Cover Story

Making Waves

In an economic age where even survival seems like an accomplishment, Acadiana's radio stations are ahead of the curve. There are some 28 radio stations in the Lafayette area using 19 different formats, and there is not one Arabic, Mexican, Caribbean, big band or farm format among them. There are, however, a half dozen urban formats of one form or another, six more stations that specialize in country music and another five that bang heads with almost every kind of rock imaginable. Throw in a few talk stations and season with a couple of Christian formats, and you have Acadiana's radio roux. 
And they're doing fine, thank you. 
The Lafayette metro area - for radio purposes - consists of six parishes: Lafayette, Acadia, St. Martin, St. Landry, Vermilion and Iberia. Arbitron's survey, the largest of the industry's ratings services, lists about 256 radio markets, bases its metro area on population and ranks Lafayette metro at No. 102. While the average of both local and national radio advertising revenue was down 25 percent to $3.4 billion in second quarter 2009 compared with the same quarter last year, the Radio Advertising Bureau (Aug. 21) noted that some segments were better than others. Network radio, for example, was down just 10 percent to $274 million, while digital radio was up 9 percent to $120 million. The RAB also reported that all of radio's revenue segments - local and national ad dollars spent on network, digital and off-air advertising - were down 23 percent over the first half of the year compared with the same period last year. Local ad dollars spent at radio stations across the country is down 25 percent through June. 
But not here. 
"Locally, we've been fine," says Mike Grimsley, general manager for the seven stations that make up Regent Broadcasting. "Here in Lafayette, we're down probably less than 10 percent. It's the national and regional stuff that's been off, but the mom and pop, local-direct thing has been pretty good for us."
It's apparently been good for a lot of Acadiana stations.
"The local market's doing very well; we're just working harder for the same buck," says Chuck Wood, the recently hired general manager for Regent's main competition, Citadel Broadcasting. (Wood replaces Mary Galyean, who, it's worth noting, took over for him as GM 11 years ago when then-owner Powell Group cut him loose.) "The over-the-air signal is our cash cow, no question. But while over-the-air is still the model, that's not what it'll be 10 years from now. It's our job at the corporate level to determine what that model will be and our job to get ahead of the curve and create as we go," Wood says. "Whatever it is, I have to do it locally, or it won't work because if you can't get it done locally, it's not going to go anywhere else."
Wood has a particular insight to both his competition and the market. He was Grimsley's sales manager at Regent for more than a decade before accepting Citadel's offer and now has the chance to put his philosophy to the test.
"Content is going to be so important in the future because there will be so much competition for people's time and eyes and ears," Wood says. "I think programming right now is probably more important than it's ever been. You must have content and it must be local content; satellite radio, for example, cannot offer local content. You know, people can listen to juke boxes all they want, they can listen to their iPod and they can listen to satellite radio, but if they want the local information and want to feel safe and informed during a hurricane, they turn to local radio. 
"When TV came out, they said radio was going to die and instead it got bigger. When the eight-track came out, they said radio was going to die and it didn't. Well, now there's satellite radio and if anybody's hurting, it's satellite radio."

In June former state Rep. Ernie Alexander returned to local radio as the morning host at KVOL-AM.

