Monday, January 7, 2013

The New Year Dawns For B98.5

The following column was written before Friday's announcement that afternoon drive host Mike Shannon has left the station.

When I was a kid, WPGC in Washington DC, then a Top-40 station, had a contest.  The W in WPGC was stolen, which meant the jocks and the jingles could refer to the station only as PGC.  For the required hourly ID, the "thief" called in and gave the full call letters since only he could say them.  Clues were aired until a listener guessed where the W was hidden, which turned out to be the sign on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Late last year, I tuned to the station I had always known as B98.5 FM.  But the personalities and imaging said only B98.5.  Being a creature of habit, I grabbed my pad and pen, and sat by the radio waiting for the next clue.  However, no clue ever came, and I eventually realized the shorter name was part of a remake being engineered by new Program Director Chris Eagan.

In fact, Eagan has already changed the tenor of B98.5.  I am a Jon Carter and Buffy O'Neil fan, and felt B98.5 had lost something when it replaced them as the station voices, with what sounded like cheap imitations.  Now Eagan has replaced the budget couple with a female voice.  He's also streamlined the imaging.  (By the way, when I hear "80s, 90s and now," it somehow seems like a decade is missing.  And I realize other stations use "80s, 90s and now" or "80s, 90s and today."  Why not "the 80s to now?")

Eagan also has smoothed out the music.  Former PD Cagle brought B98.5 into the new millenium 2 years ago by adding current songs.  But the music mix was a little too all over the place.  Gone are the Rhythmic currents that never should have been there.  And Eagan has given the liner-reading jocks a little leeway for personality.

B98.5 has gone through a bunch of programmers: Phil LoCascio, Tom Paleveda, Paul Ciliano, Jeff McHugh and Lee Cagle, kind of surprising for a station whose PDs, up until recently, just followed the road map of former Cox Radio President Bob Neil.  When Cox/Atlanta management made the decision to let Cagle go, Chris Eagan, well connected within the Cox radio family, was brought in.

The station now better captures the essence of a state-of-the-art AC.  But Eagan is in a luxurious quandary.  So far under him, the station has been earning its highest ratings in years, and he could relax and enjoy his situation.  Yet, the changes he has implemented make me wonder whether Eagan is on a mission to turn the station into a first-class operation.

B98.5 has what I call a Lego morning show.  It's two pieces put together, but the totality is just not there.  Steve & Vikki were a morning team as were Kelly & Alpha.  Both Vikki Locke and Kelly Stevens are talented pros, but the show lacks chemistry.  I wonder whether Vikki & Kelly will make it through the year.  If I were a betting man, I would wager they will not.

When Kelly McCoy, one of my favorite voices on Atlanta radio, ended his 27-year run in afternoon drive last year, B98.5 replaced him with Mike Shannon, long a personality for Cox/Louisville.

I have nothing against Mike except his name.  Couldn't he have come up with something more imaginative?  Seriously, he's acceptable; I can listen to him now that he's calmed down.  But he is not the caliber of Kelly McCoy.  Ratings have been good, and maybe that's all he needs.  But afternoon drive is another daypart where despite the numbers, B98.5 is weak from a quality standpoint.

I find it strange the station goes into automation from 7 to 10PM and then has a personality, Kara Leigh, from 10 to midnight.  I guess automation is PPM friendly, and Cox is the company that pioneered long-term automation back in 1999 with The Beat.  It took that station about 15 months to have all live jocks.  But Atlanta is a top-10 market.  Couldn't they find someone to voice track?  I hear Kate McCarthy is still wandering the halls.

Kara Leigh is fine for late night, and Eagan could probably get away with starting her show at 7PM.   Yes, even K-Dub would be better than automation.  I'm not sure Leigh will ever be ready for prime time.

So what path will Chris Eagan travel?  Will he prop his feet up on his desk, collect his paycheck and enjoy the satisfaction of having quickly guided B98.5 into the ratings elite?  Or will he be driven to make some major and possibly risky changes to mold B98.5 into one of the country's top AC's?  We will get our answer in 2013.

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Rodney Ho's AJC Radio & TV blog:
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