99 Problems, But Your Name Ain’t One: Are Heritage Calls Really A Liability?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

The last few months have been particularly unkind to the ranks of heritage Top 40 stations, among them:

KBFM (B104) McAllen, Texas, facing a Rhythmic Top 40 rival, went Rhythmic itself as Wild 104.

KQKQ (Sweet 98) Omaha, Neb., had managed to edge back ahead of Rhythmic rival KQCH (Channel 94.1), but still switched to Adult Top 40 as “Q98.5.”

CKZZ (Z95.3) Vancouver, B.C., which had been dented by a new Urban and more seriously banged up by Classic Hits/Hot AC CKLG (Jack FM), kept its name but segued to Hot AC.

KKRD Wichita, Kan., swapped its format with Classic Rock sister KRZZ, keeping top 40, but becoming the new Channel 96.3 on another frequency to go up against Rhythmic KDGS, the format leader in recent years.

WBZZ Pittsburgh, which, last year, dropped its longtime B94 handle to become 93.7 BZZ, then brought it back as B93.7 for a brief time before giving up Top 40 altogether and becoming new Howard Stern affiliate K-Rock last week. The change took WBZZ out of a several year war of attrition with Rhythmic-leaning WKST (Kiss-FM).
Z95.3 launched in the early ‘90s. Its four counterparts all went back with their current handles at least as far as the early ‘80s Top 40 boom. All, notably, had managed to survive the early ‘90s doldrums that claimed so many of their counterparts. And all except KKRD had leaned Rhythmic in the past. Z95.3 had signed on as Rhythmic Top 40 while the original early ‘80s version of B94 had forced a rock leaning rival to change format and helped prove that rhythm was still an important part of Top 40 during the disco-backlash years.

WBZZ had its own special set of circumstances, prompted by Stern’s availability. And one can only guess, of course, what the other stations saw in their research before choosing to shed their longtime handles or formats, or both. Together, however, they seem to add reinforcement to the long held belief that heritage in Top 40 becomes a liability, not an asset, when listeners are offered a newer fresher choice, particularly from a Rhythmic rival.

If that’s true, it’s not good news for the rest of the Mainstream Top 40 format. Roughly 60% of the current reporting stations on that panel use heritage calls or nicknames that go back to at least the early ‘90s and often much earlier. That doesn’t count several stations like KHFI Austin, Texas, that have heritage calls but don’t use them, but it does count stations like WBLI Long Island, N.Y., or WKZL Winston-Salem, N.C., that gave up Top 40 for a while, then returned to the format.

So is it time for every heritage Top 40 to consider changing its handle, or forever be tagged as “my older sister’s station”? Well, there aren’t a lot of recent examples of doing that successfully either. WKQI Detroit shed Q95.5 for Channel 95.5 a few years ago, but it was trying to shed the baggage of a Hot AC station, not a successful Top 40 that had become unhip. Before that, you have to go back at least eight years to three current Top 40 stations with complicated histories:

WRVW (the River) Nashville, which replaced Y107 in 1996 in hopes of shedding that station’s teen baggage, not so it could successfully compete better on the younger end, There, anyway, the issue was being the younger sister’s station;

WNKS (Kiss 95.1) Charlotte, N.C., which changed handles after a flirtation with Modern Rock (as the Edge) and two previous incarnations of Top 40;

WSTR (Star 94) Atlanta, which gave up the WQXI-FM (94Q) handle in the early ‘90s, but not before effectively muddying its previous Top 40 format by adding Jazz at night (and during the day, for a minute).
Again, none of those case histories involve stations that wanted to stay in the 12-to-24 Mainstream Top 40 format but couldn’t compete with their current handles. They’re stations where the old name was a problem for different reasons.

Besides, it’s easy to come out of a research project with a sense that heritage is the problem. It’s a lot easier to ask, “Which station in town is for people older than you?” than to ask, “Which station in town do you still cume, really want to like and would start liking again if only it would start being good again?” And when you consider some of the baggage that heritage stations often show (too many commercials, morning show that talks too much), it’s really tempting for management to just start over.

The problems of a heritage Top 40 brand are, in the end, the problems of any Mainstream Top 40.

But even if you found out today that your house needed a new roof, new boiler and new electrical system, it probably still wouldn’t be cheaper to just raze the damn thing and build a new one. Unlike the early ‘90s doldrums, heritage Top 40s have enough billing—often by dint having heritage calls—that walking away isn’t entirely an easy choice. And giving up 10-to-25 years of brand name recognition is a draconian choice, one to be made only when there’s obviously something better out there, or when you’re positive that a station isn’t one format cycle away from a comeback.

So what can a heritage Top 40 do, short of starting over?

1) Give the call letters some swagger. With the right imaging, durability should be used to make a station “biiig and baaad”, not just old and stodgy.

2) Stop devaluing the call letters yourself. Top 40 didn’t do itself any favors with those stunts a few years back where they told listeners “K____ is going away . . . to the Bahamas and wants you to join us,” or something similar.

3) Build the community goodwill now. Unless there’s something seriously wrong, heritage Urban stations usually find themselves a little dented, but not destroyed, by a new competitor, and listener goodwill is usually why. Consider Washington, D.C., where the R&B battle is between WPGC (whose present format goes back to 1986 and whose calls go back much further) and WKYS (which overcame being outhipped by WPGC for many years and rehabilitated a brand that goes back to 1976).

4) Fix the real problems. If you’re in a corporate climate where you can’t do something about a 15-minute spotload, a new name isn’t going to help. Conversely, two heritage Cox Top 40 brands (WBLI Long Island, N.Y., and WAPE Jacksonville, Fla.) have, despite ups and downs, hung in over the past few years and both have imaged around music quantity.

5) Don’t assume that just going Hot AC is the answer. The adults who are still on a heritage Top 40 are going there to feel young. They won’t necessarily hang if a station goes 100% rhythmic, but making them feel older wasn’t the answer in 1990 and it probably won’t be the answer in most cases now.

6) That said, heritage Top 40s have an opportunity to take advantage of some late ‘80s/early ‘90s gold that works a lot better when there are heritage call letters next to it. If you played “Baby Got Back,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Rump Shaker,” or the other durable party songs from that era, there’s probably a way to make a handful of those songs work for you again.

7) It’s possible to update a handle instead of blowing it up. Referring to a revamped station as “the new sound of ___” has probably gotten a little crispy after 30 years. And most heritage Top 40s have probably updated well beyond the “v.2” that Rock stations like to talk about. But there’s always the “remix” concept that’s working so well for Sprite these days.

The problems of a heritage Top 40 brand are, in the end, the problems of any Mainstream Top 40. Few Mainstreams have gotten away without a new competitor or two. No Mainstream ever has quite enough useable pop music that Rhythmic can’t play (although with Jojo likely to replace Hoobastank at No. 1 next week, things are looking up, particularly since Hoobastank replaced Maroon 5). When the current music isn’t as good, it’s the other elements of a station that prop it up. With the right care and feeding, the calls ought to be one of those assets.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.