On-Air Radio That Still Works

Back in the days when this picture was taken, I had already had the good fortune of meeting three gentlemen that would have an influence on my career.

There was Phil Stout and Marlin Taylor and, of course, Jerry Lee the then general manager of a shitty little FM signal at 101.1 on the dial that was not WCBS-FM.

They broadcasted from the Germantown Bank Building at Germantown and Chelten -- the studio/offices were so small the mice were hunchback.

The station was called WDVR -- strings and things instrumental music station and along with its engineer-owner, the late Dave Kurtz, went on to be one of the most prolific radio stations in the U.S.

This is not a reference to history or nostalgia -- it's a statement of current events.

B-101 is the second biggest biller in Philadelphia and one of the top ratings getters even in this sad day of radio's decline.

The same facility that is now 100% owned by Jerry Lee is skipping the recession and ignoring conventional wisdom about broadcasting, employment, advertising, research and the Internet.

Recently, WBEB (the current call letters) or B-101 as it is popularly known, sustained a major assault by Greater Media's Now 97.5 -- a direct assault.

Greater Media is a good and great company. Its president, Peter Smyth is a very able broadcaster who stands above the larger consolidators who don't seem to have any answers for radio's current dilemma.

If Smyth's company couldn't knock a piece of billing off B-101, I suspect no one will be able to do it.

Since its amazing 11.9 Christmas share, B-101 has scored 6.6-7.0-7.3 in the People Meter Philadelphia ratings.

Now 97.5's comparable trends are 6.1 to 5.1 then 2.8, 2.6 and now 2.2.

Today, Now 97.5 is fine tuning away from the direct assault -- what else could it do?

What's more impressive is that while Clear Channel, Cumulus, Citadel and their consolidation clones are gutting their stations, firing people, reducing sales staffs and moving away from local radio, B-101 did over $29 million in the forgettable year of 2008.

CBS competitor all-news KYW was the only station to do slightly better with a boatload more of expenses. And Greater Media did well with sister station WMMR at $23 million according to BIA. Clear Channel's best performer was urban AC WDAS-FM with $19 million and that was down 23%. That's what happens when San Antonio runs a Philly urban station. The Philadelphia market was off 8% in 2008.

So, how does one win in radio like it was 1999?

1. B-101 is a local radio station.

2. It now has a strong local morning show -- long a sore point. That has made all the difference. Tiffany and Michael are now second overall 12+ and while that isn't the money demo, it's a hell of a lot of listeners where there were none. (My only bone to pick with B-101's local focus is that it runs the syndicated Delilah show at night not because of financial reasons but research. However, I think developing a local show in this time period would be even more powerful). Still, B-101 made their decision to carry one national show based on research and by research I don't mean John Hogan looking in the mirror while shaving and asking himself what would work in that time period.

3. B-101 has a killer local sales team that knows how to sell. Well-compensated. Advertiser focused. B-101 tests commercials for clients as part of its "service" and thinks beyond the consolidators dollar-a-holler mentality. No sales cutbacks at B-101. The same can't be said about the consolidated stations in the market where saving money is more important than growing sales.

4. They research everything. Lee's close business relationship with the researcher Bill Moyes had led to a radio station that is asking all the right questions and taking nothing for granted -- from what music to play to positioning the station. Of course, none of this is brain surgery but in today's consolidated radio world, CEOs have been quick to cut research, outside promotion, television ads, music testing -- and forget about testing commercials. Just sayin'.

5. Christmas comes early in Philly -- I can tell you that. Lee and Marlin Taylor developed special Christmas programming so long ago competitors apparently never felt threatened. Today, Lee uses such holiday programming to inflate the ratings legally and then does an outstanding job of keeping listeners after the first of the year.

6. Salesmen don't sit at the reception desk and employees are not asked to take five-day unpaid "furloughs" because the management screwed up. Lew Dickey, please note.

7. Jerry Lee has pulled B-101's terrestrial Internet stream allegedly over royalty issues. This strikes me as curious because this moneymaker can afford to pay those draconian fees more than most. But what other broadcasters are missing is that terrestrial signals over the Internet are not the next business for broadcasters. At best online terrestrial radio is better reception at work but even with that concession, statistics consistently show that online radio streams only add three to four percent more total listening for the radio station. Radio will have to go back to school to understand the digital future. Streaming the terrestrial signal is not part of it and therefore irrelevant.

8. B-101's loyalty to its core audience has been rewarded with the news that its listeners couldn't be lured away by a younger, better looking model in the form of Now 97.5. Such a victory comes not from initiatives from buffoons trying to do local radio from long ago and far away, but from local management that resisted the temptation to sell out to the Clear Channel's of the world when all that high interest investment money was being thrown around town. Memo to Suleman, Dickey and Hogan: local radio will always beat the pants off national.

I know there are other radio operators that run similarly smart, local operations. I chose B-101 to juxtaposition a real local station vs. Repeater Radio because I know a lot about the market, the station and the owner -- the original owner who is now 73 years young. That's where my career started so I'm partial. But hell, all these years later, B-101 is still going strong.

There are too many stations that the likes of Lew Dickey are performing an autopsy on and the stations are not even dead yet. True, Dickey is wittingly or unwittingly killing them off.

And as we see the "nutty" John Hogan ruling his global empire from San (frickin') Antonio and Fagreed Suleman playing junior achievement program director of the year with legendary ABC Radio properties and Cumulus's CEO Lew Dickey working like a mad scientist behind the scenes on an all-automated radio company (more to come on that topic) -- you don't have to reach too far to see where radio went wrong.

It's really not the recession. That hurts but doesn't disable.

It's not really the Internet. Radio doesn't have a clue what the Internet's real meaning is -- just look at all those cheap terrestrial streams they're throwing up into cyberspace with minimal results.

It's not about cutting expenses even though the consolidators have overcharged their "mastercards" and have gotten into deep trouble over debt. Cutting expenses helps them keep from getting cut and that's why they're doing it.

Not about the iPod, iPhone or mobile devices syphoning off listeners and revenue -- radio as usual has no place on these devices. You can hear broadcast stations on mobile phones, but it's not a radio and won't perform like one for ratings, listeners or advertisers. Not with apps, games, links, texting, email and the Internet as listener diversions. Hell, if the Walkman had all that, it, too, wouldn't have been the boon that it was to the radio industry.

On-air radio that still works is not run on the cheap.

Fully employs and deploys local talent (on-air and on the street).

Buys ongoing research to stay close to its market (I repeat, buys research).

Doesn't confuse what it currently offers on-the-air with the digital future.

And in return, all it does is make tons of money -- even in a bad recession -- the old fashioned way.

Not by spending less.

By spending more to make more.

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