How to Fix DAVE-FM

12 February 2010

Recently my fellow blogger Roddy Freeman wrote about Atlanta radio station WZGC-FM, a.k.a. DAVE-FM. (http://atlairwaves.blogspot.com/2010/02/atlanta-dave-fm-station-market-or-both.html and http://atlairwaves.blogspot.com/2010/01/four-questions-part-two.html) He couldn’t figure out how a station with 50,000 watts of  power playing Adult Album Alternative  (AAA) music, couldn’t break the top 10 in their key demos, 25-54, on a consistent basis. He’s not the only one. Two and a half years ago, and three program directors ago, I asked the same question and on a radio community website. I was dismayed that a format that has potential couldn’t do anything in the market.  I announced my candidacy to become PD of WZGC-FM (http://boards.radio-info.com/smf/index.php?topic=72758.0). That action got the PD at the time sacked in less than three weeks. It’s now 2010 and two PD’s later, the radio station still can’t crack the top 10. This has been going on since 2004 through three different PD’s, five morning shows, one complete re-launch and countless tweaks to the AAA format.

Roddy speculated that the potential audience is too politically conservative for the type of music WZGC should play. To that I say bullocks! Many contributors to the radio-info site, including the tried and true conservative “RTibbs,” have seen my musical taste and agree with it. One poster there said he thought I was programming the radio station in his mind. Roddy wondered if Atlanta is the wrong market for a AAA station. He is right to wonder, considering DAVE-FM’s poor ratings showing over five and a half years. I contend the station has not been programmed or marketed correctly.

In this post I will offer sure fire fixes to change and save WZGC-FM. My modifications will result in a fresh station, a sonic improvement, increased awareness in the community and money, which as you know, makes the mare to go.

What is working? Personalities.

Currently, former 99X’er Jimmy Baron is holding down morning drive, which is a job akin to being a drummer in Spinal Tap. Mornings haven’t been solid at this frequency since, I’ll get back to you on that, as Sarah Palin would say. Since 2000 there have been eight morning shows, one lasted nine months and one person did two stints (see below). Jimmy is an outstanding personality and a perfect fit for the DAVE-FM audience. His musical knowledge is adequate, which is surprising considering his 13 years at one of the best Alternative stations on the country. He wasn’t hired to tell the listeners that the lead guitarist of The Church played the EBow on a Fender Jazzmaster on the bands hit “Under the Milky Way.” He’s there for his knowledge of the market, his humorous/faux semi-sexist skew on things and his likeability.

Mid day goddess Mara Davis is 92.9. She has been at that frequency since 1994. In radio terms that’s a lifetime. She has outlasted several formats and incarnations at the frequency. Always a ratings winner, Mara’s show is the stations highest rated day part and her “Radio Free Lunch” is the stations most popular segment. When the station does well; so does Mara. When the station drops in ratings; Mara does well. She has been awarded the Creative Loafing’s “Best Radio DJ” five times in the last ten years. If she left the station they may as well rent it out for office space.

Rich “Sully” Sullivan is the most unlikely person to be handling PM drive in the market. This is his first on-air gig. Previously he was a producer for several local talk shows. Sully is the kind of guy you find at the end of the bar who offers to buy you a drink just because you walked into the joint. His musical knowledge is impressive for a news junkie who never worked full-time at a music intensive station.

Night time jock Margot Smith doubles as the Music Director and Assistant Program Director, more on that later. As a personality she shows her knowledge of music in every stop set. On her weekly specialty program “DAVE After Tomorrow” she picks a topic or musical sub-genre and explores different genres within that topic.

Weekend personalities are a bit thin. Yvonne Monet who also works morning drive is the only recognizable name. This is her second go-round at the station and she was previously the Dance Party Diva at 99X. There is a major free-agent sitting up in Marietta, GA, Tim Orff. He previously handled mornings, twice but was let go when Jimmy Baron came on board. There was no reason to let Tim go, he could have transitioned to evenings and Margot could have done MD/APD duties full-time. This was a cost-cutting move.

