Stasis We Can’t Believe In, Or Where Did All The Format Changes Go?

The fall ’07 ratings book kicked off with its usual complement of new stations. Asked to name major format changes that took place in September/October,’s Scott Fybush can reel off the following:
* Clear Channel’s KBIG Los Angeles from AC to Hot AC as My 104.1;
* CBS’ WYSP Philadelphia returns to Active Rock;
* WNOU (Radio Now) Indianapolis’ Top 40 format resurfaces on the former Smooth Jazz station, the final part of a three station maneuver;
* CBS relaunches Top 40 B94 Pittsburgh;
* Cumulus repackages WRQQ Nashville as “The Tower”;
* CBS replaces Talk with Sports talk on WXYT-FM Detroit;
* CC continues its rollout of gold-based Modern Rockers at WURH (Radio 104) Hartford, Conn.;
* Heritage Top 40 WGTZ (Z93) Dayton, Ohio, becomes Adult Hits Fly 92.9;
* CC drops Smooth Jazz for Portland, Ore.’s second Oldies at KQOL;
* Citadel turns longtime AC WSUY Charleston, S.C., into Country WIWF (the Wolf);
* Country WCMC Raleigh, N.C., announces a flip to Sports.
A year later, format changes have slowed down considerably. One indicator is the number of new stations discussed in this column and on Edison’s The Infinite Dial. The last major-market U.S. station flip we wrote about was in early September when Greater Media’s Smooth Jazz WJJZ Philadelphia became AC WNUW (Now 97.5). There was also Univision’s Spanish Oldies to Spanish CHR flip in Austin, Texas, notable as the second Spanish CHR launch in that market in several days. And Rhythmic AC WSNA Memphis’ change to Classic Hits WKQK, (an inadvertant omission from this list in its first posting).
Otherwise, it’s slow going for format changes, especially for new music stations:
* CBS’ KFRC-FM San Francisco has become the FM outlet for all-News KCBS;
* WYSP Philadelphia segued from Active Rock to gold-based Active Rock (this one was actually late August).
* Bonneville’s Rhythmic Hot AC WMVN (Movin’ 101) St. Louis has switched to Christmas music in an anticipation of a flip to Sports after the holidays;
* Progressive Talk WCPT Chicago moved to FM, replacing the “Nine-FM” trimulcast;
* WHLK Madison, Wis., has dropped Classic Hits to become a better frequency for its Hip-Hop sister station. (The other half of the Austin Spanish CHR similarly involved fewer stations on more frequencies);
* Several new music FMs have been launched by combining an existing HD-2 multicast station with a FM translator – meaning that owners willing to program a new FM frequency when it can be added to the dial, but reluctant to change an existing one;
* XM and Sirius, after five years of new channel creation are now, of course, cutting bodies and are expected to start consolidating channels shortly.
To write a column about how few format changes there are is, of course, to guarantee that a major new one will take place almost immediately. Even if it does, (and even with some more likely omissions), that station will join a shorter list than a year ago. And the trend is clear: fewer brand-new music stations, more changes involving the redeployment of existing products – even if that trend was already underway a year ago. That’s not to disparage new News, Talk, or Sports stations on FM — the hole for those stations is often obvious. They just stand out more when there’s so little other activity on other fronts.
There’s one obvious explanation here: format changes cost money. Even when new stations get relatively fast traction, a change still means walking away from existing revenue for several months, and in today’s economic meltdown, that’s something fewer stations are willing to do. An underperforming station never seems to generate quite as much revenue as it does when management is faced with living without it.
And that’s before you get to the costs associated with a launch: marketing and researching a new station, buying out old contracts, and, in 2008, simultaneously launching a new Website. If a change is done right, it’s more than new stationery and business cards And while we haven’t seen many format changes, we have seen almost-daily announcements about stations like WSJT Tampa trading local Smooth Jazz for syndication, or new CHR and Hot ACs making room for Ryan Seacrest or other national shows.
But the economy doesn’t explain all. Maybe it’s because they’re more easily remembered in year-long trends than on a month-to-month basis, but previous downturns didn’t bring format activity to a halt. The late ’70s/early ’80s recession took place at a time when many formats were making the move from AM to FM (and when there was a lot more unclaimed FM real estate). The early ’90s recession took place against the explosion in Country and Alternative Rock–and at a time when many CHRs felt they had to change to something.
So what else is going on?
* Format changes create a chain reaction. For better and worse, a hot new format sends owners nationwide rushing to cover their bases, even if it means changing a station that wasn’t necessarily primed to change format. A format in crisis, like Smooth Jazz or, a few years ago, Oldies, creates a more dismaying but equally undeniable domino effect. But with the exception of Talk on FM, there is no hot new format to emulate. And the new format change trickle means we’re less likely to have one. (It’s telling that in Canada, where radio is relatively healthy, there has been a slow but steady growth of Oldies on FM this year, and other interesting launches in Winnipeg and Toronto.)
* The tightened body counts at many stations means that there’s less programming talent – fewer people to come up with the next great format, and more PDs on double/triple/quadruple-duty with less time to look forward. The combination of daily layoffs and fewer format changes has been a neutron bomb that claims personnel but leaves weakened stations standing.
* The innovation and excitement that used to go into format changes is instead going into the deployment of new iPhone apps. This week’s headline is Clear Channel’s iHeart Radio (which has given additional prominence to its eRockster “indie rock” channel and its gay-themed Pride Radio), coming on the heels of CBS’ AOL Radio app and the multi-station WunderRadio.
It has been predicted for some time that format innovation would be relegated to Internet radio. And in a world where nearly every station will be available on the Infinite Dial, and a station like eRockster that might repatriate former radio listeners or attract new ones is more easily created on the Web, what is the incentive to create new formats on local AM/FM radio? (It’s telling that the stations currently available on the new CC app do not include a successful Smooth Jazz brand like WNUA Chicago or KKSF San Francisco; the format is instead represented by CC’s Smooth Jazz network).
In a world where AM/FM is rapidly being positioned by broadcasters as “just another platform,” it’s easy to make yourself sound like a victim of old thinking by suggesting that it’s too soon for format innovation to abandon the terrestrial dial just yet. But there’s still self-fulfilling prophecy at work here: we have long resigned ourselves to not finding the format that would make a teenager excited about radio again. But it’s not just 12-24s who aren’t given an incentive to turn on the radio. Over the past five years, the rise of the gold-based Modern Rock format and the boom in Bob- and Jack-FMs have given terrestrial radio its only positive coverage in the consumer press – a brief respite in between the constant shilling for satellite.
For today, anyway, the listeners who might be reached with an exciting new format are still in larger numbers on terrestrial radio. And while it might not ultimately matter whether listeners in five years recognize what they are listening to as “radio” or merely as multi-platform content, creating excitement about radio today sends us onto those new platforms in a position of strength with more strong brands.
So what exciting new format developments am I missing? Your comments are welcome. And, remember, we’re just weeks away from our annual wrap-up of intriguing new stations. Are there any worthy entrants from recent weeks?

