2011 was a quiet year in Atlanta radio. No major format changes. A handful of personality changes. Not too much action.
But 2012 was all about crazy upheaval, easily the most changes on the dial in a calendar year since I began covering radio in 2001.
At least five AM/FM radio station formats disappeared and several new ones appeared. Pop, sports talk and news fans benefited. Rock and 1980s/90s nostalgia fans? Get thee to Pandora or Sirius/XM! And the biggest morning show in town ended on Dec. 20.
In no particular order, here were the biggest stories of the year:
A big goodbye: Frank Ski and Wanda Smith ended their 14-year reign at No. 1 at V-103 after the two sides couldn’t agree on a new contract. They brought the station a steady mix of humor, pop culture, spiritual vitamins and serious discussions. Hometown favorite Ryan Cameron takes over the morning slot next week.
- Power on: Clear Channel Atlanta, seeing how popular top 40 has become, decided to dump its successful rock format Project 96.1 for top 40 Power 96.1. Why? Higher potential for big ratings. Clear Channel ran a huge ad campaign and brought Justin Bieber to Philips Arena for a big Jingle Ball. And so far, it has certainly succeeded, beating its closest rivals Q100 and Star 94 in what is now going to be a rough-and-tumble battle in 2013.
- End of the project: Power’s gain was Project’s loss. The edgy rock station, targeting young men 18 to 34, survived nearly six years. It was the baby of Chris Williams, who ended up moving to Cincinnati with Clear Channel and convincing his morning host Kidd Chris to join him. Chris was just starting to gain traction in Atlanta when he was pulled after just 15 months on air.
- WGST signs off: Back in the 1990s, WGST was a serious competitor to what was then WSB-AM (and now 95.5FM and AM750 News/Talk WSB). But when GST lost its FM simulcast in 1999, the station lost many of its suburban fans and slipped further and further behind the news/talk race. In 2006, it dumped key local talent, including the beloved Kimmer. For many, it’s been a shadow of its former self for years. Clear Channel officially threw in the towel in September and turned the station into ESPN Desportes, a syndicated Hispanic sports talk station.
- Rush moves up the dial: WGST’s departure allowed WSB to pick up GST’s strongest asset, syndicated talk show behemoth Rush Limbaugh, who joined WSB in early October and helped pump up ratings immediately. The tradeoff for WSB: moving popular hometown consumer expert Clark Howard into evenings.
- A long goodbye: In June, syndicated talk show host Neal Boortz (heard locally on WSB) announced his retirement from radio after more than four decades but gave himself more than seven months notice. His final day will be January 21, 2013, after Pres. Barack Obama is sworn in to a second term. Herman Cain will replace him.
- Another long goodbye: adult rock station Dave FM announced its departure in late July, with a pending sports format forthcoming. But it wouldn’t officially change for nearly three months. Management gave the jocks a rare opportunity to say goodbye in late September, a classy move few DJs ever get to do. But as of this month, nobody locally has swooped in to take over Dave’s mantle. In the meantime, Dave jocks Rich Sullivan and Mara Davis are seeking new climes while somehow, the ousted program director found a job overseeing three stations in Minneapolis. (Steve Craig is working part-time right now with 97.1/The River.)
- Bring on the Game: 92.9 on Oct. 24 became 24/7 local sports talk, with a mix of outsiders and locals. Ratings have been modest so far, but the station has yet to launch a big marketing campaign. CBS hopes to eventually overtake the two existing sports talk stations 680/The Fan (with 93.7 FM, too) and 790/The Zone due to its relatively big signal. It’s way too early to tell if this expensive gamble will pay off.
- Silenced. The 2 Live Stews, who started a decade ago at nights on 790/The Zone, saw its influence at the station wane the past two years as new management changed the station’s direction. After losing syndication, Doug and Ryan Stewart soon lost their local show as well. And nearly four months before their contracts were up, the Zone simply took them off the air in September. This was merciful because with their six-month non-compete clause, they could return on a rival station (the Game perhaps?) in March instead of July.
- Ray who? In one of the most mysterious firings in recent radio history, Star 94 canned Ray Mariner, long-time morning co-host with Cindy Simmons in May. I still have no idea why.
- Hurt feelings: Star in November hired a replacement for Mariner, Jimmy Alexander from D.C. What made this strange? Alexander is close friends with Bert Weiss over at rival Q100. Bert felt hurt because Jimmy didn’t tell him ahead of time about the news. Bert read it here. They eventually cleared things up. (Bert also went into therapy about his drinking spells and blackouts though he doesn’t think he’s an addict.)
- Hobby goes Nashville: Jenn Hobby left Q100’s Bert Show after nearly a decade with the show and is pregnant with her first child. She quickly segued to be solo mid-day host on country station Kicks 101.5, a studio across the hallway at Cumulus.
- All news, all the time: For the first time ever, Atlanta has an all news FM talk station at 106.7, debuting in May. It has picked up a modest but growing fan base, picking up many reporters from the shuttered CNN Radio operation, plus former Bert Show host Melissa Carter. Atlanta’s Greatest Hits, which played hits from the 1960s through the 1980s, died as a result.
- Journey’s journey was short: Journey 97.9 debuted in 2011 but lasted less than 15 month, ending its run in September. The station was a mix of pop music from both the 1980s and 1990s with Rick Dees at the syndicated helm. But with the advent of Power 96.1, Cumulus Media has (presumably temporarily) created a Q100 spinoff station playing the top 20 current hits only and nothing else. I can’t imagine this will be around long.
- Bad to the Bone: With Project gone, Cumulus in September changed once dominant alternative rock station 99X at 98.9 to 98.9/The Bone, which is a merger of Project and 99X. But Cumulus is hedging its bets by keeping the 99X website alive so it might not be gone quite yet.
- Miracle survival: B98.5 morning host Kelly Stevens was driving to work in August going south on 400 when a drunk driver hit his vehicle head on. Miraculously, he survived with a mashed up knee and elbow but no life-threatening injuries. He was able to get back on air a couple months later, getting engaged and married quickly to his girlfriend once he said he realized how precious and short life can be.
- Sirius XM update: As Atlanta stations disappeared, many people are finding the option of paying $14.49 to $17.49 a month more appealing. And Sirius/XM is gaining popularity nationwide with a record 23.4 million subscribers through the end of September with an outside shot of hitting 24 million by year end. (I don’t have local numbers.)
- Pandora update: While growth is strong, this service is reliant on advertising and harbors very high costs for royalties. It recently saw its shares plunge after it came in short on revenue for the third quarter and warned that it may have struggles moving forward. But with the ubiquity of smartphones, hundreds of thousands of Atlantans now use the service on a regular basis and even drawing local advertising.
- Bah humbug? B98.5 decided not to go all Christmas after eight years. The new program director cited research, that its now more youthful fans didn’t want to hear Dean Martin, Andy Williams and the Carpenters all the time. And the ratings boost last year for Christmas music was the lowest in many years. 104.7/The Fish became the lone all-Christmas station between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25.
- UPDATE: Someone below noted one bit of news I forgot to mention: Kelly McCoy left B98.5 in April after 27 years there. That’s a virtually unprecedented run at one station.