Nashville AC Outstrips Country Radio On Its Own Turf

May 20, 2005

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Nashville AC Outstrips Country Radio On Its Own Turf
May 20, 2005
By Chuck Taylor

Imagine an apple tree standing amid an orange grove—in a region renowned for its voluptuous citrus. But as juicy as those oranges may be, folks come from all over town because they love those apples.

This analogy illustrates the well-seasoned success of WJXA (Mix 92.9) Nashville, the lone AC in a market brimming with—and renowned as the home of—country music.

WJXA, the apple tree in this story, has been the No. 1-rated station 12-plus for three years running, according to Arbitron, and it shows no signs of losing its flavor. In winter 2005, the station scored an 8.3 share, up from 6.7 in fall 2004. It outranked No. 2 R&B/hip-hop WUBT by nearly two full share points.

In contrast, Music City's four ubiquitous country outlets finished in the market at Nos. 4 (WSIX), 5 (WSM), 7 (WKDF) and 12 (WSM-AM).

What makes WJXA's story all the more compelling is that it is flanked on all sides by Clear Channel, Cumulus and Citadel; the top 10 stations in the market are all owned by one of those three powerhouse groups—except for Mix 92.9 and its sister, WMAK, which flipped from oldies to Jack May 13. Those stations come under the modest wing of independent owner South Central Communications, which is based in Evansville, Ind., and owns 10 stations in Nashville; Knoxville, Tenn.; and its hometown.

With the competition always towering above, the company knows not to take its good fortune for granted. "There is certainly no such thing as standing pat; we must always push the envelope," WJXA/WMAK GM Dennis Gwiazdon says. "But I have learned that it doesn't take a big company to become a leader in the industry."


Robert Unmacht, a media analyst with iN3 Partners in Nashville, reads the station this way: "It is well-run, and it does very little wrong. Mix holds to the first rule of AC-dom, and that is to keep the promotional budget high and not let down on the TV and billboards. Since AC is not a music style that people can name, you must keep the station top of mind to do well in Arbitron."

He adds, "It's also about the only station in Nashville for adults who don't like country or want more than country. They're a great station for the whole office to keep on all day and with Delilah at night. What is not to like about WJXA?"

Gwiazdon and his dedicated PD Barbara Bridges have a firm grasp on why their station excels in a market that one would assume is dominated by country music.

First off, Gwiazdon is quick to note that Nashville is often misconstrued as a one-dimensional town.

"This is a very musically diverse city," he says. "Country heritage may have roots that run deep, but over the years, Nashville has become a mecca for a lot of different genres. There's production and recording and all the labels based here. So the taste for different types of music has evolved."

Gwiazdon admits, "AC is a predictable format, but people's tastes are a lot more diverse in Nashville than we're probably given credit for." Even if a number of listeners focus on country, he is confident that secondary listeners "give a lot of support. There's no doubt that we certainly have our fans."

Bridges suggests that the station maintains its standing in much the same way as other leaders: with tenacity and a healthy corporate budget.

"Like everybody else in the market, we utilize television, outdoor and the occasional direct mail and telemarketing. It takes a variety of things," she says. "There's a lot of noise in the market right now. Two country stations are on TV, three or four are doing outdoor and there's a lot of stealth marketing with Clear Channel and Citadel. We're smart enough to know that you've got to be out there doing something."

Gwiazdon adds, "The station could be taken for granted unless you constantly remind people why they choose you, with the at-work network, Delilah in nights and constant imaging. We are lucky, because a lot of our competitors don't have the kind of budgets they used to."

Which brings to light some advantages of working for an indie radio company—and one that has been family-run for three generations.

"They are committed to excellence," Gwiazdon says.

For example: Bridges, who has been with WJXA for eight years (and with the company previously for four years in Knoxville), notes, "I know if I have any needs, if we need to talk about a new strategy, I can make a phone call. I have the ear of anybody I need to, and that's a rare thing. These guys believe in what we do here."

Gwiazdon adds, "I realize that you don't have to have all of that artillery behind you to be successful. For better or worse, the president of our radio division is right down the hall from me. There's no going through executive or regional VPs. One phone call gets things done; it's not about bureaucracy."

In terms of programming, a Nashville AC is, not surprisingly, riding high on the rail of the national trend to embrace country artists on AC as the softer side of top 40 fades to oblivion. In recent months, Martina McBride, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban have placed songs in the top 10 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

"We have such an advantage," Bridges says. "We've got two or three radio stations breaking that music at any given time. Every day in the newspaper, there's something about country artists. You walk into a restaurant, and there's a favorite country artist. That's just part of life here."

Mix has also been able to draft such artists as Jo Dee Messina, LeAnn Rimes—and of course, Faith Hill and Shania Twain—as staples for the station.

"For us, they've almost become the face of the AC format, to the point of replacing Celine Dion," Bridges says. "When those artists put out crossover product, it's awfully easy to incorporate them without violating the framework."

As a result, "country stations are like a silent partner for us," Bridges says. "It's as if we don't have to market those artists, because it's done for us."

At the same time, the PD cautions, "You have to know where the lines are and not go too far into another genre of music. You cherry-pick what you think will work well. We have to remember that if we get too far off-track, there are three other [FM country] choices."

With a laugh, she adds, "You know what? I live in Rome. I have to respect that."

With its grandiose ratings, WJXA also has the rare gift of no head-on competition in Nashville. Bridges believes, "We have mainly flankers: [WRQQ] Star 97 has gone from adult top 40 to '80s to an '80/'90s-and-more and back to adult top 40. There's [WRVW] the River, which is a softer top 40 . . . but when you look at the makeup of the market, there's really no mainstream AC competitor.

"A lot of people are playing in the 25-54 adult space, but we honestly don't see anyone armed and ready to come play in our neighborhood."


Gwiazdon notes that a key to maintaining dominance is keeping the station's on-air persona brighter than many ACs.

"We hold a steady sound on our station, and we've always added a bit of life to it so that it's never mistaken for a background radio station," he says. "If anything, we try to be uplifting, adding tempo and personality to keep our audience listening and interested."

So what about an impending assault from the big Cs: Clear Channel, Citadel and Cumulus, which collectively own 12 stations ranked in the market's winter 2005 ratings?

For one thing, South Central has united its sales force for Mix and WMAK. Gwiazdon says, "We've always been joined at the hip. We're a two-station cluster in a multistation world. We're able to combine marketing tools because there's an overlap with our audiences."

The stations cross-promote live events and free lunches, with as many as 3,000-4,000 listeners participating.

"We put together a combination of music for both stations," Gwiazdon says. "Obviously, there are separate audiences, but we refer to it as our 'Moldies Mix.' "

Another distinctive aspect of the station is that Bridges is among few female PDs in the radio world. She also works on-air weekdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

"Yes, I think it's helpful to be a woman with this format," she acknowledges. "I live the demo, actually, I'm right in the middle of it—I'm a working mom, so when I program the radio station, it's very easy for me to make it relevant. I recognize that male programmers in AC—and there are a lot of very talented men—have to deal with the whole Mars-versus-Venus thing. I suppose they park that side of the brain and figure out what appeals to a woman," Bridges says with a laugh.

"For me that's pretty easy. In my eyes, yes, I guess there's a little advantage to being a woman here."

Bridges' near decade in Nashville comes with plenty of perks to keep her satisfied in market No. 44: "It's great to live in Music City," she says. "It's not just country here. Every waiter, every busboy, everyone you meet wants to be a songwriter or an artist, and there's tremendous support for the arts in a medium-size city. I love being on top, but we're all winning in this market."

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