8 replies
  1. Greg Gillispie
    Greg Gillispie says:

    Without reading anything but you email tease, it is pretty clear about why there are no changes. Content & entertainment are not what radio is about – doing everything possible to save money is.
    Pretty tough to create something new when there are no people to bring a station concept to reality.

  2. Bob Perry
    Bob Perry says:

    That’s an easy question in Spanish radio! Spanish CHR (pop en espanol) is the next big format in Hispanic formats. Even though many general market formats are flat in ad revenue and audience, Hispanic formats continue to rise even in tougher economic times! For those of us who program radio in Mexico and Latin America, we’ve known for a long time Spanish pop (CHR) is the next huge format in the U.S. as its the dominant format in most of Latin America. It is AMAZING to me how many markets in the U.S. are wide open for the format!

  3. Steve Tarter
    Steve Tarter says:

    Since radio has abdicated decision-making to machines, it’s unlikely that we’ll hear much out of the ordinary. Money is tight and managerial creativity is even tighter.
    Here’s an idea that might serve a low-performing station: a fun format! The music is upbeat and there’d be comedy cuts (very short and select) and trivia.
    If we’re going to be dullards, we might as well have some fun with it.

  4. pocket-radio
    pocket-radio says:

    New formats, flips, are exciting, oh I speak of a time when radio was entertaining, a time without fake hype. Sigh…
    Corporate radio is a giant machine, marching the same way lacking a personality or the delegate touch that only comes from an inspired creative human being.
    And you call this crap, compelling content, it’s not entertainment and it’s no wonder the 12-24’s have unplugged from radio. Keep playing 10 spots back to back you’re doing a great job killing radio.

  5. John Caracciolo
    John Caracciolo says:

    I have been reading with great interest all the stuff you guys have been doing on local, local, local! I can actually tell you it’s working. We have not missed a monthly budget yet in 2008 and 2009 looks great.
    Maybe it is the story I constantly tell my sales people
    On an early Monday morning 12 years ago, Radio changed forever. Shortly before 0800 on January 3, 1996, the skies over Washington were darkened by 435 members of Congress –their mission: to destroy America

  6. Hilarie
    Hilarie says:

    Radio is in mortal peril because stations forgot who makes the advertising dollars pay off – LISTENERS. Corporate radio does not provide choices. They dictate what you hear. In the age of customizable iPods, satellite radio, and Internet radio, a listener has a plethora of avenues to hear exactly what they want, when they want to hear it. Mr. Caracciolo’s stations are on the right track because they’ve gone local and they provide interesting, fun programming in conjunction with LIVE local DJs. That strategy is far different than the automated boring crap generated from the Corporate Radio machine. For most stations, changing a format is merely shuffling the same cards and presenting them in a different order. In order for radio to survive, the focus has to be local and listener-driven.


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