Mixing It Up On The Airwaves

May 6, 2007

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Mixing It Up On The Airwaves

WJML turns to a blend of voices in audience bid

Station owner Rick Stone, center, Jason Spegele, sales manager, left, and Phil Clever, the station’s manager, meet in the offices of WJML-AM 1210 in the Traverse City State Bank building.

TRAVERSE CITY — Rick Stone remembers trying to give away hundreds of dollars doing promos for his FM radio stations, and getting only a handful of calls in response.

But make a change to his AM talk radio station format, and Stone's phone rings off the hook.

"You don't have to have anything like (giveaways) in talk radio,” said Stone, a veteran northern Michigan broadcaster who's launched a new talk radio format at WJML-AM that crosses the spectrum of political views. The station recently began simulcasting at AM-1210 outside of Traverse City to complement its original AM-1110 signal in Petoskey.

Stone is looking to crack a highly competitive Traverse City talk radio market blanketed commercially by right-wing radio giants like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on WTCM-AM 580, and a sizable following for FM news programming through Interlochen Public Radio.

To do so, Stone is turning to a combination of conservative talkers, including Neal Boortz and Glenn Beck, mixed in with liberal hosts like Ed Schultz to carve out a new audience.

"The community has been wanting a new approach to talk radio,” said Jason Spegele, sales manager of WJML. "Our listeners are wanting information; people that want that information, they also want to hear the other side, as well.”

Some in the talk radio industry said mixing political viewpoints on the airwaves isn't a recipe for success.

"It's never worked anyplace else ... that's why nobody does it,” said Ross Biederman, president of Midwestern Broadcasting, owner of AM-580 in Traverse City. That company uses a combination of staunchly conservative local and national hosts for programming that frequently slams traditional print and broadcast media. Biederman said it's a formula that works in the Traverse City market

"We carry them because we knew that they get great ratings in other markets,” Biederman said of his programming lineup. "We're not in the business of espousing a political viewpoint ... We're in the business of bringing maximum ears to our programs.”

Others in the business agree that while the mixed format offered by WJML is not widely utilized, the idea can succeed if the station takes the time and promotional effort needed to cultivate an audience.

"It should work just fine,” said Robert Unmacht, a former radio station owner who's with In3 Partners, a media and technology consulting firm based in Nashville. He said it's a throwback to the early days of talk radio in the late 1970s, when many stations offered a mix of personalities with a wide range of opinions and information.

Unmacht said Limbaugh's success changed that formula for many stations, which built their primary formats around conservative talkers. That strategy continues to work in some markets, he said, but is beginning to slip in others, with conservative stations losing ground to other formats.

"You've got to give it time to gel,” Unmacht said. "If it's good, entertaining radio, people will listen.”

According to station ratings from the national Arbitron rating service, WTCM-AM garners a 7 percent to 8 percent share of local radio listeners, which Biederman said has been consistent in recent years. Thom Paulson, station manager at Interlochen Public Radio, wouldn't disclose the share numbers for its 91.5 FM news station, but Biederman said he's seen IPR's ratings and they rank among the top radio stations in the area, placing it in the same range as WTCM-AM.

Paulson did say IPR's all-news station averages close to 19,000 listeners per week.

"There's a lot of people that want to know what's going on in the world with a clear, concise presentation of the news,” Paulson said. "They want good information.”

Stone said his station never worried about ratings because there's spotty information available on the Petoskey market from the country's primary radio rating services. Now that he's moved into the Traverse City market, Stone said his company will be better able to determine how it stacks up against the competition.

"It will be interesting to see where we are,” he said.

Stone, who's owned WJML since 1992, is making a major investment in the Traverse City market, paying $244,000 to swap stations with WLDR-AM in Traverse City to simulcast the programming from WJML in Petoskey. WLDR, owned by Fort Bend Broadcasting, now plays country music on the WWKK-AM 750 frequency in Petoskey.

Stone and Spegele said their goal is to make WJML the top talk radio station in northern Michigan, regardless of what the competition is doing.

"I've been bucking the trend for 14 years,” Stone said. "We've been very successful in Petoskey, and Traverse City is a much larger market ... we have brought a lot of new talk radio listeners to our area because of our progressive format.”

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