First of a Five-Part Special – The State of Adult Contemporary Radio
By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
LOS ANGELES — Dyed-in-the-wool loyalists to stations falling under this particular format umbrella could care less what the initials stand for, but if pressed to deliver an answer, “Always Consistent” would most likely be a frequent, logical guess.
Various record label executives meanwhile might lament that the letters are code for stations that traditionally are “Always Cautious” when it comes to adding new music.
From a broad-strokes industry standpoint though, there can be little debate that “Always Changing” defines adult contemporary (“AC”) – the quintessential fragmentation genre, which has counted “hot,” “soft,” “mainstream,” “lite,” “smooth,” “rock,” “gold-based,” and even a far distant relative – “urban AC” – among its numerous offshoot flavors.
“Gold-based” has always been a humorous tag for an AC, of course, since virtually every adult contemporary station, by its nature, is gold-based.
With each passing day, history continues to be written on adult contemporary radio’s influence in the 2010s.
Thus far though, it is safe to postulate that the headline-worthy nugget is that the format has contemporized itself, which – admittedly – opens the door to claims of being redundant, vis-à-vis “contemporized” adult “contemporary.”
Over the next several days, by way of far-reaching roundtable discussions with some of adult contemporary’s leading programmers, on-air talents, and consultants, this RadioInfo special feature will shed light on the intriguing female-friendly format. In addition, corporate and creative angles will be spotlighted. An exhaustive end-of-the-week ratings overview will tie the entire piece together.
Whatever happens with AC in the next several years, it will be daunting to rival the “Always Changing” 1990s as it pertained to this paradox format, which seems so simple, yet is Always Complex.
- It was roughly 1990 when a legion of beautiful music/easy listening facilities traded instrumentals for a soft AC rendition, with many from that group going on to become vital AC players.
- Approximately one year later, mega, heritage AM properties – known industry-wide as “FSAs” for “full-service ACs” – replaced their in-studio CD players and turntables with spoken-word programming.
- The following year, “rock AC” became a male-geared format cousin, if not a bona fide adult contemporary sibling.
- Several adult contemporary operations experimented with a rhythmic mutation in 1993.
- An unquestionable landmark year for adult contemporary though was 1994, as a group of CHRs lopped off rap and metal, creating “hot AC” – a serious, lasting mainstream adult contemporary competitor.
- Not long thereafter, some hot ACs splintered off as “pop/alternative.”
- By the mid- to late-1990s, AC became defined by songs from artists such as Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Rod Stewart, Whitney Houston, and Michael Bolton – rather than Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Barry Manilow.
More than a few knowledgeable, highly-respected people in this industry have been confounded and befuddled by the format which often times, without doing anything ostensibly fancy or sexy, just dominates among adult women – especially in the workplace.
Some otherwise intelligent broadcasters mistakenly perceive that the easiest job in radio is programming a mainstream AC. It is reasonable to predict that each member of our programming roundtable would justifiably take issue with that silly sentiment, perhaps countering that his or her duties are “Always Challenging” and “Always Chaotic.”
As briefly illustrated, critical buzzwords associated with adult contemporary include “change” and “fragmentation.”
Another is “evolution,” and as this vibrant format evolves, so too do its programmers.
Staying relevant to its listeners is among the most significant tests facing those accountable for guiding adult contemporary properties.
Indisputably among the format’s sharpest, upper-echelon programmers, Barbara Bridges, seeks to make sure she remains connected so that the medium is still a strong, top-tier option for her target audience. “Many things are pulling at them right now,” she remarks.
Contrasted to 10 years ago, many different devices are part of today’s landscape and the WJXA (“Mix 92.9″), Nashville PD stresses she has to program to what is happening now. “We have come so far in the last 10-15 years,” Bridges declares. “An AC station today does not sound like it did five years ago, or five years before that. We are such a variety format – that is my favorite thing. We get to pull from everywhere.”
As recently as five years ago, the Daughtry-Nickelback sound was considerably fresh for adult contemporary outlets. Songs by such artists warranted hot current rotation on the format. “Today though, it is more Katy Perry and Adele,” Bridges points out. “There is a huge difference in the sound of those types of artists. One is very rock-leaning and the other is very pop-leaning. It changes the entire complexion of your radio station when current product is massively different from what it was just a few years prior.”
Aforementioned Chris Daughtry is among the numerous successful alumni of “American Idol.” Season five’s fourth-place finisher is indicative of how a format such as adult contemporary can expose new artists without having to launch them from scratch. “It gives us a giant leg up on everything,” Bridges maintains.