Once I take over the station the only thing I would add is more news. Rather than Yvonne reading the news once an hour, I would go to a traditional top and bottom of the hour newscasts. The top of the hour news cast will last five minutes and include weather, traffic and sports. The bottom of the hour will be three minutes with headlines, weather, traffic and sports scores only. At 8:10 a.m. I will add local sportscaster Fred Kalil to give a two-minute sports commentary. The people this station is going to attract also listen to WSB-AM. If a music station provides a credible newscast at normal times, the 25-54 professionals will not need to be on the AM dial for anything.

The last strength, as has been mentioned is the signal. One can easily pick it up at the South Carolina state line about 96 miles NNE from the transmitter.

There are three ways to fix this station and get them consistently in the top ten – re-branding, musical focus and marketing.

Re-branding

As I stated in my candidacy announcement, the first thing to do is change the name from DAVE-FM to 929-Radio Atlanta©. About five years ago some rock stations began calling themselves after people, the most popular being Jack. It was a format that played anything and everything…that the researchers say the listeners may like. (Radio research will be covered in the music section.) What exactly is DAVE? Is he a guy we should know? Does he own the radio station? Why should we listen to his station? Is it Dave Matthews Band because WZGC sure seems to play band every hour? DAVE is not an identity. In fact, if you ask most Atlantans where Mara Davis works, they will respond “Z93.”

Changing the identifier to Radio Atlanta says something – we are Atlanta. It is something current listeners can identify with and give new listeners a feeling that they are part of Atlanta. The astute reader will say, “Hey, isn’t that a direct rip-off of WXRT-FM?” Yup. This is radio, not brain surgery. If an idea is good; steal it. Besides, WXRT is owned by CBS, the same owners as WZGC. It isn’t really stealing, it’s borrowing. Like when girls borrow clothes from each other. Guys never do that. We will, however, buy the exact same shirt if we like it. Two guys have no problem about wearing the same shirt to a party. That’s not how we roll, but I digress. Radio Atlanta sounds great. There are many way to say it with varying pauses and inflections. The jocks will enjoy saying it and it will actually mean something; all DAVE implies is some guy. Who wants to listen to some guy? If you check the ratings, no one.

Musical Focus

This is the most important thing the station needs to do. This is the product. This is what the sales people have to sell. The MD, Margot Smith, is a pro and a musical Rainman, except she doesn’t get her underwear at K-Mart. When the station was without a PD due to firings, one caused be me, Margot would take over and start expanding the play list. Less Jack Johnson and John Mayer, more Elvis Costello and newer acts. When the new PD comes in, Margot pulls back the reigns. I have spoken and emailed Margot on many occasions, I get the feeling that she wants to be more adventurous in the music programming but she is held back.

As I stated above, every song is researched to death. I have taken part in one of those research sessions. You sit in a room and listen to snippets of songs. The proctor tells you to rank the song on familiarity, not whether you like the song. That is why about eight years ago, Oldies and Classic Rock stations starting playing the same 300 songs because the researchers said, “This is what the listeners are familiar with, you must play it.” One person can only take “(I Can’t get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones so many times. In fact, in a previous incarnation, Z93 as a classic rock station played six Stones songs. When the Stones were in town in 2001 Z93 went all-Stones all-the-time for one day. One would figure with the Stones extensive catalog they wouldn’t run out of songs to play. WRONG! I heard “She’s Hot” three times in a six-hour period. My personal library has about 130 unique Stones songs, over eight hours.

Ratings are measured by Personal People Meters (PPMs). It’s literally a device that records every station one listens to and how often. The participant carries a beeper like device with them. If they drive by a car playing a polka station, it gets recorded. The results are monthly. The station receives a detailed profile, if listeners tuned out at 3:10 pm on a Thursday, they see that at that time Sully played Live’s “All Over You.” The PD will drop the song – forever. The AAA format works contrary to that. You have to play new music to make sure the listener expands their musical horizon. They have to hear the song a few times to decide that they like it. Believe it or not there was a time when five stations in the country played U2. WXRT was one of them in 1982. Five years later they were on the cover of Time magazine, had the number one album in the county, were selling out major stadiums and in Chicago they were played on two rock stations (WLUP and ’XRT), the market had four and a rock leaning top 40. Apparently, listeners found their music enjoyable enough to stay with them and U2 built a massive following. The next U2 may be out there but the way DAVE-FM is programmed, you may hear them on top 40 before AAA.

