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:

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