Regardless if they are into “American Idol” and/or NBC-TV’s “The Voice,” adult contemporary’s female target listener is able to hear talent in different venues. “In the past though, it would have taken a lot longer for us to break artists like that,” Bridges explains. “Today, they are top-of-mind.”
Now that “The Voice” – which boasts Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine – has carved out a noteworthy level of success, Bridges points out that even secondary Maroon 5 titles have “a halo” around them. “It is terrific for us because we are suddenly taking another look at every Maroon 5 song,” she acknowledges.
Owing largely to the popularity of two other artists from that program, the Christina Aguilera-Blake Shelton collaboration of “Just a Fool” already has a head start, thus Bridges surmises, “Shows such as that are great for our format.”
Bridging the Gap
It is her contention that a 40-year-old female is still the center of adult contemporary, and she tries to ensure that Nashville’s “Mix 92.9″ gets enough of the 25-34s “into the funnel” to balance out the demo that every station so greatly covets – 25-54s. “We have always ‘talked’ to women,” comments Bridges, who, over and above her programming duties, is the South Central Media facility’s 10am-2pm on-air talent. “We look at that wide 25-54 demo and ask ourselves how we perform in each cell, as well as [among those who are] 18-49. In some ways, that demo is probably even more relevant than it used to be for our salespeople. Adult contemporary stations can have a tough time trying to grow that younger end, while hanging onto the 45-54s, who give you a lot of bread and butter.”
Country is a potent adult contemporary format foe in virtually any market; rather naturally though, the definitive case of where country flexes its muscle is “Music City USA.” Three strong FMs representing that genre are present – Cumulus siblings WSM-FM and WKDF, as well as Clear Channel-owned WSIX.
Nonetheless, the market’s #1 station (6+) for eight successive survey periods is AC “Mix 92.9.”
Moreover – and truly bordering on eye-popping – is that WJXA put together six successive up trends which helped propel it to five straight double-digit showings. Granted, a major factor in December and the “Holiday” period was its all-Christmas music tactic, but consider these astounding “Mix” ratings stats: 8.7 (July); 9.5 (August); 10.1 (September); 10.2 (October); 11.3 (November); 14.6 (December); and 17.8 (“Holiday”). As expected, its stats for January tumbled, but “Mix” remains #1 and is still in double-digits.
Several attempts at hot AC have been made in Nashville, but Bridges comments that for whatever reason, the format has not panned out there. “The market has a very strong CHR in [Clear Channel’s WRVW] ‘The River,'” she states. “It can lean into the hot AC arena. We can be a little brighter than some other mainstream ACs, so we’re in there as well.”
Occasional hot AC product is included in the wide variety of music airing on WJXA’s South Central adult hits clustermate WCJK (“Jack-FM”); therefore, Bridges maintains that genre is covered in many different areas in the market. “There are definitely many options for female listeners, as plenty of stations are vying for 35-44 women,” she remarks.
Doing More with Less
As is the case with many other radio facilities across virtually every format, “Mix 92.9″ has less and less marketing money with which to work. “In the good old days, we could spend money on television, direct-mail, and billboards,” Bridges recalls. “You just had this whole complement of ‘stuff’ – not so much anymore. You really have to make sure that your grassroots efforts are strong.”
Promotions are part of that. Especially in AC, it is critical that a station stays visible. “We can get lost in the shuffle of other formats that make more noise,” Bridges insists. “Whether it is feast or famine in the marketing budget, we have always been promotionally active.”
The same applies with research and while stations may not have as many tools to work with as before, Bridges opines that when it is completely stripped out of a budget, “It makes things very risky. There is a great value in being able to survey your marketplace. You can do a lot with your ‘gut,’ but you need [to see evidence] that tells you there is an appetite for something in your market. We still do have research here – although not as much as in the past. I try to make a marriage though between what I feel/sense and what the numbers are showing.”
One piece of advice Bridges would offer to her fellow adult contemporary programmers is that they should not be afraid to attempt new things. “Push,” she succinctly suggests. “I know that it is difficult to do in some places, but if we test the boundaries of our format, we can grow more effectively. Adult contemporary does take from many other places, so we are somewhat at the mercy of product – as all other formats are. If we have a hot product to work with, it is a whole lot easier.”
Widespread accord has been voiced that CHR programmers have recently been beneficiaries of a tremendous music cycle. “At the end of 2012, it was just as hot as a firecracker for everybody,” Bridges declares. “If the songs are not quite there, it is a little more challenging.”
