Cumulus stirs up airwaves with radio format switch

Local officials for Georgia-based Cumulus Media Inc. have taken another risky leap, launching central Indiana's first commercial news-talk format on the FM dial.

Cumulus shook up the market two years ago when it launched "Jack," a format featuring an eclectic mix of classic and alternative rock, on WJJK-FM 104.5.

This month, the broadcaster scrapped its contemporary Christian format on WISG-FM 93.9, killing "The Song" in favor of WWFT-FM 93.9, dubbed "The New Generation of Talk."

Both moves signaled significant financial risk. WJJK replaced WGLD, Cumulus' oldies' station, which garnered more than $6 million in annual advertising revenue, fifth-highest in this market, according to BIA Financial Network Inc., a New York research firm.

While WISG ranked lower, it still was among the top 15 in revenue generation, bringing in nearly $3 million annually, according to BIA.

The move to Jack shows just how risky such moves can be. BIA says that station's annual ad revenue has dropped more than $1 million since the switch, though radio experts said it often takes as long as three years to realize the payoff from a major format change.

"WISG had a loyal audience, and it won't transfer over to their new format," said Robert Papper, Ball State University communications professor and research analyst for the Radio Television News Directors Association. "They're literally starting from scratch."

Cumulus, along with New York-based CBS Radio and San Antonio, Texas-based Clear Channel Communications, is leading a trend to bring the news-talk format to the FM dial nationwide, industry experts said. While Cumulus has 50 AM news-talk stations, it has just eight on the FM dial.

The local endeavor won't be cheap. WWFT has signed syndication deals with some of the nation's biggest conservative commentators, including Sean Hannity, whom it snatched from news-talk competitor WXNT-AM 1430.

The WWFT lineup also includes Mancow, Laura Ingram, Dave Ramsey, Michael Savage, Jerry Doyle and the Sporting News Network.

Ingram and Savage had been on WXNT until December, when the station failed to reach agreements that would have continued the relationships.

"There's definitely a risk in launching a format like this," said Scott Uecker, general manager of WICR-FM 88.7 and instructor of communications at the University of Indianapolis. "When a move is ground-breaking like this one is, there are no guarantees."

Programming costs, however, can be partly defrayed by giving commercial inventory to the shows' syndicators, which in turn sell to national advertisers.

And because most of its programming is syndicated, WWFT will need fewer on-air staffers than many of its FM brethren.

To create awareness, WWFT will launch a major marketing campaign by month's end, said Charlie Morgan, market manager for Cumulus' local stations, which also includes WFMS-FM 95.5.

That campaign will include television, print and billboards, Morgan said. He declined to reveal the annual price tag for the campaign, but industry experts estimated it would be well into the six figures.

For the critical first year, WWFT could rack up a low- to mid-seven-figure operating budget, industry experts said.

"With the money they'll be spending to launch and maintain this new format, they're going to have to increase their revenue from what they had with WISG," Papper said.

Morgan responded: "We're making a strong investment to reap a strong reward."

WWFT counts WIBC-AM 1070 and WXNT as its most direct competitors on the AM dial.

On the FM dial, WFYI-FM 90.1, a National Public Radio affiliate, also will be a challenger, though it places a greater emphasis on news.

With its Sporting News Network and other sports fare, WWFT also is targeting fans of WNDE-AM 1260 and WXLW-AM 950, the local ESPN Radio affiliate, industry experts said.

Morgan hopes by bringing news-talk to the FM dial, Cumulus will build a whole new audience, one that is much bigger and younger than any AM station can boast.

Those are high aspirations considering WIBC is the No. 3 station in the market behind WFBQ-FM 94.7 and country stalwart WFMS.

"The fact is that most people under the age of 40 never tune into the AM dial," Morgan said. "We think by introducing the FM audience to this format, we can have considerable success. We're targeting an audience in the 25-to-54 age range that is very attractive to advertisers."

But Morgan isn't limiting WWFT to taking listeners from other traditional talk stations. He said even listeners from the rock behemoth WFBQ are ripe, given their affinity for "The Bob & Tom Show," which he calls basically a morning talk format.

"We're not targeting listeners from any particular station," Morgan said. "We're looking to build a coalition from a variety of sources."

Unlike many of its competitors, WWFT won't be able to promote a large roster of local personalities. On the other hand, Morgan said, the vast majority of the station's programming will be broadcast live, giving the local audience a chance to call and chime in.

"There's a strong participatory element," Morgan said.

Radio insiders aren't sure the market will support another news-talk station.

With a 15-person newsroom and a stronghold in the ratings, WIBC's place in the local market is secure, said Tom Severino, vice president/market manager for Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications Corp.'s four local stations, including WIBC.

"WXNT would appear to be at the greatest risk," Ball State's Papper said. "They currently have the smallest audience, and several of their big-name shows are migrating to [WWFT]."

WXNT draws nearly 35,000 listeners each week, according to New York-based Arbitron Inc. WFYI draws 105,500 listeners weekly and WIBC more than 150,000.

Phil Hoover, vice president and general manager for Pennsylvania-based Entercom Communications Corp.'s Indianapolis stations, including WXNT, downplayed the potential for negative fallout.

"I think this is great for the news-talk format," Hoover said. "I think the switch will make more people in this market familiar with the format, and that will get more people listening to news-talk on all the stations."

WXNT still boasts a strong lineup of hosts, Hoover said, including local commentator Abdul-Hakim Shabazz and syndicated hosts Neal Boortz, Bill O'Reilly, Michael McConnell and Glenn Beck.

"News-talk is growing and that's why you're seeing it move to FM nationwide," Hoover said. "We don't think we're going to be negatively affected."

Other industry observers aren't so sure WWFT's emergence will have a happy ending for all central Indiana stations.

"Radio listenership isn't showing great growth," Papper said. "So if [WWFT] is going to grow, those listeners will have to come from somewhere. There's no proof yet this market can support another news-talk format, so something will have to give."

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