Cumulus is keeping format change a secret: Emmis and Radio One continue transitions

December 24, 2007

Several central Indiana radio stations will ring in 2008 with new formats and on-air talent, and new marketing campaigns bellowing the changes to listeners and advertisers.

One station is keeping its plans secret, fearful of an industry domino effect if its strategy leaks out.

There's plenty at stake. Listener ratings for the first quarter of 2008 will be watched closely, local media buyers said, and could affect spending later in the year.

A t l a n t a - b a s e d Cumulus Media scrapped its news-talk format at WWFT-FM 93.9 amid flagging ratings. The station began airing all Christmas music last month and will launch a new format in January, but has kept mum on its nature.

"Their silence on this makes no sense to me," said Bill Perkins, president of locally based Perkins Nichols Media. "I don't know what their format or target market will be, so as a result, I have no budget to spend on that station."

Cumulus Local Market Manager Chris Wheat said the change will allow his sales staff to sell the format in harmony with Cumulus' WJJK-FM 104.5, known as The Jack, which plays mainly classic rock. Cumulus has a separate sales staff for WFMS-FM 95.5, the local country powerhouse.

"The one thing I can tell you, it won't be news-talk," Wheat said.

Some industry experts theorized that WWFT will broadcast an oldies format, which is what Cumulus' 104.5 station aired before it changed to The Jack in 2006.

Some even say the oldies rumor has caused another station to shift gears.

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

WKLU owner Russ Oasis said tweaks to WJJK in the last year forced his hand. His station had slipped from No. 3 to No. 10 in the market with listeners ages 25 to 54.

Oldies was the obvious alternative with the demise of Radio One's smooth jazz station in October, Perkins said. Radio One's change left the market without a station that appeals to listeners over age 50. WKLU has at least partially met that need, he said.

Maryland-based Radio One killed its jazz station, WYJZ-FM 100.9, in October when it bought the intellectual property rights to the Radio Now top 40 format formerly played on Emmis Communications Corp.'s WNOU-FM 93.1.

Radio One's local general manager, Chuck Williams, said he has almost filled out the station's lineup for Radio Now 100.9.

He was able to retain several of Radio Now's popular disc jockeys, but took a blow when The Morning Mess team featuring Marco, Shannon and Super Phat Mikey was hired away by an out-of-town station.

Williams has hired a night DJ who will debut Jan. 7. And he is in the final stages of interviewing people to fill the morning drive slot.

"We want on-air talent that is great," he said. "We're not going to bring anyone in that is less than The Morning Mess."

The highest-profile changes involve two Emmis stations: WIBC-AM 1070 and WNOU-FM 93.1, which has been playing Christmas music since before Halloween.

WFNI-AM 1070, which will be branded 1070 The Fan, will launch Dec. 26, while WIBC will jump to the FM 93.1 frequency in an effort to attract a younger audience to news-talk to supplement the 50-and 60-something devotees.

Emmis has trumpeted the changes on its stations and plans a marketing blitz in January that will include TV and billboard advertising. It is signing local personalities for its all-sports station, including Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz and longtime Reebok executive Eddie White.

WFNI will inherit WIBC's strong position as a broadcaster of local sporting events. It 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.

But WNDE and WXLW are not backing down.

WNDE has broadcast deals through 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.

WXLW will become a Sporting News Radio affiliate and will carry "The Dan Patrick Show" and "The Tim Brando Show." Local on-air talent Greg Rakestraw and Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne will continue their shows.

WXLW will also begin airing "The Mancow Show" from 6-9 a.m. Though it's not a strictly sports show, it fits with the station's largely male demographic, WXLW Director of Operations Jeremy Bialek said.

"We think we're in good shape," Bialek said. "We believe sports is something we do well. We have a staff of great sports people from on-air to sales. I think local coverage will be key, and we're very strong there."

Kravitz and White will co-host a show 3-6 p.m. weekdays.

White has for years been Reebok's primary contact with NFL and NBA players, owners and executives. His time with the company dates back almost two decades to the Logo Athletic days.

He said he is giving up his full-time job at Reebok to focus on the radio show but will probably continue consulting for the company.

"Eddie has an endless list of contacts, is intellectually curious and immensely likable," said Kent Sterling, WFNI program director.

WFNI wrestled the ESPN Radio affiliate away from WXLW-AM 950. WFNI will also feature such shows as "Mike and Mike in the Morning" and "The Mike Tirico Show."

Emmis' move means WNDE-AM 1260, the area's No. 1 all-sports station, and WXLW will face a third competitor for the first time.

"We do expect 1070 The Fan to be profitable in short order and to grow steadily," said Tom Severino, vice president and general manager of Emmis' Indianapolis stations. "Whether three sports stations can survive in this market depends on the expectations of the other two owners.

"From our perspective, we clearly want to dominate sports in central Indiana. We feel like we can do that."
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