Format change likely in offing for 107.9 FM

Local radio station WNTR-FM 107.9, known as The Track, has dismissed four staff members and started playing holiday music in what observers say is likely leading to a format change.

WNTR, whose target audience was women between the ages of 30 and 35, scrapped its adult contemporary play list and is promoting itself as The Christmas Station on its Web site.

The station, owned by Philadelphia-based Entercom Communications Corp., ranked 13th in average number of listeners among metropolitan-area radio stations, tying with WTTS-FM 92.3, according to the most recent Arbitron ratings.

WNTR General Manager Jennifer Skjodt could not be reached for comment Friday morning. But several local industry sources said the station fired on-air personalities Greg Browning, John Culver and Kelli Jack. Steve Hartley, director of sales for WNTR and sister stations WZPL-FM 99.5 and WXNT-AM 1430, was released late last month.

The number of employees released and their importance to the station suggests that a change is in the offing, said Robert Unmacht, a partner at the Nashville, Tenn.-based IN3 Partners consulting firm.

“With the on-air staff and the director of sales going, it sounds like they’ve got new plans for the station after Christmas,” he said. “It has that look to it.”

Chris Wheat, local market manager for Atlanta-based Cumulus Media, concurred.

“The station has floundered for quite some time under the current format,” he said.

What the new format will be is anyone’s guess. Unmacht declined to speculate, but Wheat said it could adopt Entercom’s Mike FM variety-hits format, which uses pre-recorded voice-tracks instead of in-studio personalities. Cumulus’ Jack format, which airs locally on WJJK-FM 104.5 takes a similar approach.

Posters to a discussion board on the Web site are weighing in on the future of the Track as well. One guessed last month that the station would be the first to play Christmas music as a transition to a new format.

“Lots of programming problems with the Track, but it’s a shame there is now nobody in Indy playing much pop music from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” another wrote.

Radio stations switching formats typically make them this time of year and play Christmas music in the interim to prepare for the change and to build anticipation.

Indianapolis stations certainly are no strangers to what has become routine in the radio industry. The biggest shakeup locally occurred in late 2007, when five stations changed their formats.

The highest-profile changes involved two Emmis Communications Corp. stations: WIBC-AM 1070 and WNOU-FM 93.1. WIBC ditched its news/talk format in favor of sports, and was rebranded 1070 The Fan. WIBC, meanwhile, jumped to WNOU’s former 93.1 FM frequency.

WKLU-FM 101.9 abandoned the notion of competing with classic-rock behemoth WFBQ-FM 94.7 and became the market’s only oldies station.

Maryland-based Radio One killed its jazz station, WJYZ-FM 100.9, when it bought the intellectual property rights to the Radio Now top 40 format formerly played on Emmis’ WNOU.

And Cumulus Media scrapped its news-talk format at WWFT-FM 93.9 amid flagging ratings and began playing light rock music under a different moniker, WRWM-FM.

That marked the second time in a year that formats changed on the 93.9 frequency. In January 2007, Cumulus gave up on its contemporary Christian format on WISG-FM 93.9, killing “The Song” in favor of “The New Generation of Talk.” Today, WRWM is a Top 40 station.

Entercom’s "The Track" launched in early 2005 after switching its call letters from WTPI-FM following the company’s purchase of the station and its two sister stations from locally based MyStar Communications.

Unmacht at IN3 Partners said about 10 percent of radio stations nationally change formats each year.

“This has always been a pretty good time to do it,” he said. “Christmas billings are over and the first of the year is always slowest.”

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