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WNDE holds off sports-talk upstart in ratings despite marketing push, high-profile co-host

August 18, 2008

Longtime sports/talk station WNDE-AM 1260 has beaten back newcomer WFNI-AM 1070 in a critical listener demographic despite WFNI's extensive promotion of hosts Eddie White and Indianapolis Star sports columnist Bob Kravitz.

WNDE won in two important time slots with the all-important demographic of men ages 25 to 54, according to New York-based Arbitron Inc., which recently released its rating book for mid-March to mid-June. WXLW-AM 950, the market's third sports/talk station, trails WNDE and WFNI in all time slots, according to Arbitron.

"We're pleased with where we are, but we're not standing still," said Rick Green, vice president and Indiana market manager for Clear Channel Radio, which owns WNDE. "I think our steady ratings in the face of a new competitor shows we have an identity in this market, but we're still looking to make improvements."

Officials for locally based Emmis Broadcasting Corp., which owns WFNI, remain undaunted.

"I think we're on pace to where we want to be," said Tom Severino, vice president/general manager of Emmis' Indianapolis radio cluster. "This station is developing at the pace we expect. Our goal is to be the premier sports/talk show in the Midwest."

Emmis in January launched the station on the AM frequency occupied for decades by WIBC, one of the market's top five stations. Emmis moved WIBC to its 93.1 frequency on the FM dial, and killed the rock/pop format that previously resided there.

WNDE won the afternoon drive slot, where advertising is more expensive and stations showcase star local talent. The station was No. 11 in the market for that slot with a total of 18,800 listeners in the demographic; WFNI was No. 18 with 17,500 listeners.

During the afternoon drive slot, WNDE counters White and Kravitz with local host John Michael Vincent, a seven-year WNDE veteran known on air as JMV.

"JMV is a talented guy," Severino said. "I think he's carrying that entire station on his back."

Severino said WFNI, also known as The Fan, will launch more local shows to boost ratings. Station officials expect to introduce new local hosts in the 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. time slots by October, Severino said.

Severino predicts WFNI will be profitable by early 2009. Green said WNDE has long been profitable for Clear Channel.

Both stations paled against the leader with men 25 to 54 in the afternoon drive slot, rock station WFBQ-FM 94.7, which drew 48,400 listeners.

But against its direct competitor for the sports audience, WNDE also grabbed the midday shift, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The station was No. 16 with 12,900 listeners, while WFNI came in at No. 20 with an audience of 10,300.

WFNI did better in the morning, when it airs non-local programming. Bolstered by the popular "Mike & Mike" show on ESPN Radio, the station was No. 11 in central Indiana with a cumulative audience of 20,400 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. WNDE, which broadcasts Fox Sports News during the morning drive slot, brought in 13,900 listeners during the same time period.

WNDE, too, is looking to bolster its lineup, especially during the morning hours.

"The battle right now is morning drive, and that's where we're looking for growth," Green said. "We're looking at the possibility of adding local personalities to the air or different syndicated programming."

Officials for WFNI, which has only two complete ratings books under its belt, predict their audience will grow and make the station a leading regional sports/talk destination.

Still, a longtime local media buyer isn't impressed yet.

"They've put a lot of resources into that show, so I would have thought WFNI would be doing a lot better than they are," said Bill Perkins, president of Perkins Nichols Media.

Over all time slots with radio listeners 12 and up, WFNI had 1.3 percent of the audience, while WNDE had just below 1 percent of the audience. The market's No. 1 station, WFMS-FM 95.5, had 10.2 percent of the audience during the same period. Severino said Emmis' goal for WFNI is to capture 4 percent of the 12-plus audience and crack the local market's top 10.

"The 12-plus demographic may be used as a general indicator of a station's health, but it's not a demographic that advertisers base their buying on," Perkins said. "For ad buys, advertisers will look at specific ranges, like the 25-to-54 set."

Erin McLeod, media director for locally based MZD Advertising, said if The Fan can snag a 4-percent market share overall, it will draw a wider segment of area advertisers.

The fall and winter sports seasons will be a big test for WNDE and WFNI in the war for sports-talk supremacy.

WNDE 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.

"People will be listening for game coverage," Perkins said, "but they'll also be listening to see who has the best analysis and commentary. The upcoming period is an important time for them to deliver."

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