Sarah Vowell, introduced as Ira Glass's consigliere, is interviewed by Bill Radke, ex-KUOW and ex-APM, on his morning show on Seattle's KIRO, where Luke Burbank, ex-NPR Bryant Park Project, hosts midday and weekend shows. (Video: KIRO on YouTube.)
For-profit news outlets
pursue audience on FM
More commercial FM news stations are signing on in major markets around the country, intensifying pursuit of news listeners by radio broadcasters and testing the readiness of public news outlets in Chicago, Seattle, New York and elsewhere to hold their own against the new competition.
Within the past few years, some AM news stations have started FM simulcasts or abandoned AM entirely as listening to the lower-fi band continues its decades-long decline. Chicago’s WBBM and Seattle’s KIRO are examples of this trend in commercial radio news.
Merlin Media has emerged as an additional competitor in several markets. Founded by former Clear Channel and Tribune Co. exec Randy Michaels, Merlin launched a Chicago news station last year, geared to attract a female audience. But after achieving only lackluster ratings in the first few months, Merlin switched to a more traditional all-news formula.
Although new commercial news FM stations have launched in just a handful of big markets, it’s very likely that more are on the way. “It’s clear that in virtually every large market, there are going to be commercial news/talk stations on FM,” says George Bailey, a researcher of public radio’s audience.
Public radio funders and executives focus too much on new media at the expense of protecting their much bigger FM audiences, Bailey says. “Across the country, commercial guys are spending money to get onto the FM dial when they were originally primarily AM stations,” he says. “That ought to tell you they realize that’s where the audience potential is.”
Opinions vary over just how dire the competitive threat could become. Station programmers and news execs in individual markets are keeping tabs on the developments, but no one has conducted a study or analysis from a national vantage point. “We should be talking about it on an industry-wide basis, because it’s an industry-wide issue,” says Jim Asendio, news director at WAMU in Washington, D.C.
Asendio may be more familiar with the competition than most pubcasters: His market is home to WTOP, a powerhouse among the country’s most successful commercial FM news stations. And on Jan. 23, Washington got yet another FM news outlet with the launch of CBS Radio’s WNEW. Asendio, a CBS Radio veteran, says he was hired at WAMU in part to introduce commercial-like elements into the station’s news.
The strategy appears to be working. Recent audience growth has made WAMU the runner-up to WTOP during morning drivetime. Since WAMU and other public stations are thriving amidst the commercial FM news expansion, some observers say public radio has little to fear from the newcomers.
The two kinds of news stations “tend to coexist well,” says Robert Unmacht, a consultant and editor with Radio-Info.com. Most public radio stations want to hold listeners’ interest for longer periods of time, he says, while commercial stations are content with quicker turnover.
Also, because commercial and public stations usually cater to different demographics, the commercial outlets by and large have not depleted the public stations’ audiences, says Steve Olson, president of public radio’s Audience Research Analysis. The arrival of a commercial FM news outlet is unlikely to affect a public station unless the pubcaster is already struggling to keep audience, he says.
“The great thing for public radio is that there’s so much quality programming for stations to choose from,” he says. “They’re in a good position going into the future.”
But public stations do have a weak spot. During middays, personality-driven commercial talk shows such as Rush Limbaugh tend to pull listeners away from public stations. Limbaugh “will take audience away from any station,” Olson says.
Public radio news stations have long struggled to increase listenership between drivetimes. In Seattle, commercial KIRO-FM devised a formula that appears to have cracked the midday slump problem. The station’s midday lineup of locally focused talk holds its audience and distinguishes it from most commercial news stations, which typically air an unvarying stream of news, traffic, weather and ads around the clock.
KIRO implemented the new strategy after launching on the FM dial in 2008, a switch that required it to retool programming for a younger audience. The station hired away two hosts from public radio: Bill Radke, a former host at Seattle’s KUOW and on several nationally distributed public radio shows, who now hosts KIRO’s morning news show; and Luke Burbank, former host of NPR’s Bryant Park Project and a regular on Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!, who co-anchors middays.
Not only do former public radio talents appear on KIRO, but Program Director Larry Gifford describes the station’s mission in terms that could come from a public radio mission statement. The station tries to tell stories, add context to local news and give listeners something to talk about with friends, he says.
Yet Gifford says his station’s main competition is not KUOW, but personality-driven drivetime shows on commercial rock stations.
