Emmis Communications and Radio Stations and Radio Ratings and Radio and Media & Marketing

Changing radio formats changes ratings results

May 12, 2008

Numerous format changes late last year caused a major shake-up in the first-quarter survey results of central Indiana's radio-listening habits.

"It's a weird book," said Scott Uecker, general manager of WICR-FM 88.7 and instructor of communications at the University of Indianapolis. "There's a lot going on in this market, and a lot for industry observers to keep their eyes on."

Uecker said the full impact of the changes won't be known for another six months, but the first 2008 measurement of listeners by New York-based Arbitron Inc.--released May 5--gives a good indication of how the reshuffling is likely to pan out.

Perhaps the biggest change was locally based Emmis Communications Corp.'s gamble of moving WIBC's stalwart news/talk station from 1070-AM to 93.1-FM. The risk appears to have paid off, as WIBC's share of listeners grew to 7.2 percent of the radio audience, a full percentage point higher than the fourth quarter of 2007.

Not only did the audience get bigger, said Emmis' local market manager, Tom Severino, it also got younger.

"This is the most anxious I've been in 35 years in the business," Severino said. "When the ratings came out, it was a happy day around the Emmis ranch."

WIBC--traditionally strong with listeners over age 55--grew its audience among men and women in the key 25-to-54 age demographic. Among men age 25 to 54, WIBC grew from a 4.8-percent audience share to 6.3 percent. That puts WIBC within striking distance of the 6.5 share pulled in by Clear Channel's WRZX-FM 103.3, an alternative music station that is fourth in the market among 25- to 54-year-old men.

"That was a huge, pleasant surprise," Severino said.

It was also a pleasant surprise to local radio advertisers and media buyers.

"We were very pleased with what we saw from WIBC," said Erin McLeod, media buyer for locally based MZD Advertising. "The ratings indicate that WIBC might actually become a player for a more mainstream audience."

Severino credits the increase to loyal WIBC listeners who followed the station from the AM to the FM band, and new listeners who were attracted by strong local coverage of the Iraq war, the economy, political issues and this month's primary election.

Some think WIBC's numbers might have been inflated by people participating in Arbitron's survey who were really listening to Emmis' new sports-talk station, which occupies the 1070-AM frequency that formerly hosted WIBC. Arbitron commissions listeners to keep track of their listening habits in a pen-and-paper diary.

"People could have gotten confused, and written down WIBC when they were listening to 1070," Uecker said.

Sports battle

But that wouldn't be all bad news for Emmis. If there was confusion among listeners, Emmis' new sports station, WFN-AM 1070, might be attracting more listeners than the survey suggests.

As it was, WFNI debuted with a 1.5 percent share of listeners, ahead of longtime sports-talk station WNDE-AM 1260, which earned a 1.3 share in the first quarter.

"WFNI right out of the box beat [WNDE], which has been doing sports for 15 years," Severino said. "We're pretty happy about that."

Severino said he wasn't surprised WFNI's share rivaled WNDE's in its first quarter. In fact, Emmis officials used WNDE's share as a benchmark for advertiser guarantees, Severino said.

"We knew we'd do at least that good," he said.

Officials for Clear Channel Radio, which owns WNDE, did not return calls seeking comment.

WFNI is thought to have benefited from its ESPN Radio affiliation, but Severino said the station's plan calls for using more local shows and programming in the coming months.

Several industry insiders think WFNI will climb to a 2.5 share or higher, which until now has been unheard of for a sports-talk station in this market.

Competitor WNDE still has a strong lineup. It has deals with Westwood One and Fox Sports that allow it to air "The Jim Rome Show," Major League Baseball games, NASCAR races and the NCAA Final Four, along with local fare such as Purdue University football and basketball.

Meanwhile, WFNI has rights deals with the Indianapolis Colts, Indiana Pacers and Indiana Fever, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indy Racing League, and Indiana University football. Another Emmis station, WLHK-FM 97.1, airs IU basketball games.

"I think we'll hit 2.0 pretty easily," Severino said. "I think eventually we will exceed that. We want to create the greatest sports station in the Midwest."

WFNI, known as 1070 The Fan, is largely a niche buy for companies targeting 25- to 54-year-old men, media buyers said, but MZD's McLeod said if the station's share doubled, a wider spectrum of advertisers would start to take notice.

"They've dumped a lot of promotional dollars in that station, and they have the area's No. 1 sports columnist promoting it through his column, so I think there's a significant expectation that they will improve on that rating," Uecker said.

WFNI's afternoon talk show is hosted by Indianapolis Star sports columnist Bob Kravitz, along with former Reebok executive Eddie White.

Emmis spent a high-five-figure amount late last year and early this year to promote WFNI, and a low-six-figure sum to promote changes on WIBC, Severino said.

"We think those were successful investments in this case," Severino said.

Despite the promotions, WNDE's afternoon-drive-time show hosted by John Michael Vincent--known on air as JMV--still has an edge, leading WFNI 4.3 to 3.6 in that time slot with men ages 25 to 54.

WXLW-AM 950, the market's third sports-talk station, which last quarter lost its ESPN affiliation to WFNI, has fallen below the minimum rating standard to be reported by Arbitron.

Radio Now

Officials with Maryland-based Radio One said their purchase of Emmis' Top 40 format has paid dividends. Emmis ditched WNOU, called Radio Now, at its 93.1-FM frequency to allow the transplant of WIBC and because the format wasn't profitable enough, Emmis officials said.

But Chuck Williams, Radio One's local general manager, said the format is a financial winner for his company's 100.9-FM frequency, where smooth jazz was ditched to make room for WNOU.

The station's 3.9 share in the most recent book represented a small decline for the format, which drew a 4.1 share in the last quarter of 2007, but it was a gain for Radio One.

"We used to be at a 2.7 or 2.8 rating there, and we've kept costs in check, so we're very pleased," Williams said.

The only tweaks Radio One made were with on-air talent.

"I think, in most cases, the changes have upgraded the station," Williams said.

Stability at the top

Some things haven't changed locally. Cumulus Media Partners' WFMS-FM 95.5, the local country music powerhouse, continues to steam along as the market's top station among listeners 12 and up. WFMS' 11.4-percent share in the most recent quarter is its highest in more than a year. It was up from 8.5 the previous quarter and 10.4 in the first quarter of 2007.

"This is another great book from a great radio station," said Chris Wheat, who replaced Charlie Morgan as local market manager for Georgia-based Cumulus in September. Wheat called last year's fourth quarter "an anomaly" for WFMS.

On the downside for Cumulus, its new easy listening adult contemporary format at 93.9, with the call letters WRWM-FM, earned an underwhelming 0.4 share. That's lower than the final results for the news-talk format that preceded it at that frequency. The old WWFT-FM 93.9--which by all accounts was a bust--earned a 1.5 share in the final quarter of 2007.

Wheat denied rumors of another format change at the 93.9 frequency.

"That is absolutely not true," he said. "We didn't start marketing the station until late February or early March. We see a progression of the ratings numbers in the right direction."

Wheat said a marketing campaign for "Warm 93.9," including billboard and other elements he would not divulge, will kick into high gear during the second quarter.

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