Big Stakes Top 40 Tale of Two Cities

| November 15, 2012

By Mike Kinosian
RadioInfo
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief

LOS ANGELES Even though there is tremendous temptation to ascribe “David & Goliath”-like analogies to what took place in contemporary hit radio on consecutive months nearly four years ago, some glaring holes would make such a comparison a bit misleading or inaccurate.

Perfectly precise however is that younger demo listeners in the two largest cities in America were consistently endorsing two Clear Channel-owned mainstream CHRs as their radio station of choice.

In terms of ratings prowess, brand familiarity, and overall image – Los Angeles’ KIIS (“Kiss-FM”) and New York’s WHTZ (“Z100″) justify the enormous industry and general-market audience respect they each command.

Neither juggernaut facility had a head-to-head format foe in their home metros, although Emmis-owned WQHT (“Hot”), New York and KPWR (“Power 106″), Los Angeles are potent rhythmic-leaning rivals.

Given its vast resources and phenomenally capable programming minds, CBS Radio is hardly chopped liver or a “David”-like character cast in the role of challenging a behemoth at ridiculously unrealistic, hopeless odds.

With an apparently strong conviction that “Z100″ and “Kiss-FM” were vulnerable, CBS Radio took action.

Representatives of each company offer their viewpoints of the Los Angeles and New York City confrontations.

Angling for elbowroom            

Practically a lifetime in industry years has passed since CBS Radio boasted the Los Angeles dream-team lineup of Howard Stern, Jonathan Brandmeier and Tom Leykis on “FM Talk KLSX”; local KTLA-TV (Channel 5) entertainment reporter Sam Rubin served as an approximately one-hour buffer between morning mainstay Stern and mid-day talent Brandmeier.

Change is one of radio’s predictable constants however and that is what eventuated at KLSX, with Stern’s celebrated departure to satellite radio in January 2006 being a Los Angeles-appropriate mammoth, seismic foreshock tremor.

Three years later, KLSX would stun the market, not necessarily by pulling the plug on what had become a struggling FM talk format (although it ironically registered consecutive upticks prior to the February 20, 2009 format flip) but by throwing down the gauntlet in taking on venerable “Kiss-FM.”  Clear Channel’s longtime market dominant KIIS was flourishing, arguably in part, owing to the absence of a mainstream top 40 challenger.  “We were looking up and there was ‘Kiss’ at #1 in the ratings,” recalls CBS Radio senior vice president of programming Kevin Weatherly, who was acutely aware that both “Kiss-FM” and Emmis-owned rhythmic CHR “Power 106″ were well entrenched in Los Angeles.  “We knew we had to go in with a laser focus and that is what we did.  We decided to get into the game, but it was not about trying to take either of those two stations down.”

Instead, the mission was for CBS Radio to attempt to create its own place in the market as mainstream CHR “Amp Radio” (KAMP-FM).  “At the time, rhythmic-pop, and hip-hop-pop were the two big sounds, with ‘Kiss’ and ‘Power’ clearly dominating those two images,” Weatherly explains.  “We knew that we had to come on with a different presentation and a music-first strategy.  That is how we elbowed our way into a pretty tight market.”

“Real” personalities

Whether or not legendary KIIS was taken by surprise when cross-town KLSX jettisoned talk to become “Amp,” there is no denying that “Kiss-FM” continues to do exceptionally well, yet “Amp” has managed to carve out its own place in the market.  “Compared to a couple of heritage brands in ‘Kiss’ and ‘Power,’ we are still the new kid on the block,” remarks Weatherly, whose focal point was to grow Los Angeles’ CHR share.  “I think that is exactly what has happened.  Our growth did not necessarily come at their expense.  ‘Amp’ has consistently done well among 18-49s, and has been as high as top five among 25-54s.  We are definitely in the top-tier among female demos.”

Quite obviously, “Amp” and “Kiss-FM” have considerable music duplication, and an extremely gracious Weatherly is quick to point out that his CHR competitor is a “very well programmed, heritage” radio property.  “It does what it does very well,” he convincingly comments.  “We are not trying to be the same type of station – that just is not our goal.  We wanted to hire great on-air personalities who are all about the music and know the music.”

Most of the “Amp” on-air hosts formerly did similar duties at alternative-formatted radio outlets and Weatherly maintains, “They have that experience or that ‘authenticity,’ which is something we talk about often.  They are real and they are passionate.  That comes through on the air.”

Few other radio programmers are as well-decorated as Weatherly, whose association with CBS Radio-owned, Los Angeles alternative outlet KROQ goes back to 1992.  “Whether it is on the KROQ side or on ‘Amp,’ the station is always the star,” he asserts.  “It is clearly huge and helps the radio stations if you have a big morning show like KROQ’s ‘Kevin & Bean’ [Kevin Ryder & Gene Baxter].  I definitely wanted ‘real’ personalities that listeners could relate to on the air.  I think every one of our talents has those qualities.”

Another area in which “Amp” is different is the imaging, with Weatherly pointing out that, “While all three are great radio stations, ‘Amp’ does not sound like ‘Kiss’ or ‘Power.'”

