Monday, October 8, 2012

A Slow, Painful Death For WGST

I remember as a kid, having a conversation with friends about how we would prefer to die.  Yes, boys talk about the strangest things before the years when the subject changes to girls.  But, I recall all of us wanted to die quickly rather than suffer for a long time.

When I moved to Atlanta in 1994, WGST was a very viable competitor.  Just a year or so later, the decline began.  It was a function of improvement in WSB, signal, population changes, the shift away from AM, and a string of bad decisions by management.  In recent years, WGST was left twisting in the wind.

The format change to ESPN Deportes was a good decision, and I'll tell you why later in the column.  If nothing else, WGST as a talk station was finally put out of its misery.

Under visionary Program Director Eric Seidel, WGST was a top-tier station.  Even with the loss of Neal Boortz to WSB in 1992, WGST remained strong.  Seidel had recognized Sean Hannity's potential and hired him from Huntsville to replace Boortz.  The quick-witted and entertaining Tom Hughes anchored the morning news block.  Rush Limbaugh was king of the midday ratings, and Kim "The Kimmer" Peterson kept listeners laughing on their ride home.  Dennis O'Hayer anchored an evening newscast, 60 at 6.

WGST had become the Braves flagship in 1992, the first year following the famous worst-to-first run, replacing WSB, which had not expected the team's ascent.  WGST leased an FM on 105.7 northwest of Atlanta.

In 1994, WSB was edging out WGST in ratings, but WGST reportedly outbilled WSB; the Braves were probably responsible for that.

WGST's decline started in 1994 after Program Director Greg Moceri rebuilt WSB.  Finally getting its act together again, WSB started climbing back to the top.  While WGST was still an excellent-sounding station, it had a major problem; its nighttime AM signal covered little more than Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead clearly.  Atlanta's population had become so spread out that WGST-AM had become virtually a daytime station.  Its saving grace was its small FM, which covered the market's northern environs.

Also in 1994, WGST was dealt another blow by the surging WSB.  The Cox station dug deep into its pockets to outbid WGST for Braves play-by-play starting with the 1995 season, which turned out to be the year that the team won the World Series.  (When WGST announced the change, I remember Tom Hughes joking it was because he refused to wear his hair like Don Sutton.)  So now the market had a vastly better-sounding WSB with a big signal day and night plus the Braves.  By 1995, WGST was sliding but still had respectable ratings.

The next blow to WGST came in 1997, when Sean Hannity resigned to join the brand new Fox News Channel.  Hannity had held his own against Neal Boortz.  However, Hannity's replacement, Ian Punnett, was not able to successfully fill Hannity's shoes.  Around the same time, Eric Seidel was replaced by Nancy Zintak, who had worked for him.

In response to sliding ratings, WGST General Manager Bob Houghton brought in acclaimed ad man Joey Rieman to create a new image for the station.  Rieman came back with "Planet Radio."  A news staff cutback and talent revamp accompanied the new moniker.  Punnett was moved to mornings with co-host Trevor Johns, replacing the fired Tom Hughes.

The ratings disaster that followed was blamed on the Planet Radio imaging, but I wonder how much it really had to do with the tremendous improvement in WSB, the loss of the Braves and Sean Hannity, and the new schedule that kicked off the day with a weak morning show.  The Planet Radio moniker was quickly dropped, and Fox 5 sports anchor Jeff Hullinger took over mornings; WGST saw a small rebound.  Morning anchor Tom Hughes was rehired 3 years later.

With WSB now dominating the market, WGST was holding its own in the second ratings tier as an AM-FM combo with still salable numbers.  But, then came the knockout punch.  Now a Clear Channel property, WGST was able to move its FM antenna to Sweat Mountain in Marietta, improving the signal.  The move could have led to making WGST more competitive again.  But Clear Channel, under Market Manager John Hogan, drooled over having another profit center and split the FM off from WGST-AM in 2001.

The split left what was now primarily a daytime station on AM.  This is when WGST started its years of withering on the vine.  The fact is an AM station that for all intents and purposes is day only cannot be left on its own.  As ratings and revenue sunk to all-time lows, WGST shedded its local personalities, as Tom Hughes and Kim Peterson ended their careers.  The station later hired Randy Cook to anchor mornings, but the dye had been cast.

The last bad decision regarding WGST was made about 2 years ago.  Management apparently did not understand that WGST-AM did not have the tools, an FM or at least a full-market night signal, to go it alone.  Clear Channel invested in live and local talent in both drive times, with Rob Johnson and Dave Merlino in mornings, and Rusty Humphries in afternoons.  At the time, I wrote that unless WGST added an FM, the result would be more expenses with the same ratings and revenue.

With ESPN Deportes, WGST is bolstered by an FM partner.  Whatever small audience it picks up could be added to El Patron's numbers and sold as a combo for a slight increase over El Patron's rates or provided as bonus.  In any case, WGST will serve a purpose and be very inexpensive to run.

We do mourn the loss of WGST as a News/Talk station.  It has a rich history in the Atlanta market.

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

1 comment:

  1. Wow, thanks for the history lesson - that was great! I moved to Atlanta in the 1980's and loved the AM radio choices available. The whole time I was in college, WGST was always my "home" station and when I drove back from college (in Illinois), I always loved hearing the King and Boortz coming in when I reached Tennessee, it was how I knew I was back home! I miss the old WGST, including Tom, Neil, Kim, Keith, etc...those who remember will know and love these names.