Radio remakes itself

May 17, 2005

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Published: May 17, 2005
Modified: May 17, 2005 8:54 AM

Radio remakes itself
Stations turn to technology, local appeal to beat satellite services, iPods

On Thursday nights, students crowd into the studio at G105 to give shout-outs to their friends.

This week, WPTF 680 is sending morning host Kevin Miller to Iraq, where he will profile National Guardsmen from North Carolina units.

Local, local, local is AM-FM radio's new battle cry.

With satellite radio, Apple iPods, Internet radio and podcasting stealing listeners, traditional radio is fighting back. And it's stealing a few ideas from the competition's playlist.

Among the changes you might notice:

* Fewer commercials. Last fall, the No. 1 radio company, San Antonio -based Clear Channel, began running fewer commercials and charging more for its commercial time. Sirius Satellite Radio, which just made a deal with Jimmy Buffett for a new music channel, Radio Margaritaville, and rival XM Satellite Radio have commercial-free music channels.

Locally, Clear Channel owns FM stations G105, Sunny 93.9, 106.1 RDU and The River 100.7; and AM station WDUR 1490.

* More eclectic playlists. The River hit the airwaves in November with a grab-bag of songs that defies categorization. Formats called "Jack," springing up nationwide, program what the industry calls "train wrecks" -- juxtapositions of songs from different genres and different eras. It's an approximation of what happens when you put an iPod on shuffle.

* Deeper playlists. Stations traditionally have played a few hundred tunes. The New Y102.9, a Triangle oldies station that Raleigh's Curtis Media Group launched in February, has a playlist of about 1,000 songs. "The ability to download music for 79 cents or 99 cents [per tune] is opening people up to the notion that there aren't just 300 hits anymore," said radio consultant Richard Harker of Raleigh's Harker Research.

* HD Radio. HD Radio boosts the sound quality of AM stations on par with FM, while FM stations can boast near CD quality. It also enables stations to broadcast an additional audio signal, which would create a new source of ad revenue. And it could allow radio to offer formats that appeal to niche audiences -- just like satellite radio, which offers more than 100 channels.

HD radios hit the market in 2004. About 300 stations nationwide broadcast in HD, a number that is expected to double this year. In the Triangle, Capitol Broadcasting's Mix 101.5 simultaneously broadcasts analog and HD signals. North Carolina Public Radio's WUNC-FM expects to go HD soon.

"I think all radio stations need to embrace the technology," said Ardie Gregory, vice president and general manager of Mix 101.5. Her station soon will transmit weather reports in text that can be read on an HD Radio's display.

* Local. The industry consolidation of the 1990s was followed by cost-cutting in which many stations slashed their on-air and news staff. But they went too far, and the pendulum is swinging back.

"Local is the one thing that saved [broadcast] TV against cable," said Robert Unmacht of iN3 Partners, a media consulting and investment banking firm in Nashville, Tenn. "Local is what will save radio."

Curtis Media -- which owns Triangle FM stations QDR 94.7, 96 Rock, Y102.9 and La Ley 96.9, plus AM station WPTF 680 -- has doubled its full-time staff of on-air personnel for those stations from 20 to 40 in the past three years.

At Clear Channel's G105, Brody -- it's the only name he uses -- brings groups of local high school or college students into the studio with him on Thursday nights. "It's a way for us to get closer to our audience," he said.

Still, Donna Mercer, media director for Raleigh ad agency Howard, Merrell & Partners, says Triangle stations as a whole haven't regained the local flavor that was the industry's mainstay for decades.

She complains that, when she was stuck in traffic for more than four hours when an inch of snow triggered massive gridlock in January, the stations she listened to seemed oblivious to the mess.

So are the changes working?

Well, no one is predicting the imminent demise of AM-FM radio. But many foresee a steady decline.

Arbitron data show that, each week, 94.2 percent of Americans age 12 and older listen to AM-FM radio. And they tune in an average of nearly 20 hours.

But the amount of time the average American age 12 and up spends listening to radio each week fell 11 percent from the spring of 1997 to the spring of 2004.

Mercer projects satellite radio and other competitors will do to radio what cable TV did to network TV: fragment its audience and reduce its share.

Radio executives agree the industry is losing teens like Tal Roughgarden, 19, a Wake Technical Community College student.

"I hate what's on the radio," said Roughgarden, who also plays guitar in a local band, Stay Asleep. "Once I had a CD player in my car, it was bye-bye radio."

The radio industry doesn't worry so much about Roughgarden now; the concern is that his generation is lost to radio forever.

"It's a problem," said Jon Coleman, president of a radio consulting firm in Cary that bears his name, "because advertisers drive radio formats, and advertisers, by and large, aren't interested in [young] listeners."

But advertisers are interested and worried about losing the likes of William L. "Sonny" Dowdy, 52, a computer consultant who lives in North Raleigh.

Dowdy listens to bluegrass, 1940s big band music and electronica -- all of which have their own channels on his XM satellite radio, but not local radio.

"If your tastes don't run to what is being broadcast, where are you going to get your music?" Dowdy asked.

Staff writer David Ranii can be reached at 829-4877 or

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