2009 was a disquieting year for Atlanta radio, with executives scrambling to cut costs amid lower revenues and figuring out a new ratings measurement system. Business did show signs of life toward the end of the year.
There was also a retro feel to some of the changes in 2009. 99X found a way back on the FM dial, former 99X morning host Jimmy Baron finally landed a new radio gig and a new format featuring disco tunes and old Prince nuggets grooved onto 105.7. Heck, even Randy & Spiff (left) reunited.
Here are a few of the biggest stories of the year:
– Bury that saxophone. Smooth jazz died in January. The home of Dave Koz was a victim of aging listeners and a new radio measurement system called “people meter,” which hurt this particular format. Radio One dumped Smooth Jazz 107.5 earlier this year, moving its R&B station Majic in its place, with a simulcast at 97.5. Despite the stronger signal, Majic didn’t do much better but remained a solid force, led by Steve Harvey and Michael Baisden. Gospel station Praise held its fans moving from 97.5 to 102.5.
– No Morning X but plenty of Kings of Leon. In the spring, 99X returned to the FM dial after a year’s absence – but in a new location. Cumulus, which owns the station, had placed its top 40 station Q100 at 99X’s old home at 99.7 but was able to pick up a signal at 97.9. The downside: the signal is far weaker than 99.7. Still, it does offer a much bigger audience than when 99X was on the Web only. The station no longer has a morning show but it did bring alternative rock back to the FM dial. Over the summer, the station picked up decent ratings but slipped in the fall. (Atlanta now has five rock stations, arguably one too many.)
– Shake your groove thang. In October, the station changed from contemporary Spanish pop Viva 105.7 to Groove 105.7, a dance-pop station, a format Atlanta has never had before. Viva’s ratings for years has lagged far behind its sister station El Patron 105.3, which plays a regional Mexican mix. Groove, with a blend of Bee Gees, Madonna, Beyonce and Lady Gaga, appears to be going most directly after the B98.5 crowd.
– Good lovin’. True Oldies 106.7 showed far more ratings power under the new measurement system than expected. The result: higher ratings and enough money to hire both Randy Cook and Spiff Carner, the calling cards of the oldies format from the 1990s on the now-defunct Fox 97.1. True Oldies, programmed by veteran New York jock (and former Atlantan) Scott Shannon, also features the deepest playlist in Atlanta, playing an impressive 1,000 unique song titles a week.
– Boortz honored. News/talk 750/WSB-AM saw major slippage in the ratings this year. But the station’s Atlanta-based syndicated host Neal Boortz has shown impressive staying power. As a result, the National Radio Hall of Fame last month bestowed a spot in its pantheon for the Libertarian-leaning curmudgeon for his 40 years of radio service. He’s now on more than 250 radio stations, heard by more than 4.75 million listeners weekly. According to Talkers magazine, he’s one of the top 10 most popular radio talk show hosts in the country.
– Country fried radio. From Taylor Swift to the Zac Brown Band to Darius Rucker, country music had a banner year. Country radio ratings reflected this. Both Kicks and the Bull are now solid top 10 stations, with Kicks’ ratings rising about 25 percent since January and the Bull doubling its 25 to 54 year old listener base in that same period. Primary victims: top 40 radio.
– Cleaning up the mess. Star 94 dumped the Morning Mess morning show earlier this year after barely a year on the air. The trio’s youthful, sometimes juvenile, humor didn’t mesh well with Star 94’s audience. The station moved its successful afternoon show Cindy & Ray into the mornings, which showed early success but has seen its numbers slip into Mess territory by November.
– Baron’s back. After more than three years off the air, Jimmy Baron found his way back on Dave FM this fall, the second former 99X morning host to try his hand at this rock station (after Steve Barnes from 2004-06.). He’s teamed with another 99X alum Yvonne Monet. It’s too early to assess whether the station, which has struggled for the past two decades to find a solid morning show, has made the right move.
– News matters. 90.1/WABE-FM, the news/talk/classical public radio station, blossomed in the ratings in 2009, a regular top 10 station overall and top 10 in the mornings among the advertising-friendly 25-54 year old demo. It has also managed to grow individual donations in a cash-strapped economy, hitting the $1 million mark in pledges both in the spring and the fall.
– The buzz is long gone. A few years ago, satellite radio was hot. Stern had jumped aboard. AM/FM radio was a crumbling medium. iPods? No personality there! Analysts predicted 40 million users by 2010. But XM and Sirirus, saddled with massive start-up debt, had trouble generating enough income to cover high programming and procurement costs. So they’ve merged. Subscriber numbers have stalled. A subscriber recently filed an antitrust suit over higher fees. Critics believe once the Web is readily available in cars, satellite is doomed.
On the bright side, the merger has improved Sirius/XM’s balance sheet. Subscriber numbers have stabilized at about 18.5 million (down from a peak of 19 million in 2007). Stern is a bit of a wild card. His contract is up next year. But Sirius may not need him as badly as they did in 2004, when they gave him an incredibly rich contract. If you want to read more, the Wall Street Journal has a good piece here.
- Rude interruption. Chris Rude, morning host at 680/The Fan, will return soon from fighting a cancerous tumor behind his throat, reported first in August. He was treated with chemotherapy and radiation. He’s now recuperating. “Doctors are happy with his progress,” said his boss David Dickey. “We are looking for Chris to come back shortly, but I don’t want him back until he’s regained 100 percent of his strength.” He’s been off the air for a couple of months.