Morning voice

No timetable was adhered to throughout the launch of Los Angeles’ “Amp” and that was definitely the situation with the station’s morning show.  “Everything really was organic,” Weatherly confirms.  “We did not want to rush anything and we knew we were not going to be the contest station or the station that paid listeners’ bills.”

That, of course, was a clear reference to one of KIIS’ strongest ongoing promotions.  “We knew we had to be all about the music,” Weatherly explains.  “So, in the first 12 months, we were very methodical and thoughtful in our approach.”

As far as the choice of a morning talent is concerned, the host of NBC-TV’s “Last Call with Carson Daly” was always on Weatherly’s “Wish List,” as the two worked together at “The World Famous KROQ” in 1995.  “I know what he is all about as a personality, and I knew that he would be a great fit,” Weatherly states.  “At the time Carson came to ‘Amp,’ he had his late-night television show, but we had no idea that he would be hosting a program called ‘The Voice,’ which has turned out to be a pretty massive hit.  The fact that it is so big is a great thing for ‘Amp.'”

Parallels between camera-friendly, workaholics Daly and KIIS’ Ryan Seacrest are indeed noteworthy.  Both are omnipresent on the visual medium, including as hosts of popular network singing competitions (“American Idol” for Seacrest and “The Voice” for Daly) and the two are facing off against each other in morning drive on competing CHRs.

While a similar statement undoubtedly can be proclaimed regarding Seacrest, Weatherly asserts, “Radio is in Carson Daly’s blood.  It is where he started and that is what he loves.  He has a hectic schedule – that is for sure – but I think he will be doing radio for the next 20 years.  The guy is here every morning at 5:30am.  He is working hard and he wants to win.  His show is still building and growing.”

In addition to alternative KROQ and CHR KAMP-FM, Weatherly also has programming oversight responsibilities for – and has to take into consideration protecting – other CBS Radio FM-music cluster-mates adult hits KCBS-FM (“Jack”); classic hits KRTH (“K-Earth 101″); and smooth adult contemporary KTWV (“The Wave”).

There are times when someone in Weatherly’s position cannot help but to consider putting product on one facility to warm it up for the others.  “Those thoughts definitely come into your head when you are in charge of several stations,” he acknowledges.  “At the end of the day though, I must go into each radio station and program it to its audience.  We have to be sure we are not selling ourselves short at any of the stations.  We must deliver to the listeners what they want from that particular brand.  You can over-think things and slice & dice too much.  That tends to play defense instead of playing offense.  To win though – you have to play offense.  You have to take care of each station and have that mentality.”

Popularity of contemporary music for the last four years has been, in Weatherly’s estimation, the “golden era” of CHR radio.  “It absolutely could not be any better,” he underscores.  “Look at the diversity of styles in top 40 from electronic to pop, to pop rhythm, to many of the alternative crossovers.  So many different types of music are coming into top 40 radio right now.  It is truly a mass appeal format and the numbers reflect it.  PPM rewards big-cuming formats.  Nothing has been hotter the last three or four years than CHR.”

Widening gap

Less than two weeks after KLSX changed format to take on wildly popular CHR KIIS (“Kiss-FM”), history would come close to repeating itself on the opposite coast.

Bringing down the curtain to its New York City rock format by playing Van Halen’s “Right Now,” onetime Howard Stern flagship WXRK (“K-Rock”) adopted a contemporary hit radio format on March 11, 2009.

With the same WXRK calls but sporting a new identity (“Now FM”), the CBS Radio-owned station set its sights on Clear Channel CHR WHTZ (“Z100″).

Vowing to play no commercials during a string of 10,000 consecutive songs, New York’s “Now FM” debuted with the Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow.”

Among the most interested parties tracking all of this, of course, was cross-town Clear Channel, New York president/market manager Joe Puglise.  “What we have seen from WXRK is that it has had almost a negligible impact on ‘Z100′ in terms of ratings or revenue,” he evaluates.  “‘Z100′ has been ranked in the top three among adults 18-34 every single month for the last two years, while WXRK has not even cracked the top five, adults 18-34, this entire year. They program their entire product for 18-34s, yet have not even made the top five in the demo since November 2011.  What has always been a wide gap between the two stations continues to grow.  In the last year, ‘Z100′ is actually up 20% in 18-34 audience, while WXRK is down 25% of what were already very modest numbers at this time last year.”

Those figures do not parallel the situation in Los Angeles where CBS Radio’s “Amp” has come relatively close to Clear Channel CHR “Kiss.”  KAMP-FM’s CBS Radio sibling 3,000 miles away, “Now FM,” however, does not seem to have mustered much of a threat to “Z100″ at all and Puglise volunteers, “There are a number of reasons for that.  Two of the biggest have been their lack of any consistency in product, brand, or image over the past several years, contrasted against Z100’s ultimate strength-of-brand and consistency.  Additionally, ‘Z100′ is not out alone on an island.  It is well-insulated, and flanked by some incredibly strong radio brands like our WWPR [‘Power 105.1′], and even [Emmis rhythmic CHR WQHT] ‘Hot 97.’  WXRK can’t get within a stone’s throw of ‘Z100′ because it has to get through those other brands first.  That it is a bit of a Herculean task, and so far, WXRK has not been able to do it.”