Lamenting that adult contemporary no longer has “a ton” of its own format-exclusive artists, Bridges comments it is much trickier for AC facilities to make someone such as the extremely gifted Josh Groban “go” without multi-platform exposure. “There were a whole set of new challenges when AC stopped being an artist-driven format and became song-driven,” she states. “We were [accustomed to saying], ‘Here are the three artists we are absolutely going to put up on our billboard.'”
Suddenly though, adult contemporary programmers were forced to have discussions about it, as Celine Dion, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Whitney Houston, and Billy Joel ceased being automatic format images. “The hottest songs are coming from all over the place, sometimes from people whose faces are unrecognizable to our listeners,” Bridges explains. “We had to figure out how we would re-brand ourselves if we don’t have these marquee names we held up as ‘being’ AC. We cannot do it anymore.”
Given that Bridges constantly updates the “Mix 92.9″ website, visitors might see Taylor Swift, Prince, and Adele during one stretch and Katy Perry and Billy Joel at another. “There are many different faces to the format now,” she comments. “Our listeners might pass Phillip Phillips on the street and not even know him.”
At the very least, it continues to remain a paradox that even in 2013, a format such as adult contemporary, which so heavily caters to women, has a paucity of female programmers. Not completely convinced if her gender gives her an advantage, Bridges diplomatically remarks, “There are many, very sharp male programmers in this format. I continually look to them and we all learn from each other.”
Quite clearly, adult contemporary is comfortable for Bridges because it fits her and she lives it. “It is easy for me to talk to the target, which is perhaps why our station is imaged just a little bit differently from other stations,” she explains. “I do a little more lifestyle-oriented imaging than many other AC stations. It probably is easier for me to get inside our listeners’ heads because I am surrounded by the target all the time. I am in the car line with them at school and at a practice with them. So many great women in this building bring numerous things to the table – I just try to absorb what everyone is saying to me.”
After longtime WLTW (“Lite-FM”), New York PD Jim Ryan exited that long dominant Clear Channel adult contemporary outlet in 2008, he continued to consult many of the company’s stations. “I had a great consulting business and I vowed never to work for a big company again,” he comments. “[CBS Radio senior vice president/programming] Greg Strassell and I ‘dated’ for about three months however and I finally agreed to join the company.”
Nearly three years later, Ryan is CBS Radio’s adult contemporary format captain, as well as day-to-day programmer of the company’s New York City hot AC WWFS (“Fresh”) and classic hits dynamo WCBS-FM. “Being at CBS Radio has truly been an engaging, wonderful experience,” he remarks. “I have grown as a programmer and as a manager in the time that I have been here.”
Squaring off against the formidable “Lite-FM” identity with which he is so intimately familiar, Ryan – with tongue-in-cheek – deadpans that he now wishes Clear Channel did not spend all that marketing money while he was there. “There is a very solid brand on that radio station,” he acknowledges. “Television advertising was our biggest line item on the budget.”
Conversely, CBS Radio’s six-year-old “Fresh” is still just a baby that shares audience with and competes against both “Lite-FM” and its Clear Channel CHR sibling WHTZ (“Z100″). “I was in the same building with ‘Lite-FM’ and ‘Z100′ for many years,” Ryan notes. “It is tough [being one of their competitors].”
In a scenario where a mother walks around with her portable people meter at 6:00 pm in a household where young people are listening to a CHR or hot AC, Ryan maintains that the device is picking up signals of those formatted stations. “In the diary, mom would have written down the adult contemporary station with which she is more firmly bonded,” he theorizes. “PPM has been making it very tough for adult contemporary but the format still has many very successful radio stations.”
Up until Ron Harrell joined KVIL this past September, Ryan served as interim program director for almost one year at that legendary Dallas adult contemporary facility. “I was going there at least once every two weeks,” he points out. “Ron is truly a brilliant strategist and will continue to make it a consistently strong station.”
Several months ago, CBS Radio conducted focus groups in Dallas/Fort Worth and Ryan had a chance to witness firsthand the enthusiasm listeners have for KVIL. “It is very exciting to see that some of our core audience for that brand use the radio station for new music discovery,” he states. “We would hear a mom talk about the way she and her daughter listen to the new Maroon 5 song on KVIL; that was pretty cool. Adam Levine is now a household name because of ‘The Voice.’ When I walked into WLTW, there were many very old songs on the air [but] KVIL has evolved its median vintage to 2001. We have changed the format quite a bit.”
