B98.5 FM has made some adjustments as its quest for women against Star 94 and Q100 heats up.
The Cox AC has been a pretty steady performer over the years. The station competes for a lucrative audience, and it's always been in the thick of things. But this year, B98.5 has found itself being the #3 station of the three vying for the demographic, an uncharacteristic position for the outlet.
In the mid-90's, radio in Atlanta was a different world. Things rarely changed and for good reason. The market had 9 fewer FM's than now, and consolidation had not yet happened. With radio ad dollars escalating and an underradioed landscape, owners were raking in the dough. Even lesser-rated stations had much bigger shares than now.
B98.5 was doing something that I thought strange and not the best idea. Guided by Program Director Phil LoCascio, the station was in effect running two formats. During weekdays, it was a highly structured AC station under the close scrutiny of Cox Radio President Bob Neil. On weekends, it shifted to All 70's or as I called it, "the Donna Summer format."
B98.5 mixed 70's into its weekday playlist, but weekends were different. Saturday and Sunday had a disco-oriented sound, and I surmised LoCascio wanted to make them different to make them special. However, B98.5's bipolar disorder resulted in sounding like two separate stations. But that didn't matter tremendously; Atlanta radio was a fat cat at the time, and B98.5 sat behind Peach 94.9 and ahead of Star 94 in Arbitron. With its profitable female target audience, B98.5 was earning a healthy living.
In the late 1990's, Star 94 started surging. A lot had to do with the comeback of CHR music, and some had to do with PD Dan Bowen's arrival at Star. Bowen cleaned up the formatics and made the station tighter.
B98.5 dropped its 70's weekends, with General Manager Marc Morgan announcing that people would always know what to expect when tuning to the station. For some time, the new ratings order of the 3 fairly-direct competitors was Star 94, B98.5 and then the former leader, the late Peach 94.9.
In 2010, still in a strong position, B98.5 started presenting some occasional theme weekends, which were fun. Eventually, every weekend became a Big 80's Weekend. Like with its 70's weekends years ago, the music was vintage 80's but different from the 80s played during the week. But I felt it was at least more compatible with the station's weekday sound this time.
By 2011, new Star 94 PD Scott Lindy had led his station to reclaim its position as a ratings leader. When the departure of Cox's Bob Neil paved the way for autonomy at the local level, PD Cagle brought B98.5 into the modern era, eliminating 70's and adding current product, to better compete with Star. Its positioner became "your favorite songs from the 80's, 90's and now."
After Star 94 launched its Big 90's Weekend last year, B98.5 started alternating the Big 80's Weekend with its new Retro Weekend, featuring the 80's and 90's. While the music was distinctive yet compatible with the weekday mix, my feeling was B98.5 was grappling with how to counter Star 94. Would listeners wonder whether the Retro Weekend, devoid of currents, was the "80's, 90's and Not Now Weekend?"
B98.5's changes, musically pretty dramatic, initially reaped rewards as ratings jumped. In 2012, however, after a lower Christmas ratings spike than in past years, the station has slid to third place among the 3 main competitors, with its soaring midday numbers keeping it as high as it is.
B98.5's latest moves appear to be a reaction to the ratings and continued uncertainly regarding weekends. The AC brought back 98 minutes of music at 9AM but is calling it "the Workday Kickoff" rather than its famous former name, "the 98 at 9."
A commercial-free hour was added at 4:45PM, a scant 5 minutes before Star 94 starts its "Commercial-Free Ride at 5." That reminds me of the old Top-40 strategy of starting the news 5 minutes before the competition; in that case, listeners would leave but return 5 minutes later.
A couple of weekends ago, B98.5 made itself whole again by dropping its
themed weekends and becoming "80's, 90's and now" all the time. Themed weekends in the AC format are a tough row to hoe.
Competition is good, and with consolidation, listeners get too little of it. We'll see where things go from here.
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Link to Rodney Ho's AJC Radio & TV blog: http://blogs.ajc.com/radio-tv-talk/