Robust revenue viability

All music-based formats go through cycles and it is Puglise’s contention that mainstream top 40 is “extremely healthy” at present.  “CHR is on top of its game with popular music that is resonating not only with those who are 16 years old, but in many cases, it resonates equally with a teenager’s 42-year-old mother.  That, in part, leads to the ratings success many CHRs are enjoying around the country.  In October, for example, ‘Z100′ finished with an 8.3 share in its core demo of adults 18-34.  That figure is up from a 7.8 in September, and 6.9 a year ago.  Fueling it was a 10.7 share among women 18-34.  A 10+-share in the #1 market is extraordinary.”

Moreover, it is what can help the bottom line and Puglise points outs that, “Both ‘Z100′ and ‘Kiss-FM’ in Los Angeles are consistently among the top 10 revenue-producing stations in all of radio, so I would say that the CHR format is quite viable in that area.”

It is also well suited, in his estimation, for electronic ratings measurement.  “By nature, CHR is fast-moving, and has relevant, bite-size entertainment and lifestyle chunks,” remarks Puglise,” performing New York City market management duties the past six years after transferring from a similar assignment at Clear Channel’s Phoenix cluster.  “Combine it with an incredible cycle of pop music, and it can produce astounding success.”

Part of Clear Channel’s New York City operation is WKTU, a station baffling to many, since its classifications have run the gamut from “CHR,” “rhythmic CHR,” “hot AC,” and “rhythmic hot AC.”  Among those finding it difficult to affix an industry format label to the station is Puglise, who acknowledges that he has seen WKTU described as a hot AC and a rhythmic CHR.  “Both are accurate – but – by themselves incomplete,” he comments.  “Nevertheless WKTU is enjoying among the greatest ratings in its entire history, which is saying something – given its legacy.  It is a consistent top five performer in its target demo, and it even touched #1 among adults 25-54 on several occasions in the past year or so.  It gets protected by ‘Z100,’ ‘Power,’ and others the same way it does the protecting.  It is a strong and compelling dynamic.”

Two huge all-news stations in New York – CBS Radio siblings WCBS-AM and WINS – as well as two major talk outlets there – Cumulus’ WABC and Clear Channel’s WOR – were all over the recent mauling the northeast suffered at the hands of Sandy.  Spoken-word stations however were not the only ones doing their part.  “[Sabo Media’s] Walter Sabo wrote a terrific piece on ‘Z100′ that described the station’s role in keeping him and the city informed, connected, and entertained,” Puglise notes.  “It was nice to see an unaffiliated, third party perspective on Z100’s leadership role both during and after the storm.”

In a subsequent Facebook posting from this past week, Sabo opines one reason Z100’s coverage was “so smart” was that the CHR station refrained from using the word “news” in what it was doing.  Instead, coverage was engaging with fast facts and according to Sabo, WHTZ, “used a huge, credible crew of reporters – their listeners.”

Los Angeles CHR at a Glance

In December 2011, CBS Radio’s KAMP-FM (“Amp”) came within one-tenth of tying Clear Channel mainstream CHR rival KIIS (“Kiss-FM”).

With an incredible 75% efficiency rate, “Kiss-FM” has been #1 (6+) in 27 of the 36 PPM monthlies listed below.

On six occasions, “Amp” has been as high as #3 and it scored its strongest 6+-stat in September 2011 (4.6).

When CBS Radio traded talk for mainstream CHR in February 2009, it wasn’t the first time they have attempted the format in Los Angeles in recent years.  Although at a different frequency  – 93.1 rather than KAMP-FM’s 97.1 – KNX-FM became “Hit Radio” KKHR in the mid-1980s.  The format lasted approximately three years.

Former KIIS morning personality Rick Dees received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in September 1984.  Current “Kiss-FM” morning talent/”American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest had his star unveiled in April 2005.  This past May (2012), Seacrest’s stunning and personable co-host Ellen K was honored with her Hollywood Walk of Fame star.

Both sample music hours below are from the same mid-day hour of the same day from this past week.

New York City CHR at a Glance

The highest (6+) ranking CBS Radio’s WXRK (“Now-FM”) has had in the past 36 PPM monthlies is #9 – and it happened in successive months (April 2012 and May 2012).

Unlike its Los Angeles CHR sibling KIIS (“Kiss-FM”), Clear Channel-owned WHTZ (“Z100″) has not been #1 once in the last 36 PPM reports.  It is consistently locked out by sister adult contemporary WLTW (“Lite-FM”).

Both sample music hours below are from the same mid-day hour of the same day from this past week.

Click here to read Part Five: Three mega-personalities offer their perspectives on past format wars and the importance of talent in today’s CHR. 

The first three installments of this CHR special feature are archived at RadioInfo.com.  The sixth and final installment – a comprehensive mainstream CHR and rhythmic CHR ratings overview – will be posted next Monday (11-26). 

Reach RadioInfo Managing Editor & West Coast Bureau Chief Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@RadioInfo.com or (818) 985-0244.

 

 

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Category: Features, The State of CHR