The rumors began circulating heavily about a month ago: 92.9/Dave FM was going sports talk.
This morning, the rumors became truth. General manager Rick Caffey gathered the entire staff to inform them that in late September or early October, the rock station will become an FM sports talk station.
Management did not let anybody go this morning. At least for the next few weeks, the on-air staff and music mix shall remain the same.
Caffey, in an exclusive interview this morning, said he’d like to have a local presence in all key time slots but that may not be the case in the very beginning.
“Our accent will be local personalities,” he said, noting that personalities are what has helped carry sister hip-hop station V-103 all these years. “The fundamentals will be finding interesting, compelling personalities that not only do great radio but are out and about in the community. We’re looking at a combination of ex jocks, ex coaches and broadcasters.” He’d like them to have local ties but that’ s not a necessity.
There has been no official on-air hires yet, though Dave FM recently gave sports newscaster Mitch Evans a full-time job, an early clue to the impending changes. “I imagine we’ll find a spot for him,” Caffey said.
The 2 Live Stews, who have been with 790/The Zone the past decade, have seen their profiles dim the past 18 months on the station. They are now part of a “team” show called the Red Zone mid-days. Their contract is up at the end of the year with the Zone and could potentially jump to 92.9. Other personalities on rival stations such as Mike Bell at the Zone and Christopher Rude and John Kincade on 680/The Fan are tied up in contracts for quite a bit longer, according to their agent Norm Schrutt.
The new sports station has hired a new program director: Terry Foxx, most recently program director at The Fan in Pittsburgh. “Working with him will be inspiring and I’m confident you’ll also be motivated by his work ethic and energetic personality,” Caffey said in a memo to staff this morning.
An official name hasn’t been dubbed yet for the sports station, In other markets, CBS has names such as the Hub and the Ticket.
A change of format is not a surprise. Eight-year-old Dave FM’s ratings have cratered the past year and recent signs of improvement were too modest to make a difference.
One of Caffey’s biggest disappointments with Dave was the inability to find a successful morning team, which is a key anchor for most successful music stations. The station went through at least six shows over eight years: Steve Barnes and Holly Firfer, Firfer with Tim Orff, Zakk Tyler, Orff alone, Jimmy Baron and Yvonne Monet and in recent months, Steve Craig.
Caffey noted the difficulty in this day and age to find good talent in smaller markets. “The farm system isn’t what it used to be,” he said. Many smaller stations now run syndicated product or go jockless in evenings, nights and weekends. Those were the time slots where management used to nurture raw talent but not anymore.
He had a hard time pinpointing why Dave lost so much mojo since early last year, when it was a top 10 station. It shed more than half its audience by this past spring, with the lowest ratings of any major FM signal in town. “It’s a very crowded landscape,” Caffey noted, in the rock arena in Atlanta, which currently has five stations playing the format. Besides Dave, there’s 97.1/The River, Rock 100.5, Project 9-6-1 and 99X.
Many music fans have reduced or stopped listening to old-school FM radio. They are now using Slacker, Pandora, Spotify and a host of other on-line only sites to access music they want without the jock talk and with far fewer ads. But personality talk radio can’t be replicated like a jukebox.
Although Dave has never been able to be a consistent top performer in ratings, it was able to count on what Caffey calls “qualitatives.” This is the same argument NBC uses to keep shows like “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” around. The listeners are high income and very involved in the music they listen to.
Dave has been shifting its music mix around the past two years, trying to find the right blend, but it has stuck to a core of artists from day one such as Dave Matthews, U2, the Police and Tom Petty. As an “adult alternative” blend, the station broke artists in Atlanta such as Adele, Florence + the Machine, Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers.
Rock has been on 92.9 for more than 20 years. Before Dave, it was Z93, a classic rock format until 2004. The only holdover personality from those days, Mara Davis (left), has anchored mid-days since the early days of Dave.
Of the on-air staff, she will probably have the easiest time finding a new job. Schrutt, her agent, has already begun fielding calls from rival stations. The two most obvious homes for Mara: Rock 100. 5or 97.1/The River.