Case in point, DAVE-FM added Phoenix’s “1901” a few weeks ago. Well done! The song came out in July 2009 and has been in a car commercial ever since. It has been dropped as of this week. A researcher might say – people didn’t like it, that’s why you should drop it. I say, the people who would be exposed to it heard it on a car commercial before they heard it on radio. They may have been sick of it six months on but in August would have found it a great tune.

Looking at the playlist, DAVE-FM is playing most of the tracks on the Mediabase top 10 for AAA stations. Way to strike out on your own and be original. Following will get you nowhere. They are not playing the aforementioned Phoenix or the second single from Wilco, “You and I” or Spoon or Fleet Foxes or Ida Maria or Vampire Weekend or MGMT or Neko Case or Flaming Lips or Yeah Yeah Yeahs …the list goes on and on. All of these artists are played on other AAA stations and are critically acclaimed. Treat the listener with respect and open their minds to good music, they will respond positively.

When I look at the re-currents or songs that are much older (months or years) but still receive airplay, there is a plethora of retro songs from the 1980’s (Flock of Seagulls, Simple Minds, Modern English). The 1990’s are underrepresented but still, the most spun re-current is The Wallflowers “One Headlight.”

There is a lot of John Mayer, which makes sense because his career started here, at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur. He’s an above-average guitarist but I think his music is shite. The women love to watch him. Jeff Beck is a much better picker but is ugly as a bull-terrier/Jocelyn Wildenstein mix. (Ed. Note, I was going to post a picture but trust me, you don’t wanna see this), thus no chicks want to watch him. A woman will never have to wait in line to use the bathroom at a Jeff Beck show.

Let’s fix it. Add more new music. The audience will not tune out, no matter what the researcher says. If they do, they will go to one of the other rock stations; The NEW 97.1 The River – “playing the same 300 songs we played yesterday and the past five years but hey we still call ourselves NEW,” 96 Rock – “playing angry music for gear heads,” Rock 100.5 – “playing Deep Purple next to the James Gang next to Soundgarden,” True Oldies – “we actually have a deeper playlist than most AAA stations but the music is for your parents” and finally 99X – “playing songs no one can hear because our signal is too weak.” After a tour around the dial, the listener that abandoned the station is back at Radio Atlanta. Guess what; now they are digging the new music. In fact, when they get home they will have their nine-year-old download it and the 13-year-old sync it to their iPod

Lose the “sad bastard music.” Keane, Jack Johnson, John Mayer, Norah Jones, Train, The Fray etc, you’re through, NEXT! AAA is supposed to be singer/songwriter based to draw women but this stuff makes Dan Fogelberg look downright macho.

While we are cutting, get rid of the tired 80’s retro songs. Yes they remind some listeners of high school but they also remind them of bad hair, bad clothes, cheesy movies and the beginnings of our current financial crises (”Greed is Good.”)

The big fix however is complicated. It takes thought, innovation and creativity. Long ago that’s what radio embodied. Even staid formats like top 40 had it. As PD I will confer with the Margot and we will identify who the 4-6 core artists are. I will solicit opinions from inspired programmers like: Norm Winer from’XRT, Matt Shiv from WOXY.com, Leslie Fram from WRXP-FM and Dave Benson from KMTT-FM. From the core artists we will flush out their influences and who they influenced. The general idea is that 75% of the music and all the re-current will somehow be connected to the core artists.

Here’s an example – R.E.M. They are one of the best-known artists of the AAA genre; they started out on college radio and with the D.I.Y. work ethic kept getting more exposure and eventually up the majors. They left their indie label and signed with Warner Brothers in 1988. When alternative broke, they were the touchstone for a good number of the bands coming out at the time. They are still churning out music, albeit not of the same caliber of their earlier efforts. Lastly, they are local, Athens, GA.

