A Plan To Fix Cumulus Part 1

Lance's Line RadioInsight Blog

Cumulus Mary Berner Lew Dickey John DickeyAs Mary Berner gets settled into her office at Penn Plaza, I thought I’d give her a hand with some suggestions to help get her started on where to place her focus as Cumulus is rebuilt without the influence of the Dickey Brothers.


As the 2016 Presidential Election season kicks into high gear, the former core ABC owned stations will be looked upon to increase revenue. In the October PPM ratings released this week the big Cumulus stations pulled the following shares: 770 WABC New York 1.6, 790 KABC Los Angeles 0.5, 890 WLS Chicago 1.9, 560 KSFO and 810 KGO San Francisco 1.9 each, 820 WBAP Dallas 2.8, 570 KLIF Dallas 0.3, 630 WMAL/105.9 WMAL-FM Washington 4.5, 106.7 WYAY Atlanta 1.4, and 760 WJR Detroit 5.0. The Dickeys spent lots of time tinkering with their Talkers over the past few years just to see them plummet in the ratings.

From a revenue standpoint fixing WABC will take precedence due to the importance of New York on a local and national scale. If WABC gets turned around it may help Wall Street begin to look at what Berner is doing and help Cumulus’ stock. Where to start? Right now the station has nothing that sticks out as compelling programming to people under the age of 60. With over 16% of New York’s radio listening still coming from the AM band there are still listeners out there (unlike many other markets). The station needs voices that will generate buzz in both the market and social media as well as expand the potential audience away from older conservatives.

So who to get? There just happens to be two unemployed voices in New York that fit the bill: Keith Olbermann and Anthony Cumia. Would either of them want to return to radio? Money talks. Cumia took a hard turn towards being an Ultra-Conservative voice in the latter days of the Opie & Anthony Show and always had a great relationship with Imus. Would he consider joining Imus’ show as a co-host through the 2016 election and then take over the show afterwards to allow a seamless transition. Cumulus could take over ad sales of Cumia’s podcast network and perhaps use those voices for weekend shows.

Back up the truck to bring in Olbermann for afternoons. Like Rush Limbaugh in his peak in the 1990’s, listeners that disagree with him (coming from the Liberal side) may tune in just to argue with him. With the freedom to mix politics and sports, he could also help WABC take listeners away from WFAN’s Mike Francesa. Once the drive-times are stabilized, find local hosts for middays and nights that fit the new aggressive, buzz-filled lineup. Phase out infomercials on the weekends to create a consistent Talk sound focusing on Men 35-54 with a political lean that can also stretch into other topics.

KABC and WLS have begun to move in that direction, but KGO San Francisco and WBAP Dallas also have to worry about not hurting their successful sister Sports and syndicated Conservative Talk stations. In those markets find voices that can focus on local issues with a broader demographic base. Create the types of programming that only radio can do on a local level to reach broader audiences.


What is Nash? Is it a national radio network? Group of local radio stations all sharing common branding? Record label? Magazine? Television production?

With Cumulus intending to return some control of local programming to the programmers the company needs to figure out what exactly they expect out of Nash and Nash Icon. If the stations are forced to carry America’s Morning Show, Nash Nights Live, and Kix Brooks that leaves only nine hours of weekday programming coming from the local markets. The Nash Icon programming features 24 hours of content originating out of Nashville. Meanwhile if some stations like WKHX Atlanta, WCTO Allentown, and WIVK Knoxville were too important to rebrand as “Nash” then how did you expect management at stations forced to take the Nash branding and programming to care about promoting and selling these initiatives to the staff? It needs to be all or nothing, not the half-assed approach that the company has taken.

Again let’s start the focus in New York. 94.7 WNSH was the first station to launch with the “Nash” identity and as it comes upon its third birthday in January it has yet to settle above a two share nor get its CUME above a million people. Again if local markets are being given control of programming and the company is truly behind the Nash brand perhaps it is time to see if a local morning show would help turn the tide. How about pairing WNSH midday host Kelly Ford with sister WPLJ midday host Race Taylor? Giving Country artists a platform to perform and appear talking to just New Yorkers could help more than the national platform that America’s Morning Show could give.

If the company is not fully behind Country anymore, then go fill the gaping Alternative hole in the market. New York has no music stations targeting Men 18-44. The last time the format appeared in the market as a placeholder between the demise of “FM News 101.9” and the Merlin Media sale of that station to CBS, “New Rock 101.9” surged to a 3.2 share 6+ only with word of mouth promotion. Duplicate the success the company has had with 101.1 WKQX Chicago and run with it.

Classic Hip-Hop

It’s a fad. Radio-One quickly realized the format had no lasting power. After 93.9 WRWM Indianapolis surged to the top of the market soon after its launch, Cumulus began flipping stations across the country to Classic Hip-Hop. Just a few months later WRWM has lost over half of the audience it had at its peak. What will be Cumulus’ end-game? Can they evolve all the new Vibes, Beats and OGs to something longer lasting? Minneapolis is a market currently with two Classic Hip-Hop stations but no current Rhythmic station. Greater Media’s WBQT Boston and Entercom’s KRBQ San Francisco/KHTP Seattle have shown consistency without focusing completely on Classic Hip-Hop.

In Part 2 we’ll look at things that can be done with Westwood One, CBS Sports Radio, Rdio, and national integrations.

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  1. musiconradio says

    New talent needs to be created for AM talk radio. Local well known talent would be the key, and topics that relate to the community. WWL in New Orleans is a good example of that. Recycled talent that has been bounced from network to network isn’t the answer.

