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Radio stations compete with technology

January 18, 2005

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Radio stations compete with technology

By Melissa Meinzer
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Radio stations are battling for their lives and juggling their formats to compete with emerging and increasingly popular technologies like mp3s and Internet and satellite radio.

Earlier this month, WRRK-FM (96.9) became the latest station to tweak its format in hopes of hanging on to listeners. While the change at WRRK is more subtle -- the station is now playing deeper cuts that might not be heard on other classic rock stations -- some local stations have completely overhauled their formats in the past year.

  • WPGB-FM (104.7) switched from WJJJ, a smooth jazz format, then to Jammin Oldies, and is now an all-talk format, the first FM talk station in this market.

     

  • WXDX-FM (105.9), which is owned by Clear Channel, dropped shock jock Howard Stern from its morning drive slot and put DJ Alan Cox in the slot.

    Long-standing local pop station WBZZ-FM (93.7) became a K-Rock station, changing its musical format from softer rock-pop to harder-edged music that can follow it's new morning drive-time program: "The Howard Stern Show."

Stern is likely to take millions of listeners with him to satellite radio next year. The shock jock has fiercely battled the Federal Communications Commission over the content of his show, and will get out from under government pressure when he takes the broadcast to Sirius Satellite Radio on Jan. 1, 2006. The deal sent shockwaves through the broadcasting industry and should increase the appeal of satellite radio.

That, coupled with the booming popularity of iPods and mp3s that make music commercial-free and completely portable, causes traditional radio stations to scramble to retain key demographic groups.

"It's easy to change formats with computers and syndicated content," said John Poister, creative services director for Renda Broadcasting Pittsburgh, which owns three stations in this market. "If there's an announcer who does a format particularly well, you can have them do voice tracks for your local show, and you instantaneously have a viable music show."

Radio, Poister said, is a medium that is a particularly important way to reach out to young males, an otherwise elusive demographic -- they don't watch as much television as other groups, nor do they read as many magazines, two formats that allow for very demographic-specific advertising.

Poister says that WRRK's decision to play deeper cuts is meant to distinguish RRK from the city's four rock stations -- WXDX and WDVE, both owned by Clear Channel Communications, and WRKZ, owned by Infiniti Broadcasting. WRRK is also playing up its local roots and added an afternoon drive team consisting of "two Pittsburgh guys talking about Pittsburgh stuff," WRRK station manager John Robertson said of jocks Nene and Battle, who he calls "Pittsburgh born and bred."

"We are locally owned, that's the great thing about our company," Robertson said of the station, owned by Steel City Media. "We don't have to do corporate radio."

The trend toward syndicated content might be driving listeners back to locally produced radio.

Poister says that the large station groups, such as Clear Channel and Infiniti, tend to use an almost cookie-cutter approach.

"If it works well in one market, they'll substitute it in to another," he said. "It's essentially the same format in every market."

Robert Unmacht, a partner at in3 Partners, a Nashville-based media consulting firm, said that while syndication and satellite and Internet-based radio are rising to prominence, local, over-the-airwaves radio will always have a place.

"Radio benefits from being local," he said. "You can't beat a local news station."

 

Melissa Meinzer can be reached at mmeinzer@tribweb.com.

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