From R.E.M. we can look back and get: The Byrds, The Beatles, Big Star, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, The Velvet Underground, Television, Wire, T.Rex and Buffalo Springfield. Right there you have some of the best second wave artists of rock plus the beginnings of Progressive and Alternative Rock. You also have entrée into folk and thus Alt-Country. Now let’s look at those who are similar to, and contemporaries of, R.E.M.: Sugar, Sonic Youth, Tori Amos, The Smithereens, dB’s, Let’s Active, The Replacements, B-52’s, Camper Van Beethoven and Teenage Fan Club. All of the sudden you get a few the founding fathers of Alternative as the 1990’s are represented. Now the followers, those bands/artists who were influenced by R.E.M.: Pearl Jam, Pavement, Counting Crows, Sheryl Crow, Wilco, Ben Harper, Ben Folds, and god forbid – Dave Matthews and John Mayer.

These artists all fit into AAA. You can then expand it out by picking an artist from this list and doing the same thing. You can look back, forward and to the side. In each case they will somehow come back to the original artist. The listener will not tune away because an older song is playing. An R.E.M. fan is a Byrds fan, they may not know it but once the jangly guitar starts it is “Automatic of the People.” They will stick around for Wilco because of the country influence that R.E.M. has too. In addition, Wilco is awesome!

If you do that 4-5 more times BAM, you have most of the artists that will be played with regularity, now it is just a matter of choosing the songs. Exploring R.E.M. gave us 30 artists to play.  Some will have more songs in the rotation (R.E.M., Pearl Jam, The Beatles, Sheryl Crow) some may only get one or two (Television, Big Star, Teenage Fan Club, Pavement) but they are there for the picking.

Marketing

I have the personalities in place, I re-branded the station and I set-up the music; now I have to market it. CBS seems to see this station as an afterthought. They also own the incredibly successful urban station V103. That station literally prints money. When the ratings come out and they only get an 8.5 in the 6+ overall ratings, someone gets fired. Keep in mind the next closest station may be two points lower. CBS’s attention is elsewhere, which it shouldn’t be. With the right marketing Radio Atlanta will be a ratings and revenue winner. To paraphrase Frederick Frankenstein, How to Do it?

Atlanta has a sizeable 25-54 population. They are a little scattered, some in the northern suburbs with kids and cars and responsibilities and some in the city in trendy neighborhoods like Grant Park, Ponce-Highlands and Vinings. Targeting all of them requires an assault on their senses. Billboards on I-75, I-85 and GA 400. There will not be the typical pictures of artists/band that are played. that pigeon-holes you. I remember that WLUP had billboards and bus boards all over Chicago in 1984 featuring their four core acts – Elvis, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Sting. It was going great until “Born in the U.S.A.” Bruce was gargantuan that summer and The Loop played every song off the album. Yet there were no marketing materials with his face; they had committed to Sting.

There will be multiple billboards, not just one. The slogan Radio Atlanta is the selling point, keep it simple. Drivers on Atlanta expressways are either going 84 mph or 16 mph. In the city the billboards will be in L5P, the corner of Virginia and Highland, along Boulevard Ave. on I-20 between the connector and Glenwood in East Point, next to the Roxy in Buckhead, next to the Variety Playhouse, on the side of The Tabernacle and along the commercial area of West Paces Ferry.

Though print is a vanishing medium (my buddy Rodney Ho just felt a jolt in his wallet), Creative Loafing and Sunday Paper are still read with some regularity. Ads will be placed.

People love decorating their cars, usually with their college insignia. Radio Atlanta will have a 3×3 non-adhesive window decal that can be put in the window next to the Go Dawgs sticker.

Get the jocks out in the community. Every neighborhood fest, every local 5K run, every church bake sale, every community watch meeting, every concert; there will be a Radio Atlanta van with an on-air personality and the promotion team handing out stickers, t-shirts, re-usable shopping bags, tennis balls, golf tees, key rings, iPod cases, any tshatshke that can have a logo will be given out to everyone at the event.

Free concerts. Summer is coming – it is coming right? I mean it’s 30 degrees on February 12 and it’s supposed to be 50 – there will be a massive free show at Lakewood Amphitheater featuring three or four of the artists Radio Atlanta plays including at least one of the core artists. The giveaway will mostly be on the street; not calling the station and begging Sully. For example, the first 50 people who show up at the Big Chicken or the pool in Piedmont Park or under the Olympic Torch or the tennis courts at Candler Park will receive a pair of tickets.  You want people to listen? There you go. This promotion alone can stretch for 6-8 weeks.