Women are extremely curious about what is going on in pop culture and tend to be much trendier than men are. “For the rest of their lives, guys can listen to the classic rock music they heard when they were in college,” Ryan opines. “Women watch shows like ‘Entertainment Tonight,’ because they want to know what the stars are doing and what is hot in music. Adult contemporary has to balance that so we do not lose mom and her daughter to CHR and hot AC. We have to be contemporary enough that the kids do not object in the car and we do not lose a family of meters to a more contemporary format.”
Having spent considerable time in Chicago when he was working with Clear Channel AC WLIT (another “Lite-FM”), Ryan would be “driven crazy” by CBS Radio-owned country outlet WUSN. “People are so passionate about that radio station,” he comments. “I knew that when we lost somebody from WLIT to WUSN, they were not coming back. Country is a format of passion. In Dallas, the Cumulus country stations [KPLX and KSCS] are competitors to KVIL. We are seeing that 45-54 is becoming the dominant demo for most adult contemporary radio stations.”
Extremely conscious of that, it is a principal reason why Ryan contemporized KVIL and by doing so, he comments, “We have had really big success [among women 35-44]. It is pretty much CBS Radio’s most contemporary mainstream AC radio station.”
Newfound current music appetite
During his Clear Channel tenure, Ryan thought promotion was very unimportant but he has since modified that stance and attributes PPM for his change of heart. “You need to be a little more forefront and think about the people who have meters,” he suggests. “Compensation is one reason they are carrying them. By moving that device eight hours a day and having their kids move it six hours a day, they might be a little bit more of a fan of radio. We did a ‘Secret Sound’ contest at KVIL and people were going crazy trying to guess the sounds as we added money to the jackpot. It is an old radio contest, but it worked extremely well in PPM and it really did add excitement to KVIL. It was a lot of fun doing it.”
Passiveness can be one of adult contemporary’s most significant flaws and Ryan concedes, “That was always the problem at WLTW. I would constantly tell our salespeople, ‘Don’t ever make people actually have to respond to anything and don’t ever have the station show results.'”
Transitioning some adult contemporary stations slightly younger has enabled them to become somewhat more active. “KVIL is a totally different kind of radio station, in the sense that listeners really do respond,” Ryan explains. “When we talk about something on the air, we can see results.”
Embracing certain artists can be imperative for adult contemporary programmers. “It is very exciting to me that Josh Groban has a hit with ‘Brave,'” Ryan beams. “I have heard the new music from Michael Bublé and it is spectacular. They are certainly going to launch that product at adult contemporary and we will support it at CBS Radio. We can’t take the lead on many artists, but it is great to be associated with those two.”
It became an inside joke among those in the adult contemporary community that whenever then-WLTW programming honcho Ryan deliberated over adding a new record, he would opt to go to lunch instead. “I gained weight but my ratings went up as well,” he laughs. “That would be a mistake today when you are dealing with adult contemporary radio. There are so many sources for people to become engaged with music. You have to be much more aware of what your audience is listening to, and I think programmers have to immerse themselves fully in content. They have to be sure they know what their audience is doing.”
Years ago, many of those occupying adult contemporary programming chairs would typically wait until CHR escorted a certain song to the top ten before they would add – or in some cases even simply consider adding – it. Without question, that became a highly effective strategy for AC; however, songs now originate from multiple platforms. “‘Fresh’ was the first New York City station to play the Gotye record [‘Somebody That I Used To Know’],” Ryan points out. “I saw the number of plays it had on YouTube. At the time, 55 million people watched that video. You think to yourself, ‘wait a minute – this has become pop culture.'”
For that same reason, “Somebody That I Used To Know” was added reasonably early on KVIL. “Look at the audience that is seeing the video,” Ryan advises. “Adult contemporary programmers cannot keep their heads in the sand anymore.”
In a world of radio consolidation, mergers, and multi-station clusters, Philadelphia’s WBEB (“B101″) is a genuine major market anomaly.
Furthermore, the powerhouse mainstream adult contemporary facility is debt-free and the envy of virtually every broadcaster who yearns for the opportunity to compete with the luxury of having deep-pocket resources. “Ultimately, we know we have a target on our back,” acknowledges “B101″ program director Chuck Knight. “We do not own any pawns we can maneuver for protection or to [toy] with another radio station, so we must always be on our game and stay sharp. We [are aggressive] in our defense and use that disadvantage to our advantage.”
