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: http://blogs.ajc.com/radio-tv-talk/