Trips to other music festivals geared at the key demo audience. DAVE-FM loves Bonnaroo, sure it’s convenient but what about Coachella and New Orleans Jazz Fest and SXSW? How about thinking outside the box to places like Sundance, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open? A while back 30 Rock did an episode about Tracy Jordan winning the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony). There’s a contest right there, send 10 listeners to the EGOTs.

Ever heard of this thing called the Internet? Even a graybeard like Ted Stevens is aware of it, though he thinks it’s a bunch of tubes. Viral marketing baby. SEO, that means something right? Reciprocal links with advertisers. If Jim Ellis BMW runs spots, than Radio Atlanta will have a banner ad on their site. Quid pro quo.

One thing remains – Your Atlanta Falcons

The Dirty Birds have their games broadcast on DAVE-FM. It is a leased deal where CBS gets money in advance and doesn’t have to work to sell the ad time. Still, they will take up about eight hours of programming on Sundays plus a review show on Monday nights. If the Falcons play on Monday Night Football or Thursday Night Football, some programming will have to change. It is not the best circumstance for a station that is trying to attract 25-54 who care more about The Jayhawks then the Falcons. I don’t see this as being an impediment to the re-launch of Radio Atlanta. When the contract ends in two years, CBS will just let them go to a sports station.

Final Thougths

This re-launch and re-imaging will be costly at first. Marketing is expensive and you have to keep doing it in order to get the type of penetration you require. Putting up one billboard and hoping someone sees it is not enough. The ads in the papers need to run continually. In addition, ratings will not come immediately. Patience and persistence are the keys. That’s how Andy Dufresne escaped Shawshank Prison. It may take two or three years before the needle moves in the right direction. It will move and Radio Atlanta will be a top 5 station in the demo, not top 20, like it is now.

What do CBS and VP/Market Manager Rick Caffey have to lose? (BTW, no homo, Rick Caffey is a handsome man. Strong too., I hear he can lift a boulder with his left hand and fend off a panther with his right.) Playing the same tired music and not marketing the station has gotten them nowhere. My strategery will work.

In case some interloper decides to use my ideas without my consent, this whole blog post is copyrighted by Neil Millman, 2010.

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6 Responses to “How to Fix DAVE-FM”

  1. Brian Says:

    Buddy, I’ll tell ya, CBS has nothing to lose and you would be a GOLDEN GOD if they installed you and revenue shot up. They’ve let this once-great radio station languish in the shadows of its’ sister, V-103, for far too long.

  2. Jimmy Baron Says:

    What’s an EBow?


  3. Neil, interesting blog. As I have always said, if you don’t like radio the way it is, make your own station (internet). BUT, this station and some of its people are close to my heart. I used to work there. Radio is based on the principal that they play good music to get you to listen to the commercials. The more people who listen, the more they can charge for each spot. The reason they do not crack the top ten in the ratings is because they have a format that doesn’t have a chance at penetrating the Ethnic-socio-cultural make-up of the population. In short, if they play country, urban or a spanished based format, they would do better. The lower end of the 25 to 34 audience wants to hear more new music, while the 35+ crowd, wants to hear their music. And of course, the 45+ crowd is even older. I love Atlanta, it is a great town, but think about it. It used to be a democratic place, now it is conservative republican. It is a country town, and AC town, NOT a progressive rock town. BUT, then, not all the stations can be same format. SO you have “the other channels” and they are there to give a market variety. DAVE is a stupid name for a station, but it doesn’t matter what you call it. If you play the right music, they will come. BUT i would not want to be a PD in a market that thought it couldn’t support a great station like 99X, or the old 96ROCK. Radio keeps trying to RE-BRAND itself, why doesn’t it just do something exciting and quit reading the marketing text books. Why spend $2M to promote something that is only going to make a couple Million. If you don’t promote it, you get $4 million profit. Radio is up against a thing called Ipod, Pandora and XM… not other stations. THanks for listening, dd

  4. Gary Says:

    I would love to see this happen to Dave…..BTW…Dwight, I loved z93 when you were the PD and it had that Prog rock influence….cheers.

  5. alice Says:

    A very well thought out strategy. I’d work with you

  6. Ric Flair Says:

    WOOO!


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