Monday, January 23, 2012

A Country Battle Royale

Recent followers of Atlanta radio might be surprised at the market's #1 station around 1994 and 1995, and by the share it commanded.  The station was Kicks 101-5, led by morning man Moby, and its Total Persons 12+ share rose as high as 10.2%.  At the time, the second station in the format was New Country Y106.7, a flanker also owned by ABC, that got shares in the 2-4% range.

Today, things are of course a lot different.  For one thing, 8 additional stations populate the Atlanta FM dial, causing compression to everyone's share.  Second, Country ratings in Atlanta have been pushed back by the increase in Urban listening resulting from African-American population growth.  Furthermore, the early 90's were part of country music's last golden age, which started in the late 80's.  In many markets, however, Country still racks up big numbers.

After 94-9 The Bull launched in late 2006, the station had two competitors, Kicks 101-5 and Eagle 106.7, for over a year.  It was only after former Citadel CEO Farid Suleman became befuddled as to why his company owned two Country stations in Atlanta that the 106.7 format was changed early in 2008.

In the December, 2011 PPM, the resurgent 94-9 The Bull edged out Kicks 101-5 in total 6+ audience for the first time with a 4.1% share.  Just over 2 years ago, The Bull earned its highest share ever with 4.6% but was still beaten by Kicks.  Last month's victory was somewhat more about Kicks' erosion than The Bull's rise.  But just as was the case 2 years ago, The Bull won the younger demos while heritage Kicks took the 35+ audience.

The mantra at Clear Channel/Atlanta during Melissa Forrest's tenure has been keep things on a even keel.  Prior to her arrival, employees at the Building of Death never knew what to expect when the day started.  With the exception of the changes at 105.7, formats and frequencies have been stable over the past few years, even at the possible expense of raising ratings and revenue.

Keeping things steady at The Bull, however, has proven an excellent strategy...twice.  After Forrest herself relaunched a newly-designed Bull in November, 2008, ratings headed upward oh so slowly and eventually eclipsed Kicks in the demos that count.  Then suddenly, at the end of 2010, things turned south only to rebound toward the conclusion of 2011.

We now have a ballgame again.  I go back to the days of the Big Top-40 wars, when competitors would go all out to give listeners more music, better jocks and bigger prizes than the enemy down the dial.  In this case, the two competitors are owned by companies known for pinching pennies, Clear Channel and Cumulus.  In fact, Kicks has been cutting as it has been trying to sharpen its product.  A few weeks ago, Cumulus deemed longtime station voice John Willyard too expensive and dropped him.

Both Kicks and The Bull play the hits but do not burn them out; and augment the top songs with others from the same artists.  A few months ago, Cumulus SVP/Programming Mike McVay directed Kicks to add classics from the 80's and 90's, which the station had not played since Eagle 106.7 was launched in 2000.  At first, Kicks played around 4-5 of these songs an hour but recently cut back to 2-3.  Yet Kicks still images as "Today's best Country hits."  The Bull then followed suit and added some older product.

In the pre-consolidation wars, the number 2 station might take aim at its competition on-air.  Since Scott Lindy served as PD starting in 2009, The Bull has likewise been assailing Kicks for playing more commercials and less music in humorous imaging by the talented Cousin Deke.

Perhaps smelling blood, 94-9 The Bull recently invested in its product, going live and local during middays.  The station brought in Tim Michaels, former afternoon driver at Kicks, to handle the slot.  The shift is much more interactive; it sounded strange when the morning folks interrupted the voice-tracked show to conduct a contest.  The gifted Madison Reeves, one of Clear Channel's master voice trackers, moved to evenings.

Although CEO John Hogan's "Less is More" never worked for Clear Channel, Kicks 101-5 has given it new meaning.  Blowing up Eagle 106.7 and reducing the Kicks staff in 2008 facilitated bringing Dallas McCade, one of Atlanta's most-loved personalities, to the Kicks morning show as Cadillac Jack's co-host.  Last fall, a Cumulus-mandated staff reduction brought Music Director Mike Macho, one of the market's best jocks, to afternoon drive, stretching his responsibilities to the hilt.  Middays on Kicks, however, remain a vestige of the 2008 Citadel massacre, which at the time, strengthened mornings but left the rest of the air staff comprised of minor leaguers.

