(3 p.m. Wednesday: We just did a fun video chat with longtime radio personality Mara Davis, formerly of Dave FM, on this topic. A few readers were selected to directly join us online, and a lot of you posed questions for Mara on my blog. Thanks to all who contributed.)
A rapid-fire barrage of change among Atlanta radio stations has left some listeners confused, changing their presets and drafting petitions demanding the return of their favorite station’s format.
The turnover in Atlanta’s crowded radio market comes at a time when listeners are increasingly seeking alternatives to traditional AM/FM dials. And the ratings patterns that will emerge in the months ahead will help determine if execs involved in the current merry-go-round are shooting themselves in the foot or smartly repositioning their stations for success.
Here are the major underlying trends contributing to Atlanta’s radio roulette:
1) Pop is king
The top 40 format is hot nationwide, thanks to acts such as Katy Perry, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and Maroon 5. These artists meld rock, R&B and pop in ways that are drawing a broad audience. Three stations that focus on this style of music — Star 94, B98.5 and Q100 — were pulling in strong ratings during the summer.
Top 40 hasn’t been this strong since the Michael Jackson/Madonna days of the mid-1980s, says Star 94’s operations director, Scott Lindy. “We’re seeing this wave swell up.”
The nation’s largest radio conglomerate, Clear Channel, has strong top 40 stations in many markets, such as New York and Los Angeles, and wants a piece of the action here. The Texas-based company operates several Atlanta stations, including 96.1 FM, which had a hard rock format dubbed Project 9-6-1 until last month. In its place, Clear Channel introduced a top 40 format called Power 96.1 and poured aggressive marketing dollars into TV advertising.
2) Rock is a pauper
For several years, Atlanta has had five FM rock stations. Combined, though, they drew only a slightly bigger audience than top-rated V-103, Atlanta’s powerhouse hip-hop/R&B station.
While classic rock acts from the 1970s and ’80s have sustained popularity, most current ones aren’t getting mass-appeal airplay. As a result, two stations’ rock formats have been killed and one altered because station owners felt other options could bring in more revenue.
First, 92.9/Dave FM announced in July its adult rock format was going away after ratings took an alarming nosedive the past 18 months. Then Clear Channel nixed Project 9-6-1. A few days later, Atlanta-based Cumulus Media dumped the alternative rock format at 99X, a once-dominant station already shunted to a weak signal. Instead of completely discarding rock, the station was rebranded as 98.9/The Bone, playing a hybrid of music previously found on Project 9-6-1 and 99X.
That left just two local rock stations with reasonably strong signals: Atlanta-based Cox Media Group’s 97.1/The River, playing ’70s and ’80s classic rock hits, and Rock 100.5, a Cumulus station focusing more on personality and a more in-your-face attitude.
John Dickey, chief operating officer for Cumulus, calls his company “the saviors of rock in Atlanta,” with Rock 100.5 and 98.9/The Bone. He says the market developed a glut of radio stations so the surviving ones should each end up with bigger audiences and hopefully, better bottom lines.
Curiously, some of the hottest acts right now, such as Mumford & Sons and Adele, came from Dave FM’s adult alternative format. Just this past week, Mumford & Sons came in No. 1 on the album sales chart, ahead of Justin Bieber’s latest.
“I still believe in rock,” says Dave’s general manager Rick Caffey, who championed Dave FM from the beginning but could no longer fend off upper management’s desire to add more sports talk when Dave’s ratings took a dive. He did give the on-air staff the opportunity to say goodbye last month on air, a classy move considering few radio execs ever do so.
3) AM is losing listeners
News/talk and sports talk stations on the AM dial have seen their audiences age and slip away.
Radio companies with sinking AM signals have been adding FM simulcast signals to bolster their collective audiences.
In August 2010, Cox began simulcasting AM750 WSB’s news/talk format on the FM side at 95.5. More people now listen to Neal Boortz, Clark Howard and WSB’s other shows on FM than they do on AM. Sports station 680/The Fan added a 93.7 signal a few months after Cox’s move. Even WGST added a weak 92.3 signal before owner Clear Channel threw in the towel last month and replaced the station’s news/talk format with lower-cost, syndicated Spanish-language sports talk.
AM’s weakness is also encouraging radio companies to create new talk formats on the FM dial at the expense of music. Two cases in point: Atlanta’s Greatest Hits 106.7 became All News 106.7 in May, while Dave FM is about to flip to sports talk (92.9/The Game.)
Eric Seidel, who once was progam director at 640/WGST-AM and now does media training for executives, says just one-fifth of radio listening is on the AM dial.
“When FM came along, AM went to spoken word to survive,” Seidel says, because FM’s sound quality and coverage was vastly superior to AM. “Now they have to reinvent themselves again. To what, I do not know.”
4) Alternative listening options are blossoming
Arbitron, which tracks radio trends, says at least 93 percent of Americans still listen to traditional AM/FM during any given week. It’s free and easily accessible. But, as alternatives multiply, consumers are spending less time with traditional radio.
Smartphone and tablet ownership have exploded the past five years, greatly expanding the landscape for online music apps such as Pandora and Spotify. Tens of millions of consumers now listen to music through these Internet options, especially appealing to people who don’t like DJ patter.
According to a recent survey by Arbitron and Edison Media Research, 29 percent of the population listened to Web radio the past week, up from 12 percent five years ago. Pandora alone reached 16 percent of the total national audience, up from 10 percent in 2011.
And then there’s Sirius/XM satellite radio, which offers formats not available on local AM/FM, such as smooth jazz, comedy and all-’60s music. An increasing number of listeners are paying for satellite radio as more new cars are bought with the service installed. Nearly 23 million subscribers in the United States and Canada now subscribe.
Radio stations are offering streaming apps themselves, the most aggressive being iHeartRadio. It’s owned by Clear Channel but includes most Atlanta radio stations. Cox stations are available on both the iHeartRadio and TuneIn Radio apps.
“We have to be on any platform where people can reach us,” says Ben Reed, vice president and general manager at Cox Media Group Atlanta, which includes The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
MY FAVORITE STATION’S GONE TO WHAT?
Some of the recent format changes among Atlanta’s radio stations:
Was: 106.7/Atlanta’s Greatest Hits (oldies, 1960s-’80s) Now: All News 106.7
Was: Project 9-6-1 (hard-edged rock) Now: Power 96.1 (top 40)
Was: Journey 97.9 (’80s, ’90s pop) Now: A spinoff of Q100 which plays the top 20 songs at 97.9 from sister station Q100 at 99.7 (top 40)
Was: 99X at 98.9 (alternative rock). Now: 98.9/The Bone (hard-edged rock)
Was: 640/WGST-AM (news/talk) Now: 640/ESPN Deportes (Spanish-language sports talk)
Now: 92.9/Dave FM (adult rock) Soon to be: 92.9/The Game (sports talk)