Is It Right To Not Be Lite?

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.

3 replies
  1. Steve Stockman
    Steve Stockman says:

    Lite is making two enormous strategic mistakes dropping the word that has made them famous.
    FIRST: About “frequency only” ids– think about another category that has to deal with getting people to their location: restaurants. Do you say “Oh yes, I ate at 1150 Main street today” or do you say “I went to Nobu”? If you need to know exactly where it is, you find it. But you won’t bother unless it’s important. And the address isn’t what makes it important.
    A name carries a story, or meaning. “Nobu” means the chef, famous for Sushi. “Lite” means a kind of music I can sing to, that isn’t irritating.
    But an address is just an address. Not only does it have no intrinsic meaning, it’s forgotten once you know how to get there (i.e. “on the southside near the mall” or “my third button”) And meaning– brand– is why people visit in the first place. No meaning, no visit. And then it doesn’t matter where you’re located.
    Still not sure? Consider how often you visit a restaurant you don’t like much. Do you visit more if someone reminds you of its address?
    Lite’s second error is handing the competition the very words that give them their meaning. A similar story, from a different product catgegory:
    “Miller Lite” was the number one beer in America in the late ’80s with the slogan “Tastes great…Less Filling.” Despite not inventing the category, they named it, powered it up, and ran with it for quite a long time. It was nearly impossible for competitors to describe THEIR light beers with words that didn’t include “tastes great” or “less filling.” When they did, they sounded like copycats. Result: Miller defined the category and owned it.
    UNTIL- they got a new ad agency in the early 90s. The agency dumped the slogan. Coors and Bud, which had been circling around the branding of “lite” beer grabbed Miller’s language and ran with it. Light beer became a commodity– with three soundalike brands battling for shelf space. Miller became a commodity, settling into a three way tie and ultimately losing to Bud. Coors lite was up too.
    “Lite” for WLTW is the same thing. Abandon the language that made you famous, and your competitors will be using it in no time, guaranteed. Once you let that happen, there’s no way back to the top.
    Instead, WLTW should find 200 great ways to use it more, make it stronger, and steal “fresh” while they’re at it. The competitor will be marginalized by a powerful brand, and all will be well.

    Reply
  2. Chuck Geiger
    Chuck Geiger says:

    I was taking to a group owner of a small broadcast company in the Northwest that has a HOT AC in the market and his competitor has an AC and HOT AC. He ask a great question; “What’s the difference these day”. This rolls right into Sean’s article. Mainstream AC or “lite” AC is now carrying titles that were once Hot or Modern AC titles. Variety hits is more adult female-geared, where does this leave HOT or Modern AC? – If the market doesn’t employ a alternative or Modern Rock product, the natural move is to put your arms around female geared modern rock. This leaves out the ability to play Prince, Madonna and other 80’s titles. You would need to play Depeche Mode, Cutting Crew and Red Hot Chili Peppers. One area to explore is a new direction a buddt of mine is working on: Fun Hits of the 80’s and 90’s. It’s the variety hits without the all over the road classic rock, AC, oldies, 80’s persona that “Jack” takes on. Citadel was onto this before they blew it up in Nashville and Memphis, but they played 70’s. This would be an MTV era through the mid 90’s musical genre’ – It could save HOT AC or MODERN AC. It is the “movin” format for white females 25-44.

    Reply
  3. Dan Lucas
    Dan Lucas says:

    Re: Chuck’s comments, isn’t it about time we see a return of strong modern leaning ACs? My audience is much more interested in Lily Allen, Incubus, RHCP and even stuff like Bloc Party and The Kooks. So it stands to reason our 80s gold should be what I term “cool 80s” – Cure, Depeche, the stuff that is foundational to what we hear now. I’ve heard so many hot ACs caught between what’s new release and the “standby” 80s tracks. Time to think about perception of those songs again. Modern is not a dirty word to today’s Hot AC female, neither is rock.

    Reply

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