Kicks has the most star-studded morning show, with Cadillac Jack and Dallas oozing with talent and name recognition.  It is, however, older and perceived as such, and probably partially responsible for the station's older skew.  While I feel Kicks has an edge in mornings, I consider Jason Pullman and Kristin Gates on 94-9 The Bull a close second.  I enjoy their highly-interactive show and find it addictive.

We will see where things go from here.  Will Cumulus be able to wage war on The Bull while in a cost-cutting mode?  The elimination of John Willyard's big-sounding imaging has at least temporarily left a substantial hole in Kicks.  While The Bull has gone live and local in middays, does CC/Atlanta have the resources to fight hard?  Or will both stations just continue to plod along doing their own thing?

Mitt, Newt and Barack will not be the only race we'll be watching in 2012.

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

Monday, January 16, 2012

Atlanta Radio Bracing For Watershed Year

In the radio business, every year is full of action.  After all, when one station goes up, another goes down.  In a market of Atlanta's size, not everyone can have a salable product.  And that means things change and heads roll.  Mitt Romney is getting attacked for being part of Wall Street.  He should be thankful he wasn't in the radio business.

This year, more things than usual seem in flux.  Seismic shifts do not usually happen this early in the year.  Broadcasters know that Christmas music plays havoc with ratings and tend to wait a couple of months before making big changes.  The following is a list of things that I am wondering about as we move into 2012:

Billings - Ad billings should be up for a couple of reasons.  For one, the economy seems to be turning around.  Moreover, this is a political year, and some races will be hotly contested.  Keep in mind Atlanta radio will get little or no money from the biggest race of all, the presidential election; since Georgia is not a state that will be in play.

Clear Channel Rumors Dead - Rumors about possible Clear Channel changes got hot and heavy last month.  Usually, where there's smoke, there's fire.  However, Clear Channel/Atlanta President/Market Manager Melissa Forrest told the AJC's Rodney Ho that El Patron is staying where it is at 105.3.  Without that move, it's unlikely the other rumor, about News/Talk WGST, was true.  While I feel the cluster could easily increase revenue by making some relatively minor changes, I trust Melissa and believe CC's Atlanta stations will stay as they are for now.

The Dave FM Guessing Game - 92-9 Dave FM started 2011 on an upswing, then drifted back into the doldrums.  History repeated itself as the station canned another morning show, Jimmy Baron and Yvonne Monet.  Popular Atlanta personality Steve Craig is filling the slot for now as Dave FM once again reverted to music-intensive mornings.  The unconventional AAA station also made a significant music adjustment, decreasing 90's and adding songs going back as far as the 60's.  CBS Radio Market Manager Rick Caffey, known for his decisiveness, has been very patient with the format and Program Director Scott Jameson to this point.  I wonder what's in store for the powerful under-performing signal in 2012.

The Future at V-103 - As V-103 sits on its perch as the market's #1 station, PD Reggie Rouse has had an uncanny knack for knowing what's around the corner.  He has stocked the station with talent waiting in the wings.  Frank Ski still turns in high ratings with his morning show, which he hosts with Wanda Smith, though not as high as in years past.  Since the day he arrived, Ryan Cameron, whose contract is ending, has been rumored to be Ski's eventual replacement.  I'm wondering if Rouse would use such a change to move self-proclaimed lifestyle specialist Kenny Burns from weekends into afternoon drive.  Keep in mind this is all my own speculation.

Navigating the Cumulus Maze - With the acquisition of the former Citadel stations, Cumulus/Atlanta has two big billers in Q100 and Kicks 101-5.  Yes, Kicks' ratings have eroded, and we can expect some tweaks, but the station is still solid.  I wonder, however, whether the cloud company will continue to live with the poor performance of Atlanta's Greatest Hits WYAY and Rock 100.5.

WYAY/106.7 is a move-in transmitting from Loganville but has a huge signal.  Rock 100.5's coverage is smaller, but the station emanates from the top of the Westin downtown, throwing a solid signal over almost the entire metro.

WYAY sounds like it's in limbo, with Tripp West hosting a music-intensive morning show.  Since its launch in 2009, Rock 100.5 has been anchored by The Regular Guys in mornings and has shuffled through various iterations of Rock, none of which has worked.  My guess is not much will change until the Kicks and WYAY airstaffs, now the only employees at the former Citadel facility, move to Johnson Ferry, which probably will not happen before April.

