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Local radio ratings race tightening

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The latest Arbitron Inc. radio ratings show the central Indiana market is becoming far more competitive, with the top stations separated only by fractions of a point.

WFMS-FM 95.5, a country-music station owned by Atlanta-based Cumulus Media, kept the top spot during the ratings period, which ran from June 25 to Sept. 16, but saw its lead shrink from a year ago.

WFMS scored a 7.8 rating among listeners 12-plus, meaning on average that 7.8 percent of the central Indiana market was listening, according to New York-based Arbitron Inc., the top provider of U.S. radio ratings. WFMS scored a 9.3 during the same period a year ago.

Urban music stations WHHH-FM 96.3 and WTLC-FM 106.7, both owned by Maryland-based Radio One, have climbed steadily in the ratings over the last year. WHHH, an urban contemporary hits station, was the second-rated station among listeners 12-plus at 7.6, according to Arbitron. WTLC, an urban adult contemporary station, was No. 3 with a 7.3 rating.

“This is part of doing things right, listening to what the listeners want and staying relevant to those listeners,” said Chuck Williams, Radio One’s local market manager.

Local Radio One stations have used listener focus groups and databases to keep their music “fresher,” Williams said.

“Every station is specializing now, and the market has compressed,” Williams said. “Gone are the days when stations earn a 10 rating. From here on out, I think you’ll see stations separated by tenths of a point, not whole points. Today, more than ever, stations really have to be in tune with what their listeners want.”

Classic rock powerhouse WFBQ-FM 94.7, owned by San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications, and news station WIBC-FM 93.1, owned by locally based Emmis Communications Corp., saw their ratings slip compared with the same period a year ago. WIBC finished No. 4 and WFBQ was No. 5.

While WFMS has seen its ratings drop, Emmis-owned country station, WLHK-FM 97.1—also known as Hank—has seen its ratings climb in the 12-plus category, from 3.5 during the summer of 2008 ratings period to 4.5 during the same period this year.

“It’s very interesting that WFMS is falling at the same time WLHK is climbing,” said long-time local media buyer Bill Perkins. “That’s a trend that bears watching.”

Perkins is at a loss to explain WFMS’ falling ratings, but added that Radio One has succeeded by giving its station operators the power to make decisions locally.

“You have to stay close to your audience,” Perkins said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Cumulus’ Indianapolis market manager, Chris Wheat, was traveling and not available for comment.

Emmis officials, meanwhile, said they are pleased with WLHK’s gains, while not overly concerned with WIBC’s ratings decline from 6.9 during summer 2008 to 5.8 this summer.

Bob Richards, operations manager of Emmis’ local radio stations, credits WLHK’s rating increase to “subtle changes in programming, promotion and presentation.”

Kent Sterling, program manager for Emmis’ WIBC, said a temporary drop in the news/talk station’s ratings was expected. In October 2007, Emmis moved WIBC from 1070 AM to 93.1 FM. More recently the station has changed morning and afternoon content to become more current and newsy.

“We’ve really changed almost everything on the station,” Sterling said. “As expected, we alienated some listeners, but we feel in the long run, we’ll build a new, bigger audience.”
 

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