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Few hearing talk on FM: Station's ratings plunge after format change

May 21, 2007

Indianapolis radio listeners are turning a deaf ear to the market's newest talk-radio offering.

According to recently released Arbitron Inc. radio station ratings, the newly formatted WWFT-FM 93.9 is fighting for its life as central Indiana's fourth news-talk frequency.

The station that dropped its contemporary Christian format and old WISG call letters the day after Christmas registered a paltry 0.8 rating in the first quarter, according to New York-based Arbitron's most recent tally. Meanwhile, its commercial newstalk competitors, WIBC-AM 1070 and WXNT-AM 1430, saw slight ratings increases. Public station WFYI-FM 90.1 also draws an audience hungry for news-talk fare, but Arbitron doesn't rate its market share.

Atlanta-based Cumulus Media Inc. saw the bottom fall out at its 93.9 frequency, which scored a solid 3.7 rating during the last quarter of 2006 playing a combination of easy listening tunes and Christmas music.

One rating point means 1 percent of the local audience tuned in at least once a week.

"They have some issues to address there," said longtime local media buyer Bill Perkins, president of Nichols Perkins Media. "Advertisers were concerned about this change heading in; now they are even more concerned about where this station is headed. The next ratings period is really going to be important for WWFT."

Station management remains optimistic.

WWFT made the switch to news-talk in January, but didn't start advertising the format change until mid-February when its on-air lineup was in place, Cumulus' Local Market Manager Charlie Morgan pointed out. Popular syndicated talk show host Sean Hannity joined WWFT's lineup in mid-March. Hannity came over from WXNT.

"This station is exactly on track with our internal forecast," Morgan said. "This station in the next book will show a clear pattern of growth. We think we will compete with WIBC for the adult audience share."

Competing with locally based Emmis Communications Corp.'s WIBC-AM 1070 is a tall order. WIBC has sat third in the ratings for the last two quarters, and is by far the highest-rated news-talk station in the market, with a 6.2 rating.

But Cumulus officials think WWFT's being on the FM dial will draw a younger audience that could be even more desirable to advertisers than WIBC's audience.

Though local radio experts are skeptical, Morgan is confident WWFT can bring in more than the nearly $3 million in annual advertising revenue WISG garnered.

WWFT also has to contend with the market's other news-talk stations, WFYIFM, which has a solid following among younger news-talk devotees and WXNT, which saw its ratings increase from a 1.0 during the last quarter of 2006 to 1.2 during the first quarter of 2007.

"It's interesting, though they weren't major increases, that WIBC and WXNT both saw increases while WWFT was falling," Perkins said. "I just don't know how WWFT is going to compete with WIBC and WXNT, which both have pretty strong local content."

But Morgan said month-by-month ratings breakdowns already show WWFT is gaining ground, especially in the 25-to-54 age range sought by advertisers. In that demographic, Morgan said, WWFT's ratings have doubled since its launch.

"The response we're getting from advertisers is, now is the time to jump in, and not to wait until the rates increase," Morgan said.

Though WWFT's marketing campaign was slow in coming, Cumulus has now unleashed a billboard and television advertising initiative company officials said will cost well into six digits.

"Right now, I'd have to say it doesn't look like there's enough news-talk audience to go around for this many stations," said Scott Uecker, general manager of WICR-FM 88.7 and instructor of communications at the University of Indianapolis. "But to be fair, I think you have to give them another quarter to let their audience find them. Remember, in switching from their old format to newstalk, [WWFT] literally lost all of its former audience, and had to start over from scratch. That takes time."

WFMS on top, WFBQ rising

The recent ratings weren't all bad news for Cumulus. Its local country station, WFMS-FM 95.5, registered a 10.4 rating, nailing central Indiana's top spot for the 32nd straight quarter.

"Eight straight years as the market's No. 1 radio station is almost unprecedented," Morgan said. "WFMS is a special radio station. In a world of niche marketing, it's a mass-appeal product."

Country competitor WHLK-FM 97.1-which is a distant second in the format-held steady while WFMS inched its rating up from 10.3 during the last quarter of 2006.

While WFMS performed as expected, the market's No. 2 station with listeners 12 years old and up saw a significant ratings increase from the last quarter of 2006. San Antonio-based Clear Channel's WFBQ-FM 94.7 jumped from a 7.0 to 8.1 rating.

WFBQ is staking its claim with 25- to 54-year-old listeners, said Rick Green, who replaced Chris Wheat as Clear Channel Radio's local market manager in November.

Green said a number of format tweaks were made at WFBQ, including playing more music, and less "jabbering" by disc jockeys. He thinks those changes led to the station's ratings bump. The results were WFBQ's highest rating in more than a year.

"This ratings increase is kind of counterintuitive," said Robert Papper, Ball State University professor of telecommunications. "You would have thought they would have done better the quarter before when they had the [Indianapolis] Colts games."

Green is confident WFBQ can retain ratings in the eight range, and possibly even challenge WFMS for the market's top spot. But he said WFBQ officials are more focused on the 25-to-54 age group.

It appears WFBQ's gains meant losses for WKLU-FM 101.9, which had been a recent chart climber. Last year, WKLU-which broadcasts a similar rock format as WFBQ-lost its general manager. Its ratings dropped during the fist quarter of 2007 to 3.5 from 3.8 the previous quarter.

Hispanic listeners tuning in

While two stations catering to minority audiences saw declines, another further down the ratings chart saw a big increase.

WHHH-FM 96.3 and WTLC-FM 106.7 both saw significant decreases from the quarter before, but Ball State's Papper thinks that could be because of insufficient sampling by Arbitron among the station's primarily black audience.

WEDJ-FM 107.1 had no such problem.

WEDJ, which broadcasts a regional Mexican format, has seen its Arbitron rating increase from 1.0 a year ago to 2.1 in the most recent quarter.

Russ Dodge, who became general manager of WEDJ 13 months ago, is being given credit. Dodge worked for 17 years as sales manager at WTLC.

"There's no question that the Hispanic market is a growing market; in fact, it's the fastest-growing market," Papper said. "But the key to growing in such a niche market is to connect in a significant way with that audience through community events and unique services. I think Russ Dodge has been able to do that at WEDJ."
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