drilled the position into the minds of listeners and despite not being as good as WYNY in my opinion, knocked the NBC station out of the format.

Steve Craig has stepped in as interim morning host in what undoubtedly will be a music-intensive show.  Craig, like Jimmy Baron, is a well-liked Atlanta figure.  He is remembered for his midday show on 99X in its halcyon years and most notably for the noontime House of Retro Pleasure.  He brings a ton of music credibility to Dave-FM.  However, Steve is not exactly loaded with broadcast talent, and his delivery is a little different.

If music-intensive mornings are the way Dave-FM wants to go--and its gotten its best ratings with that approach--Steve's interim status could turn into something more permanent.  AAA listeners tend to be devoted to music, making the personality versus music-intensive question a difficult one to grapple with.

Will the next few months bring an increase in ratings to Dave-FM because of trial from the changes?  That's hard to say because the station is not promoting any kind of change to current or potential listeners.  And if the modifications do induce trial, will the numbers increase and then fall off a cliff as in recent history?  Scott Jameson can relax and enjoy Christmas with his family knowing the jury is out.  We will know more in several months.

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

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Curse Of The Z Ninety-Threeno

I have not been one to believe in the supernatural.  I love watching the paranormal on TV and in the movies.  But when it comes to curses or people who claim to be psychics, I tend to dismiss them.

I have to admit, however, that in the 90's and early this century, I started wondering if the Curse of the Bambino had some merit.  After all, the Boston Red Sox, so dominant in baseball's early years, had not won a World Series since 1918.  Fortunately for my sanity, the Red Sox took the World Series in 2004.

Recently, I had a bit of a relapse.  I am again starting to think curses could be real.  I've been wondering whether the 92.9 frequency in Atlanta is cursed.  All the Red Sox did was sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.  Z93, however, veered away from a highly successful Top 40 format into an abyss and has pretty much remained there for 25 years.  And with one of the market's monster signals, that seems difficult to do.

Over the July 4 weekend in 1975, I visited Atlanta for the first time en route to New Orleans.  I looked forward to seeing a Braves game and driving past the legendary White Columns on Peachtree.  What I anticipated most, however, was listening to Z93 (92.9 WZGC-FM), which had been getting loads of press in the trades.

Z93 kept me hooked; I changed the dial just once to check out WQXI-AM, then programmed by Scott Shannon.  On the return trip, I heard Z93's Dan Mason doing Boogie Checks on his evening show.  He was then the station's Program Director.  Today of course he is President of CBS Radio.

When Dan Mason left for sister station WPGC in Washington, he was succeeded as PD by John Young, another savvy radio man.  Young kept Z93 a blue-chip product, and when star morning duo Ross & Wilson left for New York's WABC, he lured Steve McCoy from Nashville for AM drive.  That started McCoy's 30-year run as a top-rated morning man on 4 Atlanta stations.

After about 10-years as a top-rated CHR, 92.9 went through a succession of owners--General Cinema, First Media, Cook Inlet Partners, (the pre-CBS) Infinity, CBS--and a sequence of formats--CHR Rhythmic, Classic Rock, Classic Hits, Rock and now Adult Album Alternative.  In the late 80's, the new Power 99 replaced Z93 as the leading CHR and hired Steve McCoy for mornings.  Someone had put the curse on 92.9.

WZGC has had its moments in its post-Top 40 era.  In 1999, consultant Alex DeMers was brought in and divided the classic rock music clock into "7-song super sets."  Ratings took off for a while.  Under PD Scott Jameson, 92.9 in its current incarnation as Dave FM nicely climbed up the ratings ladder a couple of times.  The latest climb, early this year, fooled me.  I thought the station had found a way to make its unconventional Triple A format work in the Atlanta market.  But that darn 92.9 curse had just been in a teasing mood.

As the early 2000's unfolded, I felt 92.9 should flip to Urban AC.  Its superior signal probably would have put a quick end to Kiss 104.1 (WALR-FM), a move-in with its transmitter in Newnan.  It would have enabled CBS Radio to grab a really big portion of the Urban ad dollars in Atlanta, dominating both the younger and older demos.  That move likely was never considered because the CBS brass feared cannibalizing V-103 (WVEE-FM).  My retort is wouldn't they have rather cannibalized V-103 than let Kiss do it?

That opportunity is long gone.  Kiss 104.1 has increased from 60,000 to 100,000 watts and is attempting to move closer to Atlanta.  Radio One has launched and established Majic 107.5/97.5 as the market's second Urban AC and is about to turn on 107.5's more powerful signal.  Yet other possibilities are out there--a young, exciting CHR or a Soft AC, for example.

WZGC's October PPM numbers were at the point where something has to give very soon.  In recent weeks, Dave-FM made some music tweaks, decreasing its 90's songs and adding classics that go back as far as 40 years.  What will happen in the next several weeks?  Will it be as little as bringing Steve Craig on as a personality?  Or will it be a wholesale format shift?

Like the Boston Red Sox, 92.9 needs to score big, and break or disprove the curse. Management could try the traditional methods, such as uncrossing oil, visiting a witch or walking backwards while chewing Juicy Fruit.  However, the 92.9 curse goes back so many years and is so powerful, a new format that would shake the foundation of Atlanta radio seems the only real solution.

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: