WFMS regains radio ratings lead in country showdown

The earth shook all the way down-yonder to Ryman Auditorium. Listeners choked on their Moon Pies and swallowed their Skoal.

Country music newcomer WLHK-FM 97.1 “Hank FM” last April dethroned Indianapolis country king WFMS-FM 95.5 in the ratings among listeners ages 6 and above.

WFMS, you see, has been the Country Music Association’s large market station-of-the-year for a long, long time.

WFMS regained its lead the following month and held onto it in June, but only by the slightest of margins. WFMS had the city’s top radio share at 8.4 vs. No. 2 WLHK’s 8.2 percent, according to Arbitron.

“It’s more of a beauty pageant number,” said Mark Hamlin, program director of Cumulus Media-owned WFMS.

Hamlin is glad to have it, of course, but he can’t be thrilled with what other key ratings data important to advertisers are showing.

In June, Emmis Communications Corp.’s WLHK had the biggest average share of listeners ages 18-34 and 18-49 between 6 a.m. and midnight in the market. 

In the age 25 to 54 category watched by ad buyers, WLHK was second last month to WZPL-FM 99.5, followed closely by WFMS.

“We beat WFMS pretty soundly,” said Bob Richards, program director and on-air personality at WLHK.

Arch-rival Hamlin, at WFMS, will tell you that his station still out-billed WLHK in ad sales.

Of course that’s something harder to prove than which critter raided the henhouse.

WFMS also has tradition going for it. “The heritage—we’ve been here for 36 years and we’re part of people’s lives—that’s a big thing in country music,” Hamlin added.

Indianapolis-based Emmis converted 97.1 from soft rock to country in 2005. To many in country music circles, Emmis was misleading itself to think it could take on an institution the likes of WFMS.

One thing that helped was that Emmis hired several former WFMS personalities, including Richards, J.D. Cannon and Charlie Morgan, who is senior vice president and marketing manager for Emmis’ Indianapolis stations.

Hold your horses—it’s not that simple, Hamlin says. “I think the real story is the increased appreciation of country music in this market.”
Hamlin can’t think of a similar-sized market anywhere in the U.S. where country stations were No. 1 and No. 2 in the ratings among key demographics.

 Not even Nashville and Dallas have such a country music hankering as far as the ratings book goes.

“It’s a great market for country music,” he said.

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