An FM for The Zone? - Radio One is rumored to be hawking its FM signal at 97.5, currently doing a redundant simulcast with 107.5.  The company also owns a translator at 102.9, for which it cannot figure out a use.

in 2006, Lincoln Financial attempted to sell its stations but ended up shedding only its Charlotte properties.  Since then, Lincoln has been rumored to be a willing seller at the right price, but its commitment to the Falcons made me wonder if attitudes had changed at the Philadelphia headquarters.

If Lincoln Financial is thinking about holding on to its media division for the long term, and Radio One is truly looking to sell 97.5, Lincoln might want to jump on a rare opportunity to snag a much-needed FM for 790 The Zone.  The 97.5 signal is not ideal but is more substantial overall than the 93.7 translator that duplicates 680 The Fan.  And the combination of 97.5 and 102.9 could significantly boost The Zone's sagging fortunes.

It's time to fasten our seat belts, sit back and enjoy the ride.

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

Monday, January 9, 2012

Radio One Turns Up the Majic

In September, I wrote a column about how Radio One almost magically built an Atlanta cluster from scratch.  When I moved here in 1994, none of the company's stations had yet seen the light of day.

Last month, Radio One took another big step forward when it turned on the vastly improved signal at 107.5 (WAMJ-FM).  Upgrading Urban AC Majic 107.5 resulted in a twofer for the company.  After the long and difficult process of applying, finding a site, reapplying, getting zoning and then FAA approval, building, and receiving its FCC license for 107.5, the R1 engineers traveled across town to Tyrone and boosted the power of Hip-Hop Hot 107-9 (WHTA-FM), now less bound by short-spacing rules, from 27,000 to 35,000 watts.

Radio One's next challenge will be finding a way to turn Praise 102.5 (WPZE-FM), currently a small Class A from Ben Hill, into a full-power Class C facility transmitting from within Atlanta.  Accomplishing this would be a huge coup, and Radio One is well into negotiating with the parties involved.

Now that the 107.5 signal is as full bodied as Smuttynose Winter Ale, a couple of questions come to mind.  First, the real Atlanta FM's have had an easier time amassing ratings over the years compared to the move-ins.  In the Urban AC space, however, move-in Kiss 104 has pretty much dominated Majic, even though Majic plays on two signals, 107.5 and the south-of-town 97.5.  Moreover, Kiss' 100,000 watts notwithstanding, its signal has some problems in Atlanta and is not as solid and far-reaching as its less-powerful neighbor across the field, WBZY-FM.

Will Majic's much stronger presence take ratings away from Kiss?  I doubt Majic's new big signal will alter ratings significantly.  The main reason is Radio One's decision to carry Michael Baisden in afternoon drive.  While the PPM prodded the addition of some music, Baisden is primarily a talk show versus a music-intensive Kiss.  This is not a knock at Radio One or Baisden, who performs respectably for Majic.  But the market has preferred the more consistent and music-intensive sound of Kiss, and that probably will continue.

The second question pertains to the Majic simulcast over 97.5 (WUMJ-FM).  I have always felt the simulcast was a waste of a signal.  But some OCD on the part of Radio One was excusable, especially since Kiss puts its most potent signal into the areas where 97.5 is strongest and 107.5 was weakest.  Now, with 107.5's booming new signal, simulcasting on 97.5 is truly squandering valuable Atlanta spectrum.  With 97.5 reportedly on the block, we probably can expect the useless simulcast to continue for a while.

The 97.5 signal is a limited one, putting 60 dBu penetration over about two-thirds of Atlanta.  Yet it is the signal that announced Radio One's arrival in Atlanta back in 1995.  The original Hot 97-5 demonstrated the prescience of GM Mary Catherine Sneed and PD Steve Hegwood regarding the future of Urban music.  It quickly established itself with around a 5% share in Persons 12 and over.

A new station on 97.5 would almost have to target an African-American audience and would have limited format options.  It also would have to accept the reality of low ratings and billings potential.  One possibly is talk, the format done by CBS' WAOK-AM.  If executed properly, likely combining local hosts with syndication, it could make some money.  One road to success for such a station could be trying to lure Atlanta radio icon Ike Newkirk out of retirement.

The upgraded 107.5 signal is just the first development in what should be a very active year on the Atlanta Airwaves.

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