Company News · March 22, 2007

“Failure To Launch” And How To Avoid It

By sross

It used to be that if you were launching a new radio station, there were a few pretty reliable ways to make a first impression in a market. One was just to be a new outlet for R&B and Hip-Hop, particularly if you were offering more Hip-Hop than the incumbent station. Another was showing up with a lot of gold that the market hadn’t heard for a while. Neither route was a guarantee of long-term performance, but each could usually get you noticed at the outset, even with a less-than-perfect signal.

Over the last 3-4 years, however, there have been an increasing number of prominent launches that failed to crack the two-share range, beginning with WNEW New York’s short-lived Blink 102.7 in 2003. Shortly thereafter, KTBT (the Beat) San Francisco proved that the new Hip-Hop choice wouldn’t always get noticed; then KDAY Los Angeles failed to get traction despite offering both a new hip-hop choice and music not heard in the market.” Increasingly, the question asked after a new launch wasn’t “well, can they sustain it?” but “what the hell happened?”

Failure to launch can happen to good operators. It can also happen to a format that had been launched successfully somewhere else. KCBS-FM (Jack-FM) Los Angeles exploded on impact, but sister WCBS-FM (Jack-FM) New York has only recently moved the needle. Bonneville’s Hot AC/Classic Hits hybrids took off right away in St. Louis and Phoenix, but not at KMAX San Francisco. The Rhythmic Hot AC Movin’ format blossomed quickly at KQMV Seattle but hasn’t taken yet at KMVN Los Angeles.

Whatever you think about the long-term prospects for the new WWFS (Fresh 102.7) New York, it has at least made enough gains in its first winter Arbitrend to avoid the Failure To Launch trap that snagged New York’s Jack or earlier incarnations of AC on the former WNEW frequency at the outset. After several years in which it has become clear that you can’t take an initial impact for granted, what made the difference this time?

1) TV, which Fresh used heavily, still makes an impact: It was almost always the explanation for why some of the Bob- and Jack-FMs kicked in and others did not–a theory supported by stations like WCBS-FM and WMKK (Mike FM) Boston whose growth spurts coincided with TV and came several books after their launch. TV is not always a panacea–KMVN had some in early fall and Jack/New York had some in its first fall book, but got more noticeable results from last fall’s TV. But it’s still the best way to explain a format that might otherwise be difficult to get a handle on–like Jack and Bob. And TV’s ability to create critical mass is more apparent than ever in a world where any song that doesn’t start via radio airplay (and some that do) usually needs “Gray’s Anatomy,” “American Idol” or The Disney Channel to take hold with listeners.

2) A marketable difference is important. At the outset, a station that was “soft like WLTW, but newer” might have seemed like the ultimate nuance. But after several years of being “the other soft AC” or “the other Rhythmic AC,” the “newer soft AC” concept was something that Lite FM couldn’t easily and probably shouldn’t try to pre-empt. In reality, Fresh 102.7’s music goes back as far the early ’80s. Button punch between the two stations and you may hear something more recent on WLTW. But you’ll still hear ’60s and ’70s titles as well, which allows Fresh to play “Tainted Love” and “In The Air Tonight” and still be newer.

3) When possible, it’s better to start with the right cume. L.A.’s Jack-FM had Classic Rock listeners with little passion for the existing format. New York’s Jack-FM had disenfranchised Oldies listeners who encountered the format at its youngest leaning and most musically aggressive. KQMV Seattle replaced a Hot AC that had never gotten traction but had the appropriate cume; Movin’ in other markets, particularly Los Angeles, generated the same sort of negative initial publicity as Jack/New York, just by dint of replacing a station with the same sort of loyalty as WCBS-FM. As with advertising, starting with similar cume isn’t a guarantee, but it’s often better than the alternative.

4) It’s better to be the first or second entrant into a new format. Because the chances that there was local research involved is much better than once the land rush is on and management is faced with the choice of rushing a hot format on to the air without local research or watching somebody else cover the position.

5) “New” may be the new “old.” It’s too soon to say that the iPod has devalued the “songs that haven’t been heard in the market for a while” strategy. Adult Modern outlets WDVI (the Drive) Rochester, N.Y., and WSWD (the Sound) Cincinnati have both done OK for themselves with some “oh wow” alternative gold. But after several years in which current-based Alternative formats disappeared and Hot AC got older to react to Bob- and Jack-FM, most markets have been left with only a handful of stations trying to offer “now” as a point of differentiation. And the other once-sure-fire strategy of establishing yourself in the market by playing more Hip-Hop than somebody else does seem to have been diminished by saturation in most markets.

6) You can’t go back to a childhood that nobody had. The original ’80s incarnation of KDAY was revered, but rarely cracked a two-share. It didn’t provide the same sort of exploitable legacy that, say, WKTU New York did. So it will be interesting to see how WTGB (the Globe) Washington, D.C.’s on-air conjuring of the mid-’80s legacy of modern WHFS plays out. The ’80s WHFS may be the one revered in memory, but its biggest listenership was still several years away. But, in any event, the WHFS legacy is not the Globe’s only calling card.

Finally, you have to take into account that declining listening levels and competition from other media have also likely reduced the ability of any one station to generate word of mouth, at least without outside reinforcement. Having an exploitable, easily explained point of differentiation and making sure the potential audience knows about it might merely seem like the textbook way to position a new station. But in a world of diminishing resources, textbook doesn’t always translate to typical anymore.

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