Year after year, “B101,” whose past programmers include Mark Hamlin, Chris Conley, and Jim Ryan, does more research than the rest of the market combined with a confident Knight pledging, “We always will. From a marketing perspective, we will outspend anybody in the market – that is another part of our advantage. Whenever we need something, we walk down the hall, discuss it, and get it approved. That is very difficult to do in the corporate world.”
Forced to Play Catch-Up
Prior to his September 2007 arrival to program “B101″, Knight had an 11-year programming run in Columbus at another successful adult contemporary, Saga-owned WSNY. It is actually a return to Philly, as he spent two years in the mid-1990s as PD of Pyramid hot AC WYXR (“Star”). “Long before I was at ‘B101,’ we said that we would age a station one year for every two years of calendar time that would [go by],” he recounts.
Benefitted by hindsight though, he now wonders if that was a very prudent plan. “It kind of put us behind in staying in touch with what listeners wanted, needed, and desired from our radio stations – specifically musically,” Knight concedes. “Looking at the adult contemporary format, I think we have been a little slow in evolving these radio stations. It is true that you have to turn a mainstream AC slowly, but many times in the last 10 years, we have used that line and have not made much of a turn. We now might be at a point where we need to be playing catch-up, as we see hot AC, country, and top 40 with pretty good product flow.”
Stations in those three formats are performing well in demos that are essential to an AC’s well-being. “Our potential future listeners are currently hanging out with hot AC,” Knight remarks. “Country has done a great marketing and programming job to a younger audience. The pop music cycle that drives top 40 and hot AC has been red hot. It has been a fairly long cycle and, if it continues, the future for those formats will be bright as well.”
Aside from some minor quibbling here and there, the consensus is that the typical mainstream adult contemporary station targets a 40-year-old listener, and Knight confirms that – in 2013 – that person would have been born in 1973. “People usually build their passion for music when they are in their teens, so add 13 years to 1973 and the year becomes 1986,” he correctly tabulates. “That is the music that was their own and not that of their parents. To varying degrees, there are AC stations playing things that came out before then. That music is just not in their comfort zone. It was out before many of them were even born, or they were in diapers. I look at myself and do not think I had a passion for music that came out before I was born. It has been a difficulty for the whole format, in general, to try to stay within the demographic lanes in which AC stations have always been.”
Despite the fact that one adult contemporary group has kinship for the older music from the 1970s, while the other faction of mainstream AC listeners does not, Knight nonetheless states it is a very compelling format with a great history and a great future. “We need to pay attention to that future,” he warns. “The split makes things a challenge. The good news is that we see a uniform acceptance and passion for the music that has come out in the 2000s. Acceptance among both groups is very impressive.
Most agree that adult contemporary is experiencing a bit of a transition and Knight grants that, “Some of us who program mainstream adult contemporary stations perhaps were not paying as much attention to that as we should have over the course of the past 10 years. We might be a little bit behind-the-curve at this point of contemporizing these radio stations.
Adult contemporary outlets play current music that is the format’s connection to today’s pop culture, and as Knight observes, “Top 40 certainly does not play any library product from the 1990s. Many hot ACs are only playing library music from the late-1990s [whereas] many ACs are still playing music from the 1970s. The bricks are coming from the library, which is the gold product, and the mortar is from the currents. It has always been that way. In the case of ‘B101,’ we all feel very lucky to be here. We do more than just slap on the music. There is a series of things we do that we think is part of the total package.”
Best of Both Worlds
In roughly one of every four PPM markets, a group owner has both a competitive adult contemporary outlet as well as a strong hot AC as part of its cluster.
Specifically, the situation exists (an AC is listed first followed by hot AC) at CBS Radio properties in Baltimore with WLIF the mainstream AC and WWMX the hot AC; St. Louis, KEZK and KYKY; Sacramento, KYMX and KZZO; Cleveland, WDOK and WQAL; and Hartford, WRCH and WTIC-FM.
Entercom does the same in Denver with KOSI and KALC; Austin, KKMJ and KAMX; Norfolk, WWDE-FM and WPTE; and Memphis, WRVR and WMC-FM.
It occurs in Los Angeles – and obviously in neighboring PPM market Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario as well – with Clear Channel-owned KOST and KBIG; and in Phoenix, KESZ and KMXP.
The Sandusky cluster in Seattle includes AC KRWM and hot AC KLCK.
Programming any radio property has its complexities but there can be plusses when the same individual oversees a mainstream adult contemporary and a hot AC under the same roof. “We know which currents are going to work in mainstream AC after they have played on hot AC,” comments veteran Cleveland programmer Dave Popovich, who, as vice president of programming, is responsible for CBS Radio-owned mainstream AC WDOK (“The New 102″) and hot AC WQAL (“Q104″).