    Nash FM. Several heritage stations (like WXBM Pensacola) has the rug pulled from under them. A winning morning team…gone, a well know brand..gone. I understand the concept for the Nash brand, but it should of been used in conjunction with the successful brands in many markets. If it wasn’t broke, why change it.

    Alternative has done well in selected markets, but 6+ numbers don’t tell the whole story. Still a very tough sell to agencies. The verdict is still out on the format.

    Classic Hip Hop will go the route of Jammin oldies, but will open the door for some of the more researchd titles to show up on Urban AC stations and rhythm leaning AC/classic hit stations.

  2. Nathan Obral says

    My thoughts, for what they are worth:

    * AM talk radio has absolutely no future, and Cumulus (and us) need to accept that.
    ** Yes, KABC and WLS totally revamped their lineups, and both stations are still at historical lows. The only high points either station has is their sports play-by-play contracts, which isn’t that much of a difference maker as we think now. Look at the Mets and WOR.
    ** WABC and KGO are the radio equivalent of a deadmall, with no audience and trashed legacies and heritage. Both stations are 50,000 concrete pillboxes around the neck of Cumulus.
    ** It’s telling that WMAL and WJR are the only two legacy ABC Radio talkers that are drawing ANY listeners, because they weren’t meddled with by the Dickey Brothers.
    ** Eliminating infomercials is an outright impossibility. That’s like asking a drug addict to stop without taking him/her to rehab. Its easy revenue that these stations will never want to give up, and even if they did, it would be shoehorned in the weekend overnight hours of their sister FM music stations.
    ** Why would Anthony Cumia want to go back to terrestrial radio… specifically AM talk radio? That’s like asking him to trade a Porsche for a horse and buggy. Olbermann would be fascinating (and he HAS done talk radio before as a sub for Sam Donaldson’s “Live In America” mid-morning show a decade ago) but his employment history does speak for itself.

    * NASH FM: What’s to defend? John and Lew Dickey set that up to fail from the beginning. NASH is an enigma because the Dickeys didn’t care about creating a compelling brand name, but about the silly, non-radio things like magazines, talent searches and house paint. Many good country radio stations were absolutely trashed by the Dickeys in pursuit of this “country lifestyle” BS that was nothing more than a naked emperor strutting out in public for the first time. The sooner Cumulus abandons this absolute failure that is NASH FM, the better.

    *Classic Hip-hop: Well, the vast majority of Cumulus’ stations in this format are all running the same Westwood One format-in-a-box, and all have had botched format launches and automation misfires that prove how much the company really cares about it. All of them will switch to something else next year, and few will notice.

  3. seth barrick says

    I also think that they should increase local programming on am talk stations. They have a future and can have ratings brought back up. If Nash FM stations had a historic name they should be restored, otherwise keep the station as Nash FM. Also, programming of these stations should be left up to the local Cumulus office. Nash Icon is just a repeat of Westwood One Real Country, it serves no purpose and the stations should be restored to their original branding. If the station is not a Cumulus owned station and would like to keep the country programming they should have to pick up an affiliation with Real Country.

  4. Bill Recto says

    How is it possible to save KGO-AM at this point when KQED the Local NPR Newstalk affiliate is beating them up in the ratings? The horse has been out of the barn for nearly a decade since KGO and other old ABC radio affiliates moved from Disney to Citadel and now Cumulus.

    KQED gets its revenue from weekend donor programming from their Local PBS Feed.

    In San Francisco KQED can simply expand their audiences by getting their PBS audiences to go to the local NPR affiliate through donations and market great documentaries and investigative journalism on the radio.
    Likewise CBS can simply get KPIX audiences to listen to KCBS 106.9 on the radio and have some of the KPIX talent make radio appearances there.

    KGO have all their horses and cows out of the barn but Cumulus has no good strategy to deal with this since KGO-AM lost their ABC affiliation last year.

  5. louperry says

    There is one Cumulus AM talker that constantly has good numbers – WJR in Detroit. Morning and afternoon drive are highly identifiable personalities heavily integrated in the community. Paul W. Smith (6-year contract) and in afternoon famous author and Free Press columnist Mitch Albom. Neither program takes political sides. Paul’s show is the broadcast of record for the state. The morning show travels to the world’s auto shows broadcasting live. Rush and Savage aren’t featured on the website.

    1. Nathan Obral says

      The station also features Frank Beckmann – the former “SportsWrap” host and onetime University of Michigan radio play by play man – in middays, although he’s become a conservatalker since moving to that timeslot (to be fair, that move took place under the waning days of ABC ownership).

      It is somewhat surprising that WJR has been left relatively untouched under Cumulus, especially since Paul W. and Albom easily could have seen their shows be meddled into irrelevance by the Dickeys.

  6. louperry says

    As a consultant to radio groups and corporations I don’t see this cycle of election hullabaloo to be as it has been in the past. On the Democratic side Hillary will be punched around but more importantly the Republicans will be their own event. For all intensive purposes Donald Trump will be the candidate and radio talk will be in third place to his campaign. Senate, congressional races being local will be local. And the business issue is still the most important; can you sell political talk?
    Whether it is AM talk or FM music now competing with a multitude of other sources the industry needs to look back before moving forward. Radio whether it be music or talk the differentiator is personalities – personalities that really connect to the market, being entertaining and fun. The talent at most of the Cumulus/ABC AM’s is generic. WABC has moved around the chairs a number of times but with the same folk. WLS now is adding local stars but heretofore disconnected voices. These great call letters have lost their button and it won’t be easy to get one again.
    Cumulus AM’s also suffered from heavy baggage – The syndicated products they must air. People want local and they are listening to local news on CBS stations and sports more and more.
    So what should Ms. Berner do? Let local management create local station

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