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CBS Radio finds clearer signal

January 24, 2010

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January 24, 2010 5:59 AM

 

 CBS Radio finds clearer signal
Recovers from programming flops early in the decade
 

By Matthew Flamm 

 

Radio industry bloggers need to find a new whipping boy. CBS Radio, once scorned for killing its New York oldies station, losing Howard Stern to satellite radio and running legendary rock station WNEW-FM into the ground, has turned the dial on its past.

 

The division of CBS Corp. had a very good 2009. Not only did it have the top-billing station in the country's largest market—all-news WCBS-AM—but its other New York stations were either firing on all cylinders or moving in the right direction.

 

 In December, there were even signs of growth for the troubled radio industry, as the New York marketplace posted a 4% revenue gain, according to the confidential Miller Kaplan audit. Insiders are now crossing their fingers in hopes of a modest turnaround in 2010. 

For executives at CBS Radio, there's the added bonus of not having to put out fires anymore.

 

“It's like night and day,” says Chief Executive Dan Mason of the company he took over in March 2007. “We couldn't be more proud of every [station].”

 

He couldn't have said that when he started.

 

Don Imus had just set off a media firestorm around sports-talk powerhouse WFAN-AM with racist remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team.

 

Oldies fans were still fuming at the decision by Mr. Mason's predecessor, Joel Hollander, to switch WCBS-FM to the automated Jack FM format in 2005.

 

And all-talk Free FM—Mr. Hollander's answer to what to do with K-Rock after Mr. Stern left his flagship station—was struggling.

 

Today, Boomer & Carton, which replaced Imus in the Morning, beats the old show hands down among its target audience of men 25 to 54 years old.

 

Oldies are goodies

 

WCBS-FM, brought back to life with a “greatest hits” version of oldies, is the second-highest-rated station in the market, according to Arbitron. And WXRK, after trying a return to K-Rock, is making progress as Top 40 station 92.3 Now FM.

 

“CBS Radio had really lost its way,” says Robert Unmacht of media consulting firm iN3 Partners. “[Mr. Mason] brought it back.”

 

To top off 2009, WCBS-AM, which broadcasts the Yankees games, had the benefit of a World Series. The extraordinarily busy news cycle also helped. Sister news station 1010 WINS was the market's No. 2 biller.

 

But the radio marketplace still faces a tough road ahead after being pounded by the recession and competition from the Web for the past two years.

 

CBS Radio is no exception. Total revenue for the division slid 23%, to $901 million, in the first nine months of 2009, compared with the prior-year period. The company has slashed costs and cut jobs throughout the downturn and has had bouts of low morale, insiders say.

 

Nonetheless, Mr. Mason is optimistic, saying that CBS will show growth in 2010.

 

Freshening up

 

Fresh 102.7 FM, which replaced long-troubled WNEW in early 2007, has become a viable competitor to Clear Channel Radio's powerhouse 106.7 Lite FM.

 

And 92.3 Now FM, launched in March, hopes to eat into the vast audience of Clear Channel's other powerhouse (and 2008 revenue winner) Z100.

 

TV personality Nick Cannon last week launched a new morning show on Now FM. The station so far is a distant sixth in the rankings among 18- to 34-year-olds, but it has drawn even with Z100 among teens.

 

The overall strategy, according to Mr. Mason, is to attract advertisers that want to reach female listeners. CBS has launched similar Top 40 stations in Chicago and Los Angeles.

 

Media buyers say that Fresh has definitely had an impact, ranking a respectable fourth place in December among women 25 to 54 years old.

 

“Lite has got to be taking a revenue hit on female-focused business,” says Mark Lefkowitz, media director at Furman Roth Advertising, who thinks it's only a matter of time before 92.3 puts pricing pressure on Z100.

 

Rival determined to rebound

 

Meanwhile, Clear Channel Communications, which was taken private in 2008, has cut costs companywide as it struggles with an $18 billion debt load. Even so, its radio division is set on grabbing back the revenue crown.

 

 â€œWe've made significant progress on the sales organization side in the past six months,” says New York Market Manager Joe Puglise, pointing out that Clear Channel's stations, unlike those at CBS, didn't need fixing. “It'll be interesting to see how we duke it out in 2010.”
 
 

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