In this specific example, a current will usually make its way onto hot AC “Q104″ first and after it gains familiarity, it may surface on its mainstream adult contemporary sibling. “There is absolutely no question that I know what ‘New 102′ will play in three months because it is playing right now on ‘Q104,'” Popovich explains with confidence. “That is the progression of music and what happens in the music cycle. People come to ‘Q104′ to hear the new songs first. Songs that are not big hits do not make their way to ‘New 102,’ and that is okay.”
Valuable Female Format
Upbeat that adult contemporary is essentially no different today from what it has been the last 20 years as a prominent-position format, Popovich declares, “AC is doing great. If you go back to the 1980s, it was Madonna; it was Celine Dion in the 1990s; and now – it is Taylor Swift. We have built a format around those contemporary, popular, adult artists. People today sometimes get confused because they tend to look at it from a box that was created many years ago. Dynamics, values, and guidelines of the format that we followed for so many years are the same; it is just that the music is different. Adult contemporary is a great format that gets a lot of at-work usage. We are still the contemporary, pop music format for families and the values for women [aged] 35-54.”
Marketing the format today, in Popovich’s estimation, would mean citing artists such as Maroon 5, Train, P!nk, Bon Jovi, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, and Taylor Swift. “It really is the biggest artists who have the biggest hits,” he explains. “There are similarities to hot AC because we are all in the business of playing hits for our target audience. Mainstream AC is 35-54, while hot AC is 18-44.”
Temptation to attract more 30-year-old women into the adult contemporary tent can get some AC facilities into difficulty. “They may look at those adult contemporary values as being too traditional and too boring,” Popovich opines. “They may not come into your radio station because of the perceptions that they have.”
One of the toughest tasks – which additionally is among a mainstream adult contemporary programmer’s most significant responsibilities – is doing something that will demand so much attention to the station that, as Popovich states, “It will pop out of the speaker. This is a format that is used a lot as an at-work station. I say that carefully because, unless someone is listening to a spoken-word format, he or she is usually doing something when listening to his or her format of choice. The odds are highly likely that you are working. It could be at home, in an office, or at a cubicle – but you are generally doing something when you listen to the radio.”
Competition for the typical adult contemporary outlet is derived from any other format that appeals to a 35-54 female. “Country has done a great job of marketing its brand, as well as developing new artists who people want to hear and see,” Popovich comments.
Year after year on the plethora of awards shows, country artists will first mention country radio as one reason for their success. “They are appreciative of the people who have helped them gain an audience and they have done that consistently,” Popovich remarks. “At the end of the day though, an artist has to have the goods and the right songs. It is a three-pronged key to success when you have the right songs, artists, and the relationship factor. Our agenda is serving the needs of the audience.”
Positively applicable to WMMO is the familiar adage, “A rose by any other name,” and it has been that way practically from the very first day the Orlando facility debuted as a new signal in August 1990.
Everything from “adult contemporary” to “rock AC” to “hot AC”; “rock” to “classic rock” to “alternative” to “adult hits”; and a variety of mutations in between have been used to label the Cox Media Group property which routinely goes about its business as a competitive ratings performer.
Coinciding with her elevation to program director this past November, Hildi Schenck studied the profile, which helps define “98-9 WMMO” to its advertisers. “I wanted to check it out and make sure it was accurate,” she recounts. “Even for me though, it is the hardest thing to re-word, give to our salespeople, and feel confident they are explaining it correctly.”
Clarifying and precisely pinpointing 98-9 WMMO is what Schenck hopes to do with the station’s promotion staff, as well. “I recently overheard one of our interns explain to a listener that we play some goodtime oldies and Blondie,” she points out. “I was appalled by that and I don’t even know what ‘goodtime oldies’ means.
That gaffe notwithstanding, it is fairly understandable for there to be confusion since the station’s representative artists range from Billy Joel to the Beatles to the Black Crowes. “We are not sure what to call it,” concedes Schenck, who moved from Long Island to south Florida when she was 12 years old. “We certainly have a rock and an alternative lean, but we run the gamut from the 1960s to today.”
Nearly everything is included from soft rock, to classic hits, and classic rock, with Schenck appropriately and emphatically proclaiming, “We are rocking. There isn’t a lot of good rock product out right now though and that is sad for us because I’m looking for it.”
