If you are of a certain age and tuned to WGST this morning, only to hear an ESPN announcer talk about sports – in Spanish, a small part of you died.
In the 1980s and for several years beyond, WGST was one of the most influential news outlets in Atlanta, with a large staff of reporters that included Denis O’Hayer (now with WABE), Bill Edge (now a spokesman for the state Public Service Commission) and Tammy Lloyd.
Where have you gone, Tammy?
Me? In the ‘60s and ‘70s, before I left for UGA, my college football team was Georgia Tech. Which meant Saturdays with Al Ciraldo and WGST. (Musically, the station was less than revolutionary — in an age of rock, “The Lettermen” was a programming favorite.)
Many of you talk-radio enthusiasts have posited that WGST’s collapse is a result of machinations by Clear Channel owner Bain Capital and – by inference – the GOP presidential nominee.
Not so, explains Eric Seidel.
In a note making the rounds in Atlanta and elsewhere, the former WGST station manager explains what happened:
I’ve been getting questions about the latest iteration of WGST. If you’re not in Atlanta, WGST is a station owned and operated by Clear Channel.
It’s primarily an AM station (it does have a weak FM simulcast), although it was, at one time, a very competitive AM/FM combination. That specific FM simulcast was removed in 1999, or so.
I was station manager there for 10½ years, leaving to start my own business in 1997.
Its format was converted last week from newstalk to ESPN’s Spanish language, all-sports network.
[I]f you are not familiar with WGST, in the late 80s and much of the 90s, it was a thriving newstalk station with a significant amount of influence in the metro Atlanta market. Playing to the realities of the market, WGST targeted the large conservative-listening audience, running the Rush Limbaugh syndicated show. And it was Sean Hannity’s second radio job—strictly as a locally-originated host—before he went national, first with Fox News Channel and his own syndicated radio show, based in NYC.
I’ve seen some statements on Facebook bemoaning the fact that Clear Channel is now owned by Bain Capital, and that’s the reason for WGST’s demise.
Wrong! Bain is the private owner of Clear Channel. But WGST’s demise started years ago, before even Clear Channel bought the station. The owner before CC was Jacor Communications, based in Cincinnati. For me, working with and for Jacor was a great experience.
But Jacor was one of the original consolidators when Federal law changed and radio groups could harvest huge numbers of radio stations. Once that happened, the [publicly held] broadcasting companies became much larger, and much more beholden to Wall Street. Bean counters took on greater importance and programming, especially at the local level, was reduced in importance in direct proportion to the importance of finance departments.
Certainly, before consolidation, we believed in making a profit, but creative, intelligent risk-taking programming was behind the wheel of our bus. Jacor encouraged its programmers being on the edge and leading the way for the industry. We were constantly told that programming would lead the way and, done well, sales would follow. It was an unusual, unique attitude, but it worked.
The ebb and flow of the economy forced us to make cuts as necessary over the years, of course, but the programming always was paramount and protected.
And then came the Internet and all the various technological strides that were swept in with it. Syndication took wing. With music formats radio groups could have one announcer do the voice tracks for shows on any number of stations.
News and newstalk formats are the most expensive formats for the simple reason that they are people-intensive. Syndication made sense to meet cost efficiencies. News departments were either reduced in size or dismantled.
Today, a major market station in a radio group often does the local news for stations the group owns in other markets, typically within the geographical region. For instance, Clear Channel’s Tampa newstalk station has been doing newscasts for a number of their stations in other Florida markets. Those other stations might have one or two reporters who feed stories into Tampa that are then played in the smaller station’s “local” newscast.
Further, AM radio has been losing audience for years. Nationally, AM accounts for about 18-20% of the listening audience, and most of those listeners are beyond desirable demographics for advertisers. You may have noticed that many AM stations today, especially with news and newstalk (even sportstalk) formats are gravitating to FM. It only makes sense; that’s where most of the audience is, especially the demographically attractive listeners.
This is some of what led to WGST’s eventual surrender. But there are other reasons, as well. Losing its first FM frequency simulcast was a big blow. WGST’s AM signal, especially at night and in the first hours of morning drive, is very limited. Our FM simulcast (at 105.7) gave us significant coverage in the northern suburbs where much of our desired audience resided. The FM addition was a big boost to our audience. But, Clear Channel decided to yank that signal and make it a music station.
The Atlanta Braves were very important to us, too. We got the rights to the Braves just as their 14-year run in the post season was getting started. But, we lost the Braves after the 1994 season and that definitely was a hit to listenership.
However, our news and talk lineups still were solid. We had a superlative news staff that was aggressive, and clearly separate from our talk programming, as it should’ve been. And, we had solid talk talent, too. But panic set in after the Braves left us. And the result was, looking back, the beginning of the end.
WGST kept changing in big, and even small, ways and newstalk stations cannot survive like that. They are habit and appointment listening stations. Newstalk listeners feel very possessive of their stations.
They feel like the station is part of their family, and they do not like a lot of change. Constant change creates churn. That, coupled with no FM simulcast, were a prescription for disaster. Plus, the market has a fair amount of newstalk competition, and the big dog is WSB Radio, with a big signal, an FM simulcast, and deep pockets.
A relatively recent addition of a much weaker FM simulcast (92.3) to WGST (640 AM) was way too little, and way too late.
The signal weaknesses and constant change aren’t good for advertisers, either. And, yes, profit is important, even if Bain Capital were not involved.
So, years of questionable programming decisions played a major role in leading WGST to where it is today. Looking back, WGST was not the only victim of poor programming decisions. At one time, Clear Channel owned three great brands in Atlanta: WGST (a/k/a “The News Monster), WPCH (Peach) and WKLS (96 Rock). All three have been blown up.
In other words, don’t blame Mitt Romney. You can reach Seidel, who now operates a media training firm, by clicking here.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider