Underdog WKLU-FM rocks the rating charts: Independently owned radio station moves to third among coveted demographic

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After a year spinning classic hits, WKLU-FM 101.9 is itself a hit among Indianapolis adults, moving up a coveted ratings chart and into the No. 3 spot behind longtime radio powerhouses WFBQ-FM 94.7 and WFMS-FM 95.5.

The station had hovered near the 20th spot among Indianapolis listeners ages 25-54 before its sale to radio entrepreneur Russ Oasis in October 2004.

“That’s a fast turnaround,” said Tom Taylor, editor of industry publication Inside Radio.

After switching from an eclectic format, WKLU posted a 6.2 share among listeners 25-54 in Arbitron Co.’s summer 2005 ratings, up from 1.0 in 2004. A share represents the percentage of the radio audience listening to a particular station. Classicrock station WFBQ had an 11.5 share, and country stalwart WFMS a 9.4.

WKLU listeners also are staying around longer, tuning in for an average of nine hours a week vs. five hours a week last year.

“We’ve had nice, steady, significant growth,” said WKLU General Manager Mark Clark.

Clark said the station wanted to be third in the 25-54 demographic, which advertisers favor because of the group’s spending habits. But there’s still work ahead.

“Now we are going to focus on our revenue,” he said.

He declined to give exact figures, but said revenue is up about 500 percent this year.

Clark credits a June tower upgrade and move, which doubled the station’s power and increased its reach from 46 percent of the metropolitan area to 100 percent. He also cites more aggressive marketing, though others have raised questions about possible “ratings bias” in some of WKLU’s promotional spots.

Arbitron ratings are based on weekly listening diaries kept by randomly selected people in a market. The diary-keepers track stations they listen to, but stations are not supposed to lobby to be included.

Twice this year, New York-based Arbitron cited WKLU for making statements such as, “When someone asks what you listen to, report 101.9, the new WKLU,” and, “Fight corporate radio. Report the new WKLU, 101.9.”

“Stations are not allowed to tell people how to fill out their diaries,” said Arbitron spokeswoman Jessica Benbow. “It looks like there were a couple of occasions where that happened.”

Benbow said such complaints usually come from a station’s competitors, and that’s exactly what Clark thinks happened. Clark said he was looking for a different word for “answer” when writing the promos and settled on “report.”

“Apparently, one of my competitors had a problem with that word,” he said, adding that the statements were not used in any external advertising.

While WKLU’s competitors can’t deny its progress, some do question its future. “The radio station is performing well. As for its longevity, we’ll see,” said Chris Wheat, market manager for Clear Channel Communications, which owns WFBQ and two other Indianapolis stations.

Still, as WKLU’s ratings improve, so does its financial picture.

Media buyer Jill Brown, who purchases radio time for clients at Fort Wayne-based Asher Agency, said she works mostly with top-ranked stations-including WKLU. Higher ratings usually mean higher ad rates. Indeed, WKLU charges about $150 for a 60-second commercial, Clark said, compared with $50 a year ago.

The station increases demand by limiting commercials to one five-minute block each hour-which it consistently sells out.

“I don’t know of anyone else who has limited their inventory that much,” Brown said. Asher Agency also buys Oasis’ Fort Wayne radio station, which uses a similar advertising strategy.

“It works really well for advertisers,” Clark said. “They’re one in five instead of one in 15.”

WKLU’s attempt to be different is noticeable, Inside Radio’s Taylor said.

“They are playing the role of the feisty independent,” he said. “They’re breaking the rules.”

WKLU plays up its maverick status, hoping to attract individuals who don’t want a cookie-cutter radio station. The station offers listeners the chance to program a 10-song block every night, and on Thursdays features favorites from local celebrities such as Colts owner Jim Irsay and “Survivor” Rupert Boneham.

For its promo “Call Russ,” WKLU broadcasts station owner Oasis’ cell phone number, urging listeners to call him.

“It’s unbelievable the number of calls he gets,” Clark said.

Taylor said WKLU’s continuing success depends on its ability to “keep it fun and not get stale.”

As for bumping stalwarts WFBQ and WFMS out of the top spots, Clark doesn’t see that happening soon.

“I think we can narrow the gap … but I am celebrating the No. 3 mark,” he said.

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