Insisting on Integrity
Eleven years ago, Schenck was part of the air-staff for Cox, Orlando classic rocker WHTQ. At that time, “Soft Rock & Roll of Yesterday & Today” was the way co-owned WMMO positioned itself. “Obviously, we did not want to share very much because we had both stations, so it was a battle,” she admits. “I asked why WHTQ was not playing any Rolling Stones. What kind of classic rock station does not play the Stones? My program director at the time, Bruce McGregor, told me that the Stones were WMMO territory. I said WMMO had enough songs for both stations.”
Although attempts were made so the two siblings did not step on each other’s toes, there were occasional instances of title overlap.
After WHTQ was jettisoned last year to become talk WDBO-FM, the first thing Schenck did was to “snatch up everything I could get away with” that would be compatible on WMMO. “I did not, however, want to ruin the WMMO brand.”
Mainly in light of WMMO’s unique playlist and on-air presentation, it is difficult to isolate a direct competitor for the station that is perhaps best deserving of a “rock AC” classification. “I don’t think we have one,” Schenck states. “Things change from week to week in the pop world we live in now. Since pop has become so strong the past few years, [CBS Radio hot AC] WOMX [‘Mix’] and [Clear Channel CHR] WXXL [‘XL 106.7′] are seemingly the market leaders at the time; however, I am not going to change anything we do because of them.”
Leaning WMMO in a pop direction is not a consideration for her and she flatly insists, “That is not what we do. I do not spend a lot of time looking at those stations. [CBS Radio classic hits WOCL] has been emulating our playlist for years, but they are not strong at the moment. Even if they were, one of the first great lessons I learned was not to look over my shoulder. We do what we do the best we can, and we do not stray from our strategy.”
Curiously, Clear Channel adult contemporary WMGF (“Magic 107″) is conspicuously absent from Schenck’s overview of Orlando competitors. “It is very female-oriented, and a straight-up, soft AC,” the University of Florida graduate asserts. “We share with so many stations and I can’t say that one is more important than another. A contemporary Christian station [WPOZ] does well, but stations are up and down all the time here, so it doesn’t pay to worry about what others are doing.”
Paramount to Schenck is that WMMO plays material that has integrity to it. “We do not like throwaway music,” she adamantly states. “It is difficult to find current product that is of supreme quality in this pop music world. I am always looking and trying out things – but perhaps my biggest challenge is finding good current music.”
There was considerable excitement among the WHTQ staff when PPM launched in Orlando, with Schenck recalling that the station spiked the first few weeks. “It went nuts,” she states. “We finally felt we were getting acknowledged; however, now there is constant fluctuation. My biggest thoughts are radio basics: We play the best music we can, schedule it well, and make sure the on-air talent relates to the audience. That is 98% of my focus.”
Still attempting to get a handle about social media as it relates to radio, Schenck continues to believe that the most important thing is the music that comes through a person’s speakers. “I feel bad that I haven’t posted on Facebook in a while, but that’s where we pow-wow with the rest of the staff and I ask that they cover me,” she points out. “Obviously though, it is a bigger deal for stations that target 18-34s, rather than 25-54s. Even so, you cannot let it go.”
It appears that Facebook and other social media platforms are hardly diminishing in popularity. “So many women out there are on it all day,” Schenck observes. “My friends constantly send me Facebook notes.”
Unlike the typical mainstream adult contemporary’s female-leaning audience composition profile, rock AC WMMO has a larger male listenership, although Schenck promises, “We are not abandoning our ladies. I tell the personalities to picture a couple between the ages of 35-45. As a woman in rock radio, I know [that other females] love this music. Try to keep us from a Bon Jovi song – we love it. The music we play is pretty universal.”
Prominent among those applauding Schenck’s promotion to PD was Cox Media Group vice president of radio, Kim Guthrie. “She hugged me tightly and said she was so happy for me because there are not many female programmers out there,” Schenck notes. “It was sincere. That is the feeling I get in this building and in this company – they mean it.”
Once she enters the studio to do her daily 3:00 pm – 7:00 pm air-shift, Schenck, who formerly handled mid-days at WXXL, removes her programming hat. “I am an on-air talent like everyone else,” she maintains. “It is definitely in my head whether I am relating to female listeners and if they are relating to me.”
WJXA, Nashville at a Glance
Identity: “Mix 92.9″
Owner: South Central Media
PD: Barbara Bridges
Recent 10:00 am Music Hour
“Follow Me” (Uncle Kracker)
“I Can’t Tell You Why” (Eagles)
“Two Princes” (Spin Doctors)
“Love Story” (Taylor Swift)
“Fast Car” (Tracy Chapman)
“Good Time” (Owl City)
“Please Don’t Leave Me” (Pink)
“The Way You Make Me Feel” (Michael Jackson)
“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (Elton John & Kiki Dee)
“In My Daughter’s Eyes” (Martina McBride)
“Only Wanna Be With You” (Hootie & The Blowfish)
Weekday On-Air Lineup
5:30 am -10:00 am: Kim Leslie, Clint Redwine, & Anna Marie
10:00 am – 2:00 pm: Barbara Bridges
2:00 pm – 7:00 pm: Bryan Sargent
7:00 pm – 12:00 midnight: “Mix Nights”
Six-Month Ratings Trend (6+, PPM)
Sep Oct Nov Dec Hol Jan
10.1 10.2 11.3 14.6 17.8 11.9
#1 #1 #1 #1 #1 #1
WBEB, Philadelphia at a Glance
Owner: Jerry Lee Radio, LLC
PD: Chuck Knight
Recent 10:00 am Music Hour
“River of Dreams” (Billy Joel)
“Every Morning” (Sugar Ray)
“It Will Rain” (Bruno Mars)
“Makes Me Wonder” (Maroon 5)
“Oh Sherrie” (Steve Perry)
“Firework” (Katy Perry)
“I’m A Believer” (Smash Mouth)
“Eternal Flame” (Bangles)
“Viva La Vida” (Coldplay)
“Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” (Shania Twain)
Weekday On-Air Lineup
5:00 am – 9:00 am: Tiffany Hill, Michael Chew, & Bill Tafrow
9:00 am – 2:00 pm: Jenn Ryan
2:00 pm – 7:00 pm: Dave Moore
7:00 pm-12:00 midnight: Andrea Duffy
Six-Month Ratings Trend (6+, PPM)
Sep Oct Nov Dec Hol Jan
5.9 6.0 5.6 9.5 15.9 6.8
#2 #2 #2 #1 #1 #2
WDOK, Cleveland at a Glance
Identity: “The New 102″
Owner: CBS Radio
VP/Programming: Dave Popovich
Recent 10:00 am Music Hour
“Only the Good Die Young” (Billy Joel)
“What Goes Around Comes Around” (Justin Timberlake)
“Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” (Katy Perry)
“Catch My Breath” (Kelly Clarkson)
“Everything She Wants” (Wham!)
“Moves Like Jagger” (Maroon 5 featuring Christina Aguilera)
“Hold My Hand” (Hootie & The Blowfish)
“Poker Face” (Lady Gaga)
“Teardrops on my Guitar” (Taylor Swift)
Weekday On-Air Lineup
5:30 am – 10:00 am: “Jen & Tim in the Morning”
10:00 am – 3:00 pm: Desiray
3:00 pm – 7:00 pm: Kory
7:00 pm – 12:00 midnight: Jaci Fox
Six-Month Ratings Trend (6+, PPM)
Sep Oct Nov Dec Hol Jan
6.8 6.4 6.7 7.8 9.9 5.8
#4 #4 #5 #2 #2 #6
WMMO, Orlando at a Glance
Identity: “98-9 WMMO”
Owner: Cox Media Group
PD: Hildi Schenck
Recent 4:00 pm Music Hour
“Do You Believe In Love” (Huey Lewis & The News)
“Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen)
“All For You” (Sister Hazel)
“Proud Mary” (Credence Clearwater Revival)
“Against All Odds” (Phil Collins)
“Spirits in the Material World” (Police)
“All Right Now” (Free)
“Iris” (Goo Goo Dolls)
“Hit Me with Your Best Shot” (Pat Benatar)
“Candle in the Wind” (Elton John)
“All of My Love” (Led Zeppelin)
Weekday On-Air Lineup
5:00 am – 10:00 am: Elise Rossi
10:00 am – 3:00 pm: Jay Francisco
3:00 – 7:00 pm: “Hildi”
7:00 pm – 12:00 midnight: Jim Grant
12:00 midnight – 5:00 am: Brian Scott
Six-Month Ratings Trend (6+, PPM)
Sep Oct Nov Dec Hol Jan
5.3 6.1 5.4 5.8 4.3 5.1
#9 #4 #5 #6 #9 #7
Read part two of this AC special feature addressing the role of on-air talent as it relates to the format here.
Mike Kinosian – Kinosian@RadioInfo.com (818) 985-0244.