Last fall, I sat in the WKLU-FM (101.9) offices and listened skeptically as new owner Russ Oasis and General Manager Mark Clark said they would turn the wonderfully eclectic but low-rated Brownsburg-based station into a ratings success. Oasis said they'd have a 3 percent share of the Indianapolis radio audience within two years. Clark said they'd have 4 percent of 25- to 54-year-olds within that time. Turns out, they were both wrong. It only took six months for WKLU to quintuple its ratings - from a 0.7 percent of the total audience to 3.6 percent and to 5 percent of the 25- to 54-year-olds.
Whether you like "the new WKLU" and its classic-hits format or miss the old ways, this is unquestionably an astonishing success.
"Clearly, clearly, this is better than anyone could have hoped for with no external marketing and a 3,000-watt signal," Clark says.
Clearly. So how did it happen? Clark laid it out:
* More music, fewer commercials. They play 12 to 13 songs an hour and only one break with four commercials. Can they make money that way? "We do," Clark says.
* Nothing but classic hits. While writing this story, I heard a range of songs from "Another Brick in the Wall" (Pink Floyd) to "Walk on the Wild Side" (Lou Reed - the unedited version). It may not be what you and I want from radio, but every song was instantly familiar.
* Less chatter. Although the station has serious air talent - Jay Baker, Adam Ritz, Libby Farr - the jocks don't talk much. And they don't give weather and traffic news unless there's something important to report. You won't hear them say there's heavy traffic at I-69 and 116th Street during rush hour.
* Live, local DJs. Except for a tiny bit of syndicated programming, WKLU is staffed 'round the clock.
Clark acknowledges that KLU also got lucky. Shortly after Oasis took ownership in October, WGLD (104.5) and WTPI-FM (107.9) both switched to holiday music, and WYXB-FM (105.7) soon joined them. So listeners with low tolerance for that music looked elsewhere. By that time, KLU had upgraded its signal. If you scanned the dial, you could actually pick up 101.9's signal.
People heard songs they liked, hardly any commercials and limited chatter. And they've stayed.
Clark says WKLU's listeners are coming from a number of other stations around town. "One of the things we did was, we said, 'Let's look at the other radio stations and see what hill they own. If they own this hill, we can't own it. What hill is it that WKLU can own?' And we just chose to own the music position."
And what does their ratings future hold? Clark issues a bold prediction: WKLU will be No. 3 among 25- to 54-year-olds in the fall. Turns out, he's wrong again. Arbitrends - the rolling monthly average ratings - were released Monday, and WKLU is already there. The station finished No. 3 in that age range and No. 9 overall, with a 3.9 rating.