Photo by Robin May

Wood's got a point. Neither Sirius nor XM Radio could financially make it on their own, and a merger has since combined the two into a single entity. While live sports programming and specialized formats that never go out of range are a huge plus for satellite radio, Howard Stern probably won't be dropping hurricane advisories into his show anytime in the near future.
There are very few stand-alone operations - independents - transmitting in Acadiana. Most of the indies operate more than one station but remain under local ownership. Still, most independents and clusters have one important common denominator: They've managed to keep their heads above water during these tough economic times. Literally, in some cases.
"We're actually doing pretty good," claims Dr. Marcus Pittman. The Lake Charles physician owns Pittman Broadcasting Services with four of his six stations in the Lafayette area. "In fact, we're up 300 percent over last year. Not that we're doing that much, it's just that business was really down until this year. It's hard to debut radio stations after hurricanes [Rita and Gustav] get through with you. The amount of damage we had was tremendous, and it was difficult to get much support. We had to pretty much build everything ourselves and at a slow pace. "But we're doing a lot better now, and I'm surprised at how well."     
Of Pittman's stations, Z105.9 KFXZ-FM, featuring an urban adult contemporary format, has made the biggest splash, at least in the ratings; in the spring 2009 Arbitron book, the station was ranked No. 1 in adults. But KVOL-AM, another Pittman property, has been a disappointment and not merely because it doesn't show well in the book, which AM stations seldom do anyway. What bothers Pittman is a perceived lack of support from the community. 
"The public needs to have a voice," insists Pittman. "KVOL-AM was the Emergency Broadcast station when Katrina hit in 2005 (a designation the station lost the next year to Regent's KTDY-FM). During the hurricane, we stayed on the air but [Joey] Durel's administration never gave us any information. KVOL just hasn't been supported here at all."
Then again, the station probably didn't make many friends in City Hall with its recent campaign against Redflex and the SafeLight/SafeSpeed programs. Former employees Todd Elliott and Stephanie Ware were relentless in their criticism of both the program and the Durel administration, which became, according to Durel, personal attacks. Perhaps as a gesture of truce, Pittman hired former state Rep. Ernie Alexander as KVOL's morning show host in June, but Pittman says Durel has still not appeared as a guest on the station.
Though FM outfits are historically the better rated and therefore bread winners of radio, it's ironic that a pair of AM operations have garnered the latest headlines. KVOL certainly made a mark with its coverage of the Redflex controversy, while Regent's ESPN 1420 (KPEL-AM) is bidding to become the network's first-ever affiliate to claim a National Association of Broadcasters Marconi Award. 
"It's the highest award they give out," brags Grimsley. "There are five of us in the finals and interestingly enough, we're the first ESPN affiliate to be a finalist and considering the network has affiliates in some awfully big markets, that surprised us. And, of course, KPEL-FM is also up for a Marconi [in a separate division], so we think that's a feather in our cap. I think it's the first time a market above 100 has had two stations in the same building as finalists. 
"In retrospect, that's one of the beauties of consolidation," says the general manager. "That format [sports talk] can thrive only because the other stations helped it get started. It's been around now 11 or 12 years, and the first three were a slow process and without the help of its sister stations, probably wouldn't have made it. But it did and because of it, Lafayette's got one of the best sports talk stations in the country."

After 11 years with competitor Regent Broadcasting, Chuck Wood has returned to the KSMB group of radio stations as general manager.

Photo by Robin May

But ESPN 1420 is the proverbial ratings riddle. The station's been nationally recognized though there is a question as to whether anyone actually noticed. According to the latest Arbitron book, only KANE-AM in New Iberia has fewer listeners in a given week.
"The AM stations survive because of consolidation," explains Grimsley. "With seven stations in our company, we're able to split a lot of expenses. We have one receptionist instead of seven, one post office box instead of seven and it would be prohibitive for those stations to survive on their own. ESPN 1420 carries a lot of UL sports and has a sports talk format and does extremely well, but if it were on its own with all the necessary expenses? Could we travel to all those games? I don't think so."
Ratings can be tricky, especially to the consumer. A good salesperson can mold the numbers to show exactly what's needed to make a commission, which is why many sales staffs tend to avoid selling by the numbers. You can be top ranked in the spring and tenth in the fall depending on who was surveyed. 
"What most local advertisers are looking for are ideas," believes Wood, whose cluster of stations reaches a quarter million listeners a week. "They're not in business because they're marketing experts; it's because they know their business and if you can assist them with their ideas, you don't need ratings. Now, would I want to work without them? No. Agencies and national advertisers pay attention to them but most local buyers don't." 
"You really need both ratings and sales because you have two types of businesses," contends Grimsley. "You have local-direct, which thankfully is the largest part of our business, and you have the agency-regional-national segment, which is done strictly by the numbers. If there's a national agency in New York City buying for a national client, all they have are the ratings to base their decisions on. They don't live here and have a feel for what goes on locally, but the local businesses know the radio station and know if it fits their customer base or not."
According to Miller Kaplan Arase & Co., which tracks advertising on a national scale, the communications/cellular/public utilities category is the top spender both locally and nationally. Restaurants are ranked second while the category of television/networks/cable providers is third. Not surprisingly, automobiles (dealers/dealer groups/manufacturers/rentals) dropped from first to fourth in 2009's first quarter. Local dealerships are still advertising but are being more careful where their dollars go.

