Maybe the most interesting aspect of WLTW New York’s recent decision to downplay the use of “Lite FM,” its handle of the last 23 years, is that it comes at a time when WLTW is doing a pretty good job of weathering a new competitor and its relentless attacks on the “Lite” name. Even after an up book for WWFS (Fresh 102.7), WLTW remains the clear market-leader, even without its December Christmas music boost.
PD Jim Ryan has positioned WLTW’s change to “New York’s 106.7 FM” as merely a pro-active attempt to call the station what diary keepers already call it. And from an Arbitron standpoint, almost any PD could make a case for going with the frequency as the primary identifier. But in a world where the importance of brand has been, well, branded in to most programmers’ consciousness, that’s a daunting proposition for many. Even in a pending PPM world where brand recall may never again be thought to be more important than being listened to, stronger brands are still at an advantage for tuning in the first place.
Given the likelihood that there will be other new ACs around the country now imaging themselves as “soft, but contemporary”, how valuable or vulnerable is the Lite name for the stations they challenge?
Nationally, the “Lite” name has seen its stock fluctuate since its advent in the early ’80s. But it wasn’t so long ago that the success of WLTW was inspiring other stations to launch or rebrand as “Lite FM.” Given the likelihood that there will be other new ACs around the country now imaging themselves as “soft, but contemporary”, how valuable or vulnerable is the Lite name for the stations they challenge?
The first thing to consider is that if there were any market in the country where it should be hard to equate “Lite” with “wimpy,” it would be New York. For more than a decade, WLTW has been the station that pushed the musical edges of Mainstream AC. It was the station that taught the world to think of “Summer Of ’69” and “Jack And Diane” as AC records. It was the station that turned Disco into AC music, which might not have changed the format’s average era, but made it brighter and more exciting nonetheless. If WLTW was vulnerable at all, programming wisdom held, it was to an attack from above.
WLTW never followed other Clear Channel ACs like KOST Los Angeles on to some of the softest ’70s titles. It was usually the first AC station on any CHR current it could get away with playing. And “You Light Up My Life,” the song that Fresh uses to represent “the old light station” in its TV commercials hasn’t been on the radio anywhere in New York for years–probably since before WHTZ (Z100) PD Scott Shannon used it to attack WPLJ in 1983.
So if the “Lite” handle has been any way diminished since January, it just proves that it’s very hard for any station to remain completely unscathed by a negative attack. In the early ’00s, Cox’s WPYM (Party 93.1) Miami and KKBQ (93Q) Houston hammered relentlessly at their rivals for playing too many commercials. Today, WPYM is gone and 93Q has never built huge 12-plus numbers of its own. But the likely damage they created for their competitors lingered for some time. And WWFS’ attacks on Lite have been backed up by extensive TV and on-air promos.
That all said, “Lite” seems like a less polarizing handle than the “soft” word at the center of Fresh’s “Today’s Soft Music” positioning. It’s hard to believe that if the word had been available in the market that WWFS wouldn’t have been “Today’s Lite Music” instead. One AC PD notes, “When a new competitor is pounding ‘soft,’ I can’t see that as being the time to give up ‘Lite,'” which, another says, “feels more uplifting and has more positive connotations.”
And as that same PD notes, “A name is the brand’s persona and does figure into how the station feels emotionally. A frequency-only ID feels like a utility to me.”
For those “Lite” PDs who aren’t ready to walk away from the name if they’re suddenly attacked for it, the best advice may be to start fortifying the name now–even if your research shows that there’s not an image problem. “Lite” had never devoted a lot of on-air real-estate to making sure people knew they were not the WLTW of 1987–they had mostly let the music do the talking. When the station recently adapted its first slug-line in years, it took more of a yesterday and today approach.
In retrospect, it now seems that had WLTW employed a campaign to explain what “Today’s Lite Music” is, they might have blunted the impact of “Today’s Soft Music,” and in the case of WLTW it would have been absolutely credible. One could also make a case for starting now in reimaging the word “soft,” so that any station unable to use “lite” will have to dig harder for another synonym.
In the broader scheme of things, it would also be a good time for any AC station to take stock of how vulnerable they are on the younger end, and what they are prepared to do if they are attacked there. Programming history has taught us that it’s psychologically difficult to let the young-end go, even if it’s perfectly viable to go on without them. And stations that don’t decide from the outset who to protect are in danger of finding themselves trying to woo back an audience that may have wandered away and alienating the people that chose to stay.
That Mainstream ACs would even be faced with that issue shows how the landscape has changed. With Hot AC below and Oldies above, AC radio spent many years with certain demo expectations — they would not be the oldest or the youngest spot on the dial. Then Oldies stations started to disappear, leaving their handful of best ’60s titles to AC. Then Hot AC found its own coalition ripped apart by Bob- and Jack-FM and by the introduction of new listeners raised on Rhythmic music, not pop. That left Mainstream AC in some markets as both surprisingly young and a temptingly large target again. Part of what Mainstream AC has been able to offer is consistency and carefully controlled evolution. Properly maintained, brand is very much part of that.