In recent years, CBS, the owner of Dave FM, has brought sports talk to FM in several markets, including Boston, Detroit, Dallas and soon to come, Tampa.
This will create a major battle royale in Atlanta, which already has two well-established sports talk stations: 680/The Fan (simulcast on 93.7) and 790/The Zone. Many major markets have two successful sports talk stations. Very few have three. Dallas has three sports stations, for instance, though I’m not sure if all three are thriving.
“CBS is really good at sports talk,” said Schrutt, who represents several personalities in town, including Cindy Simmons of Star 94, Melissa Carter at All News 106.7 and several of the aforementioned sports talk personalities. “It’s hard to believe a third sports station will be successful, but they clearly see something here that I don’t see.”
With AM stations losing audience, many are seeking FM homes. 680/The Fan added a 93.7 FM simulcast in late 2010. 790/The Zone is at a distinct disadvantage with a weaker night signal and no home on the FM dial.
“The percentage of people who don’t even listen to AM on a regular basis is going up,” said Tom Taylor, who has followed radio news for years and runs the www.radio-info.com site. “In some markets, it’s more than 50 percent. You can reach younger people easier on the FM dial.”
92.9 is a far stronger signal than the Fan’s 93.7 and will cover the entire market more completely than either AM signal, especially at night.
Sources tell me there were talks for 92.9 to possibly lease 790/The Zone’s programming but that never came to be. CBS, which is putting together a national network as well, will be doing this on their own. Interestingly, CBS is working with Atlanta-based Cumulus to help distribute that national network.
The new sports station will not have exclusive broadcasting rights to any major team though Caffey said it will consider bidding for rights in the future when they become available.
Dave FM actually had the Atlanta Falcons broadcasts for seven years until last year but Caffey said there was never any serious consideration to change format to sports talk at the time. The Atlanta Braves right now are tied up with Rock 100.5 and the Fan. The Hawks are aired on the Fan as well. The Zone has the Falcons and Georgia Tech. 95.5FM and AM750 News/Talk WSB has been the home to the University of Georgia Bulldogs football for many years.
Sports talk is appealing, Taylor said, because “it’s very salable. It has an emotional component. People want to be associated with the format talking about local teams, local loyalties. And the talk is far less controversial than politics.”
Nationally, some sports stations do well, some don’t, like any other format. CBS’s sports stations in Detroit and Boston (which features former Atlanta/99X jocks Rich Shertenlieb and Fred Toucher) are pulling in big audiences. Its Dallas sports station is struggling.
The overall ratings for the Fan and the Zone over the years have never looked all that impressive. But both cater to a very specific, sought-after male audience that advertisers are willing to pay a premium for.
In fact, the heads of both stations put on brave faces in the face of the new rival, using the same analogy: a rising tide lifts all boats.
“This is a healthy format for a number of reasons,” said Andrew Saltzman, president of the Zone. “We deliver live and local exclusive content you can’t find on Pandora or satellite. On Monday morning, you can celebrate or commiserate about the Atlanta Falcons and have only live and local sports radio to go. The Zone is the leader of the pack. We take competition very seriously. We’ll do everything to protect and build our brand. We have a 15-year heritage history. We’re one of the top 10 billing sports talk stations in the country. We feel very comfortable with what we’re putting out there on the air.”
David Dickey, who runs the Fan, said it takes time to build a sports talk brand.
“To do it right, you must invest in people. You must invest in marketing. You must invest in promotions and partnerships. Just invest in time,” he said. “After the confetti falls, you have to do the work.”
The Fan was the first sports talk station in Atlanta in 1993 but was flipped to news in 1997, leaving an opening for the Zone to come to be. When the Fan came back in 2000, it took several years for them to catch up – then surpass — the Zone in ratings, though it’s fair to say both stations are very competitive now during the 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. time frame during weekdays.
Dave staff was told at this morning’s meeting not to talk to me specifically. If they were found out, they’d be dismissed early. They were also told not to mention the forthcoming format flip on Facebook, Twitter or other social media. They also were not to talk about the changes on air. Sales staff has been cleared to discuss the changes with clients.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk