How Translators Changed the Format Landscape
By Sean Ross
For years, the easiest way to gauge the fortunes of a particular radio format was to track the format-change activity around it. Was a format hot enough that owners would entrust their multi-million dollar property to it? Was a format so hot that broadcasters might blow up a viable radio station to get there before a competitor? (Think of oldies WCBS-FM New York becoming Jack-FM nearly a decade ago.)
In the mid-’90s, three new alternative stations in a week were a clear sign of the “new rock revolution,” and about as fevered a pitch as you could hope for. Last week, there were three new alternative stations in top 50 markets. But while alternative is considered to be on an upswing at the moment, two of those new alternative stations were on lower-powered FM translators. The other was essentially a format modification.
In fact, a look at the format-change activity on Radioinsight.com shows format changes to be lower-risk and more tactical than at any time since the late-’90s wave of post-Telecom Act mergers that often saw a station’s competitor bought and retooled to attack somebody else. We looked at nearly two weeks’ worth of format-change news — 28 stories taking place in the 12 days between June 9 and June 20.
Of those changes, nine involved stations in top 50 markets.
Nine of the changes, nearly a third, involved a translator, ranging from Clear Channel’s launch of “Alt 93.3” Minneapolis and active rock “Louie 103.7” St. Louis, to Cox’s new Orlando alternative outlet, “X107.3“. There were at least four AM formats added to the FM dial via translators, including the return of easy listening to FM in Palm Springs, Calif.
Of the biggest groups, Clear Channel, Cox, Cumulus, and Entercom were all represented (as well as Canada’s Newcap Radio). CBS Radio did not have a change during the period monitored. At least one of the Clear Channel, Cox, and Entercom changes involved a translator.
Only three of the changes could be said to involve full-signal properties in PPM-measured markets. One was the launch of oldies/greatest hits CHLG (LG104.3) Vancouver, B.C. There was a rebranding, as WRZX (X103) Indianapolis finished its long-brewing return from active rock to “Alt 103,” and a change from classic rock to adult hits at Cumulus’ KENZ (Trax 101.9) Salt Lake City.
There were two other large-market changes on lesser signals. Clear Channel unleashed “The Bull” at former EDM flagship WEDX (Evolution 101.7) Boston, a crowd-control attempt against country rival WKLB. And although it’s not yet an official launch, Cumulus sent out invitations promising “an urban radio renaissance” on New York move-in WFAS-FM — a clear enough signal of intentions that I chose to count it as a change and not a rumor.
Rock in some form accounted for five of the changes, three of them on translators. Only Pierre, S.D., saw the launch of a brand new rock station on a full-fledged signal. FM sports accounted for three other format flips. So did country, including the new country oldies war in Helena, Mont., involving both a translator and a full signal. Three involved non-commercial outlets.
The Cumulus New York station was the only Urban or Rhythmic launch in the 10-day period. If the new station becomes Urban AC, as expected, there were no mainstream R&B/hip-hop or rhythmic top 40 stations launches among the format changes we looked at.
A few of the format changes could easily rate columns of their own.
Indy’s X103 went from being an outlier — an active rock station with alternative chart reporting status — to one of the stations that defined the Korn/Kid Rock/Linkin Park era of the format in the late ’90s/early ’00s. That it was unable to follow the evolution of the format without rebranding is big news.
WLGX (Gen X Radio) Louisville was the most successful in the first wave of ’90s-based radio stations. That genre has undergone its own recent renaissance, with the launch of ’90s-based rhythmic outlets in Boston, Seattle, San Diego, and Portland, Ore. But WLGX itself is finishing a transition to Hot AC.
Evolution 101.7, developed by Clear Channel as an online format for iHeart Radio, was the most-discussed format launch of 2013. Its ratings were low, but so were those of its adult hits and alternative predecessors. A Clear Channel EDM format doesn’t really need a local FM to develop a following, but it was a gutsy move nonetheless while it lasted.
All three of those stations are Clear Channel-owned. As our largest group owner, you would expect Clear Channel to loom large on the format change landscape. But its twin penchants for tactical format changes and now FM translators mean that Clear Channel is almost guaranteed to play a big part in any format’s fortunes.
Clear Channel stations were crucial in the boom/bust for both all-comedy and progressive talk radio. Its WRFF (Radio 104.5) Philadelphia helped revive interest in the alternative format. It’s also been the group signing on new urban stations lately, although mostly in the format’s biggest markets where one station or cluster has the format to themselves (unlike a decade ago, when the launches included markets such as Des Moines, Iowa, as well).
Format activity is always a product of any individual owner’s interest and priorities. For years, other broadcasters avoided what research showed to be a two share for country in New York. That’s what Cumulus’ WNSH (Nash-FM) has garnered so far, but with a national strategy for Nash, it probably doesn’t need much more to be happy. But other broadcasters often see only the headlines.
It’s not Clear Channel’s responsibility to do format R&D for all broadcasters, but its cyclical interest still likely affects how other groups perceive a format. After Clear Channel launched WWPR (Power 105.1) New York in the early ’00s, other major groups began bulking up in urban. Will other broadcasters look at the decision to switch from liberal to conservative talk in Los Angeles in the context of Clear Channel needing a new home for Rush Limbaugh? They probably won’t be considering progressive talk in the first place.
The proliferation of translators could create a funhouse-mirror effect on some formats’ fortunes as well. In 18 months, other broadcasters may decide alternative in Minneapolis and Orlando would do even better on a full-signal. But they could as easily look at the 1-2 shares typically garnered by translators and declare alternative a niche format. It’s certainly hard to imagine any broadcaster seeing the modest success of WAMO Pittsburgh and bringing urban, once a significant format in that market, back to a full-signal FM.
Broadcasters have been capable of creating spoiler stations long before the translator boom as well. If there’s any pattern to ratings in the era of PPM measurement, it is that they tend to be particularly kind to any station that has a significant franchise to itself. And when there’s no “Greatest Hits-in-Vancouver”-size hole available, taking a piece of the big guy has always been a tempting strategy for some broadcasters. But with translators, it’s no longer necessary to decide whether “born-to-flank” is a better strategy than “born-to-win.”
Note: This story was published before Cox’s launch of “X107.1” Atlanta. That change reinforces all of what was said above, but raises the number of new large-market alternative stations to four.
Sean Ross is VP of music and programming for Edison Research, and author of the weekly Ross On Radio newsletter on music and format trends.
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