How Translators Changed the Format Landscape

By Sean Ross

seanrossFor 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 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 On Radio Edison Media Research

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.

CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE to the Ross On Radio Newsletter

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  1. says

    At least in this article, some of the smaller (medium) markets are discussed. I have subscribed to many of the newsletters in the past, but cancelled because most of the articles consisted of cookie cutter format changes in the top 25 markets. I also give Radioinsight credit because you cover all markets (both Tom Taylor and Radioinsight covered our station when it signed on).. I do give Cumulus kudos for taking the chance and bringing country (a full power station) back to New York.. The return of urban on a new WAMO, and KWXY in Palm Springs is also good to see. Sadly, I think most of the new translators will be used to shave off market share from the competition. Formats such as EDM, or alt rock will be recycled again because some format captain thinks it will work (this time). The cost of running a translator is nominal Why not try something different. If it doesn’t stick…well try again. Who knows, it might the next big revenue generator (success).

    Damon Collins

  2. Dan says

    Amen to your thoughts.

    I liked them.

    Copying everyone else can and will lead to overkill.

    My own research and studying has lead me to that conclusion.

    My new LPFM is going to be the most original radio station, to every come to Selma Alabama.

    Have big plans for it.

    My bowl of seafood gumbo is already fixed.

    Ready to spring it on everyone.

    Dan <

  3. Goin' Where? says

    Hi Dan, – You wrote “Copying everyone else can and will lead to overkill.”

    I’d be interested in hearing you expand on just what you mean by that.

  4. Dan says

    Since my radio station will be a 100 watt LPFM broadcast, I wanted to make good use of this signal. Copying what the big boys are doing, wouldn’t work too well for me. Since they’re able to sell their Urban, Country, Classic Hits, NPR, traditional Gospel and NPR/Political/Christian Talk product, very well, it wouldn’t make sense for me to do it. By me doing one of those formats, my own presentation would lead to an overkill and I would have a hard time promoting it. Now if I do something different, I would be able to attract an audience that otherwise didn’t have a radio station of their own already.

    Dan <

    P.S. My area of Alabama also gets many "Rimshot" signals from Montgomery, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Camden and the other small towns that surround Selma. Those players cater to Country, Traditional Gospel, Urban, NPR/Political/Sports/Christian Talk, Rock, AC and Top 40 based music. Since we have those formats already, it wouldn't make sense for me to bring another voice to them. Filling in a format hole makes the most sense to me. Doing something different will pay off for me, in the end.

    1. Goin' Where? says

      Any of us who have read of Dan’s efforts knows his thinking. Yet a good many who read about Dan in this thread have likely not followed his story in the Alabama or Christian Music boards on this site. In Dan’s case, we’re talking about Selma, Alabama and by the very nature of LPFM, the need for Dan to present a very localized format that reaches the largest number of Selma citizens and contributors possible.

      Frankly, the format options currently presented locally in Selma are quite limited. Distant signals from Montgomery and elsewhere focus more on their specific larger distant market. If someone tunes in from Selma, great, but Selma isn’t the primary focus of those stations. As such, there are a variety of format options that would not copy any other local Selma radio station format.

      So, Dan…what I guess I’m looking to see you explain is more how you’ve concluded that your “seafood gumbo” is what Selma needs?. With that, how will you respond to the inevitable objections by some who will ask that if you truly want to reach Selma, why are you offering “seafood gumbo” when far more widely popular menu options remain unserved to the local Selma audience?

      For that matter, what is your strategy when your “gumbo” becomes the success that you believe it will? What steps will you take to defend your “gumbo” should a broadcaster with deeper pockets and a much better signal sees the need to adapt your successful format to one of their radio stations?

  5. Dan says

    I’m going to target the 18-54 year old crowd, with a wonderful presentation of mainstream CCM. This is something no one else is already doing.

    I saw a need for this LPFM radio station, because:

    (1) I want to fill in a format hole that existed.
    (2) This community needs something like this.
    (3) I want to use this radio station to help revive a dead city and bring new life to it.
    (4) I want to help lead people to Jesus and show them the right way to live.

    Want to be the most original radio station to ever come here. My goal is to be a real voice, for the voiceless mainstream CCM crowd here.

    I highly doubt if anyone else will come along and copy me. Everyone else here is doing very well with their own presentations.

    These other “Established Players” already know where their bread and butter is. No need for them to fish for CCM. It would be foolish indeed.

    It would be better for someone like me, to come and give this musical style a chance. Have plans of advertising and promoting this station heavy, once I sign on. Will invite the community to tune in and check me out.

    Will make sure the playlist is exciting and fresh, so that the people will come back for more. Not going to be boring at all.

    Dan <

    P.S. Thanks to everyone for their thoughts, Prayers, comments and suggestions, I appreciate it. Still learning all I need to know about this business. This will be my first time to ever own a radio station, if built out.

  6. Goin' Where? says

    But Dan, how do you know – not just assume – that a format hole exists? How do you know that Selma needs “something like this?” How do you know that it will bring revival? After all, there are a variety of music genres not currently being played in Selma radio. Why?

    Is there simply not enough interest? Are they artists and styles that not enough Selma listeners know or care about? How do you know – not just assume – that you’re planning to program a style of music that Selma will know or care enough about to make your station a success in listenership and financial support?

    If that interest isn’t there, how can you expect the station to truly impact Selma? It’s about the dynamics of a radio market. Not every market can be expected to have the same wants or needs – nor the same racial, age or financial factors needed – to make a programming a certain style of music a success. Isn’t it just possible that programming to your goal of revival might instead require a more mainstream and better known style of music presented with brief faith related talk features.

    And doesn’t this all eventually track back to’s first reply to the Sean Ross article? The lack of presentation of a certain style of music doesn’t necessarily mean that enough audience or interest is there to meet the revenue goals of the operators and stakeholders of radio in that market. There are usually enough factors already known that make clear what risks will or will not work. As frustrating as that can be, you can’t operate a radio station or cluster by taking chances on “something different” knowing that success is highly unlikely. In those situations, it’s not copying nor is it overkill. In today’s radio chess game, using that smaller signal to finesse a format already programmed by a competitor to shave a point or more importantly a dollar from that competitor’s bottom line is wisely the more prudent choice.

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