“Public radio generally has never been in the business of trying to compete at that level,” says Jeff Hansen, KUOW’s p.d. The pubradio station hasn’t responded to KIRO’s FM switch with any particular tactics, he says, adding, “of course, if I were doing something, I probably wouldn’t tell you.”
Not slipping in Phoenix
“I really think that we can coexist, because the approach is still quite different,” says Scott Williams, p.d. at KJZZ in Phoenix, of his commercial competition. Williams’ station has stayed strong against KTAR, a commercial news outlet that got an FM channel in 2006.
As with many public stations, KJZZ was hit hard by Arbitron’s switch to Portable People Meter ratings methodology. Initially, KTAR “pretty much crushed” the pubradio station in PPM ratings, Williams says. But KJZZ has since made up ground. In 2010 KTAR had a 5 share among listeners 21 years and older from 6 to 10 a.m., besting KJZZ’s 3.5 share. But last year KJZZ had crept up to 5.2 share, behind KTAR’s 5.9.
KJZZ also narrowed the afternoon ratings gap and temporarily reigned last year as the top news station in Phoenix during drivetimes.
Williams isn’t sure why KJZZ has rebounded so well but attributes the growth to its mix of local, national and international news. It cut back on traffic reports to include more local news headlines at 19 and 49 minutes after the hour.
Public radio stations don’t need to change much to overcome new commercial news competitors on FM, Williams says. Listeners turn to public radio for in-depth and international coverage that commercial stations simply don’t provide.
“We have the resources that they just don’t have,” Williams says. “Between NPR and the BBC, we can just offer so much more than they can.” That was especially important last year, when events in Japan and the Middle East were grabbing headlines.
Likewise, the arrival of new competitors in Chicago is causing little consternation at noncom news outlet WBEZ. Last August, CBS Radio began simulcasting its AM news station, WBBM, on FM. That was a day after Merlin Media began its all-news format, FM News 101.1, which has since foundered. (Merlin declined a request for an interview.)
“We did nothing one way or another as a result of this, simply because we do what we do, and it’s different,” says Torey Malatia, c.e.o. of WBEZ. The station plans to add three to five hours of local news and talk programming to its midday lineup within the next few years.
Competition with WBBM-FM was stiffest when the station first signed on, Malatia says, but WBEZ’s average Time Spent Exposed has not changed. Meanwhile, slightly more of WBBM’s audience crossed over to listen to WBEZ in the months after the station launched.
Malatia hopes that the advent of WBBM-FM might ultimately help WBEZ by bringing more news listeners to the FM dial. “In Chicago, at least for the last few years, when you thought of news and talk you never thought of FM — it was all on AM,” he says. “We were the anomaly. It’s nice if we mix it up a bit on FM.”
In D.C., room for three?
In Washington, D.C., commercial news listeners have been able to find their fix on FM since 2006, when WTOP first moved to FM. The fast-paced all-newser now commands the city’s biggest audience, but WAMU has leapfrogged several non-news outlets to build the second-largest share in morning drivetime. Thirty-nine percent of its audience last fall also listened to WTOP — an unusually big overlap that may be testament to WTOP’s strong success in a city of news junkies.
Executives at CBS Radio appear to believe that they can grab a slice of the action as well, launching WNEW on Jan. 19. WAMU’s Jim Asendio hopes the two stations will split the commercial radio audience and make way for his station to emerge on top.
Asendio has already dispensed incentives to fend off WNEW’s attempts to poach talent from his news team. (WNEW did hire Nancy Lyons, a former NPR newscaster.)
Even with WTOP on FM, WAMU has increased its audience in recent years, Asendio says. The station expanded its newsroom by adding reporters — 16 full-timers up from six reporters five years ago, and 10 part-timers, up from four. Reporters are assigned geographic regions and subject areas to cover, which Asendio believes has helped to establish credibility.
While Phoenix’s KJZZ chose not to adopt traffic reports and other commercial radio trappings, WAMU has invested in some of them. In December, the station added an in-studio traffic reporter during Morning Edition, and it uses meteorologists from Washington’s NBC-TV station for weather reports.
Asendio also has focused on improving coverage of breaking news. “You have to make your newscast as robust as your ability to do long-form features,” he says.
“Competition is always good,” Asendio says of his commercial counterparts in the Washington market. “It keeps you on your toes. ... It gets your juices flowing.”
An earlier version of this story was posted on Current.org Feb. 2 under the title "Commercial FMs join pursuit of news audience."
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