Two key players from 99X’s heyday, Leslie Fram and Steve Craig, landed in New York in 2008 to build an adult-leaning rock station from scratch. Called 101.9/WRXP-FM, Craig compared it to the early days of 99X: using mostly word of mouth, guerrilla marketing and the programming smarts of Fram, the station grew steadily.
But RXP is now off the FM airwaves in New York.
Craig, in an interview last week, said he was disappointed by the change: “We committed to this wholeheartedly. We put a lot of passion into it. The listener response was absolutely amazing.”
“We were firing on all cylinders,” he added. “We had a good run.”
WRXP debuted just as the economy began to crater in 2008. As revenues and profits went south, ownersEmmis Communications could not afford to spend the millions necessary to properly promote a new station in a market the size of New York. But ratings improved over time. In June, the rock station ranked 19th in Arbitron ratings with a 2.6 rating, drawing 2.3 million weekly listeners. While hardly a hit along the lines of Z100 or WCBS-FM, it was a solid middle-of-the-pack performer.
Still, Emmis needed to sell the station to pay off debt. Randy Michaels, the wild man of radio who ran Jacor, then Clear Channel (and was unceremoniously ousted from Tribune Broadcasting last year), recently purchased three stations, including WRXP. Rumor has it he wants to change 101.9 to FM talk.
So unlike 99X, which has survived in some way, shape or form, for 19 years, WRXP only made it three and a half years in the biggest radio market in the country. (Arbitron measures metro New York at 15.7 million people compared to 4.5 million for No. 7 market Atlanta.)
Craig was befuddled when Emmis a few months ago eliminated the sales staff at RXP and merged them with the two Emmis urban stations in town. That made no sense to him. As a result, he said, “as our numbers were going up, our revenues were going down.”
Fram and Craig are now pondering their next moves. Craig said he was given a very fair seven months severance, which is equal to the rest of his contract.
Fram, Craig said, “was very upset. She was the one controlling the ship. She worked herself to the bone. She did everything she could to make sure it was working.” I reached out to her. She accepted an email interview but as you’ll see below, she assiduously avoids negativity to the press, even if she feels negative.
Q: Things seemed to be going well with WRXP in the ratings. Then the rug was pulled out from under you. What happened with the new company? Why couldn’t you convince the new owners that RXP was viable?
Fram: It really doesn’t work that way. New owners/companies are purchasing radio for their own format ideas and business plans. The sale of WRXP had nothing to do with ratings performance. It was purely a business decision based on reducing debt.
Q: What strategy did you pursue as you built up the station three years ago?
A: I was not there for station sign-on. Bryan Schock was executing the plan with consultant Mike Henry and VP Programming Rick Cummings, GM Dan Halyburton along with other Emmis employees. I was hired 6 months later and immediately built the team. We knew that in order to get noticed in New York City and the Tri-State, we needed to be a full-blown rock station with a great on-air staff of music curators. People like Matt Pinfield, Steve Craig, Bryan Schock and Brian Phillips who are musicologists! We hit the streets daily to meet with tastemakers to spread the word about New York’s Rock Experience! Pinfield and I had a group of who we called ‘RXP Rock Reporters’ on the air weekly to discuss the latest in the music world, people like Spin Magazine Editor Doug Brod, Austin Skaggs from Rolling Stone, Steve Smith-Music Editor for TimeOut NY, Danny Goldberg-legendary Artist Manager, Daniel Glass-Head Of Glassnote Records, and live artist interviews/performance. This quickly created a buzz.
Q: Did this remind you a bit like 99X in the 1990s?
A: Absolutely! 99X listeners would say ‘It’s like you guys went through my CD collection’ and RXP fans would say ‘I’ve stopped listening to my iPod now that RXP is on the air’. That’s pretty incredible for any person in radio to hear. The passion and excitement for both brands were really similar. There will always be a certain segment of the audience that loves the companionship , music discovery, entertainment and localization that radio delivers. Most adults don’t have the opportunity to be on the internet 24/7 discovering new music. Radio is a solid filter!
Q: What are you most proud of what you accomplished in New York?
A: I’m most proud of the ratings goals that our team reached. It’s very difficult to explain to people outside of our industry what a success story this really was. Emmis signed on a new station in New York on a jazz frequency, in a period of economic doom and around the time of new ratings methodology that largely favors known brands. We were the ‘little station that could’ and we never would have reached the ratings success without the collective hard work from everyone on the staff, the support of a great GM & corporate team and the listeners that rallied around us.
Q: What was the most fun you had working the top market in the United States?
A: My hobby is still ‘live’ music so I was like a kid in a candy store seeing shows at legendary venues like the Beacon Theatre, Radio City Music Hall and Irving Plaza! A perfect day for me would be walking six miles on a Saturday through amazing neighborhoods and taking part in the diverse culture.
Q: How did your connections in the music business help you?
A: Yes and we helped each other! The industry was dying for support from a new music station. We all knew it was good for the Tri-State in general so the partnerships we formed and the relationships we had were invaluable. Not a day went by that a band or artists wasn’t coming in for an interview or performance from local to national acts. RXP became part of all marketing plans for artist relations.
Q: New York radio has had a reputation of not being enough of a rock town. Were you able to prove that wrong?
A: I don’t think anyone can make that statement when 2.3 million listeners came to us on a weekly basis. Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire, Pearl Jam, Gorillaz, Muse and more don’t sell out Madison Square Garden if this isn’t a new music/rock city!
Q: Was it tougher to pull in advertising than listeners?
A: Only in the beginning because you have to prove yourself with ratings. There were definite early supporters like Live Nation and other big brands because the media buyers loved the format. After the first year we really started to see that turnaround. We had an elite sales staff who loved the brand and were excited to tell the RXP story!
Q: Did you feel Emmis provided you enough marketing support?
A: Radio in general was hit hard but the Wall Street disaster. I can’t think of any of my friends in radio who had marketing during this period. Emmis provided us with all the resources they could.
Q: Do you think NY will get another rock station soon?
A: Time will tell. I know that the fans are there, people who grew up listening to legendary radio like WNEW, WLIR and even KROCK. I am hopeful for the artists, the fans and the industry.
Q: What is the biggest difference between NY and Atlanta when it comes to doing your job?
A: You always have a different set of circumstances and resources in any market. It’s also about the team and collaborations. I’m really lucky to have experienced both.
Q: You worked your usual 12-15 hours a day. Was it worth it despite this premature end?
A: Absolutely-this was the best decision I ever made! Living and programming in New York City was a dream come true! I owe it all to Dan Halyburton, Rick Cummings and Jimmy Steal for hiring me. I was so nervous my first day on the air with Matt Pinfield. I kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m on the air in NYC’!
Q: What was it like working with Steve Craig again?
A: In my opinion, Steve Craig is one of the greatest talents in the country. He conquered middays and proved to be an amazing morning personality-and a one man show! He was also my right hand in the Programming Dept serving as APD. He also knows where all the Tiki Bars are in the city!
Q: Where would you like to go next? Is there any chance you could return to Atlanta?
A; It’s a big wide world-I’m open to anything and excited about my next adventure!
Q: What do you think of Dave FM?
A: I haven’t had a chance to listen recently but as you know one of my best friends in the world does mornings (!), Jimmy Baron! Some former 99X’ers are there as well like Crash, Yvonne, Fat Kid (Jeremy) and Jill who are like family! I’ve always loved Mara on the air (and as a person) and I think the world of Margot. Plus a shout out to John, Vaughn and Courtney in sales. These are amazing people and real radio talent!
By Rodney Ho, email@example.com, AJCRadioTV blog