Regent Broadcasting's Mike Grimsley has two stations, KPEL-AM and KPEL-FM, in the running for a prestigious Marconi Award.

Photo by Robin May

"That's part of it," says one local marketing consultant. "You look at the cost of what the station's charging and you look at the demographic it attracts. It's really a case of supply and demand. For example, some urban stations have great ratings but some advertisers just won't buy them. Therefore their rates are cheaper because there's not such a demand for them."
It's a little like the case of the Florida Marlins, who won the World Series in 1997 and then held a fire sale by trading off their best players the following year to raise money. Number one in the marketplace doesn't necessarily translate into a larger bank account.
Sometimes management will force the issue by changing either on-air personalities or entire formats. "You can't do a format change based on your gut," says Grimsley. "I remember losing a lot of friends when we switched 107.9-FM from a classic rock station to urban contemporary, but it's proven to be a great move for us. The advertising has tripled what it was under the old format."
Meanwhile Wood has left the music alone but made a couple of changes in his morning shows, long considered the bedrock of any radio station's on-air structure. Gone is Scott Daniels, a 17-year veteran at KXKC-FM, replaced by Ray Robicheaux, the former afternoon host and now program director. Meanwhile Wakeman Linscomb, a longtime veteran of morning shows in major markets, has taken over the morning slot at KRDJ-FM, a rock station owned by Last Bastian Station Trust but run by Wood and Citadel. 
Whether the personnel moves make a difference in the numbers remains to be seen. In truth, many radio executives consider Arbitron surveys too flawed to be taken seriously. The complaints have now reached the point that the Federal Communications Commission is inquiring as to whether Arbitron includes enough minorities in its sample groups. In May, The Washington Post reported the FCC is also looking into complaints that Arbitron does not distribute enough of its measuring devices in African-American and Hispanic communities. Critics believe that the result is that minority audiences are undercounted and therefore have a harder time competing for advertisers.   
As is, the Arbitron survey can be broken down into two major categories: 12 years old and older (12+) and ages 25-54, with a number of minor variables in between. The basic premise itself even rubs some radio people the wrong way, the notion that a 12-year-old has buying power and someone older than 54 doesn't.
For example, Grimsley is 49 while both Wood and Pittman are nearing 60. They have plenty of disposable income and together are responsible for almost half the radio stations in the market. Yet according to Arbitron, only one of them counts. 
"It's a big-time mistake," says Grimsley. "They believe that many buyers over the age of 54 have set buying habits and won't change those habits. But we also know that we have more discretionary money after the age of 54 than we do in our 30s or 40s, when we're raising kids or putting them through college."
"It's sort of funny," says Wood. "I'm 56 years of age and I don't count anymore. But I've got more money to spend now than I've ever had in my life and I'm buying more crap than ever. But I don't count."   
"I once had a station in Lake Charles that was off the air and still got a three-share," laughs Pittman. "I don't subscribe to Arbitron and won't," he continues. "I heard one competitor claim that the only reason 105.9 showed up so well was that we bought the book. No, we didn't." 
Meanwhile the beat goes on. KSMB-FM, no longer the dominant ratings force in the market, can still point to the fact that according to the latest survey, more people listen to 94.5 in an average week than any other station. Z105.9 KFXZ-FM is No. 1 for adults 25-54 while 99.9 KTDY-FM is at the top of the list in the 12+ demographic. Like the formats themselves, there is something in the surveys for just about everybody. 
And for the power of radio in south Louisiana, there is something more, something that Sirius, iPods and juke boxes simply cannot do.

A guide to radio formats
A radio station's format is governed by four parameters: music style, music time period, music activity level and music sophistication. This used to be a pretty simple concept, but as the New York Radio Guide tells us, there's nothing simple about radio formats anymore.
Active Rock - For stations that play rock music designed to be played loudly.
Adult Album Alternative (AAA) - Largely current music that tends to appeal more to adults than to teenagers. Also called progressive rock, but not to be confused with the '70s music of the same name.
Adult Alternative - A station that plays current hits that tend to appeal more to adults than teenagers.
Adult Contemporary (AC) - A station that plays primarily popular and rock music released during the past 15-20 years. Playlists may also include a limited selection of older material and current hits. Spinoffs include Lite AC, Hot AC and Rock AC.
Album Oriented Rock (AOR) - So named to distinguish itself from Top 40 stations of the past, which played primarily singles. Think cool stations from the late '60s. 
Alternative Rock - A station that plays rock music stylistically derivative of the Seattle grunge bands of the early '90s. Punk and new wave artists of the late '70s can qualify but classic rock cannot.
Classic Rock - A station that plays rock music released during the '60s, '70s and '80s and appeals more to adults rather than teenagers. 
Americana - Country-rock, folk-rock blues and American roots music and appeals to adults.
Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) - A station that plays a significant amount of current popular music, both singles and albums. Since "current" can mean anything released in the last year, a more accurate description may be Current Hit Radio. 
Dance - A station that plays music produced primarily to be played for dancing. It's what used to be called Disco music. 
Ethnic/International - Programs feature music of a particular ethnic group, nation, or religion aimed at listeners from the featured group or place. Cajun French formats might qualify here.
Hot Adult Contemporary (Hot AC) - A station that plays commercial popular and rock music released during the last 15-20 years, which is more lively than the music played on the average AC station, but is still designed to appeal to general listeners rather than listeners interested in hearing current releases. Confusing as hell. 
Lite Adult Contemporary (Lite AC) - A station playing particularly easy-going popular and rock music released during the last 15-20 years, designed to appeal to general listeners. Formerly known officially as Easy Listening, but, unofficially, we hear it a lot on elevators.
Modern Rock - A station that plays mostly current rock performed by artists who have become prominent during the past five-10 years. 
Oldies - A station that plays popular rock 'n' roll, and rock music released during the "Golden Era of Hit Music," roughly 1955-75. Oldies is probably a misnomer since Golden Hits would be more accurate. A song from 1980 is definitely old, but chances are, it ain't gold. 
Personality - Programs or formats that rely on the personalities of on-air hosts to entertain. Music usually accompanies the program, but the star seldom lets it get in the way of what he has to say. 
Rock - A station that plays mostly current rock music, either singles or album cuts. 
Rock AC - A station playing rock music released during the last 15-20 years, designed for the general rock listener who couldn't care less about current releases. 
Smooth Jazz - Plays easy-going music with a jazzy feel, designed to set a mood rather than invite critical listening. Also referred to as New Adult Contemporary (NAC).
Standards/Big Band - A station that concentrates on the Big Bands of the late '30s and '40s and Big Band-era singers of the '40s and '50s. Some stations of this type will play any popular music of the last 60 years, just so it's not rock.   
Talk - It helps if it's a subject you're interested in. The upside is that it's a great way to exchange ideas, but the downside, especially in caller-driven formats, is the anonymity and inherent lack of attribution. 
Urban - Stations that play music, such as hip-hop, rap, R & B, and soul, in the styles of rhythm & blues of past decades. Urban AC refers to stations appealing to adults rather than teenagers.