Indy's newest country radio station off to slow start

December 18, 2015

Indianapolis’ newest country radio station, WUBG-FM 98.3, has been slow to take off since scrapping the signal's Disney format in late July.

But that’s about to change, said Rick Green, local market manager for iHeart Radio.

iHeart bought the station from The Walt Disney Co. last summer and decided taking on two of Indianapolis’ strongest stations, WFMS-FM 95.5 and WLHK-FM 97.1, would be the best way to get a solid return on its investment.

iHeart bought the station as part of a two-station deal for $1.95 million. The other station was in Salt Lake City.

iHeart is advertising its Big 98.3 branded station on about 10 billboards on the south and west sides of Indianapolis, where most of the country music fans in this city live, Green said. The station will launch more billboards in the first quarter of next year and launch television ads in the second quarter.

So far, the station has only seen modest growth, raising its audience share by about 10 percent to 20 percent to a rating around 1.3 with listeners 6 years old and older, according to New York-based Nielsen Audio.

One share point means 1 percent of the audience listening to radio at that time is tuning in to that station.

WUBG’s ratings are nowhere near Cumulus Media-owned WFMS and Emmis Communications Corp.-owned WLHK. WFMS regularly scores shares between 5.0 and 6.0 and WLHK, known as Hank, has had share numbers above 7.0 in recent months, according to Nielsen.

Green is confident WUBG can climb to those heights.

“We knew it was going to take some time to build an audience for this new station,” Green said. “Country fans are some of the most loyal to their stations.”

Big 98.3 is trying to differentiate itself from WLHK and WFMS by playing newer music and appealing to a younger audience. Green also is hopeful that iHeart’s national country morning show headlined by Bobby Bones will be a big draw.

“Those are two good radio stations, but the market research indicates there were some vulnerabilities,” Green said. “We’re going to have a hit-based radio station and a morning show that is more engaged with today’s country artists.”

WUBG’s target market, Green explained, will be listeners ages 25 to 44, with slightly more women than men.

That approach has surprised some media buyers who assumed iHeart would want another male-oriented station to go with its other three in this market: classic rock station WFBQ-FM 94.7, alternative rock station WOLT-FM 103.3 and sports talk station WNDE-AM 1260.

“It would make sense to have a fourth station that appeals to men, so they can sell advertising across their local stations and try to dominate that audience segment,” said Bruce Bryant, president of locally based Promotus Advertising. “That way if you have a product that sells to a male audience, they’d be an even stronger place to go.”

But iHeart sought to diversify its Indianapolis area audience instead.

“We wanted to offer advertisers looking to do a composite buy of all our Indianapolis stations a nice mix of men and women,” Green said. “We think this is going to be appealing to area advertisers.”

Although Green wouldn’t divulge ad sales specifics, he said WUBG is ahead of early projections.

Robert Unmacht, a partner at iN3 Partners, a Tennessee-based investment banking consultancy focused on radio, thinks iHeart has other motives. Unmacht, who has studied iHeart’s station mix nationwide, said: “iHeart has seen great growth with younger demographics—especially younger women.”

He added that iHeart also has scads of country music stations nationwide, recently blowing up a talk station for country in Pittsburgh while also launching country stations in Chicago, Boston and Sacramento in recent months.

“This is all about selling national ads across their entire portfolio,” Unmacht added. “This has a lot more to do with iHeart’s national strategy than anything that’s going on in the local market.”

That’s why, Unmacht said, iHeart will use few—if any—local disc jockeys on WUBG.

“This is more of a national play, and local on-air talent would be an unnecessary expense,” he said.

Green said he could—for the most part—get better on-air talent by using iHeart’s national DJs than scouring the local landscape. Besides, he said, big-name jocks like Bobby Bones are more able to get the biggest artists in the country genre for interviews and on-air appearances.  He said it’s possible the station could bring on some local on-air talent during the latter part of 2016.

The majority of advertising sold on WUBG thus far has been local, Green said, but he added that national ads could be part of the future mix.

“iHeart does sell across its country stations nationally, but that’s not going to be the majority of the revenue,” Green said. “We’re engaged with local advertisers and we’re going to continue to be.”

Either way, it won’t be easy being the new kid on the block.

Not only have WFMS and WLHK regularly been in the top five in radio listening audience size in this market, iHeart’s new station would be at a competitive disadvantage to 95.5 and Hank because of a weaker signal.

WUBG’s tower is near Avon in Hendricks County, and some industry experts said the signal has difficulty reaching eastern Marion County and parts of Boone and Hamilton counties, including Zionsville, Carmel, Westfield and Noblesville.



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