"What’s happened in Indianapolis radio the past two weeks — unprecedented change — is what Tom Severino calls “the first rock in the water.”
“The ripples will start touching everybody else and everybody will start modifying or changing,” said Severino, the vice president/market manager for Emmis Radio in Indianapolis.
Change is relatively rare in Indianapolis radio, where WFMS has been No. 1 for seven-plus years and Bob and Tom began dominated mornings around the time the Colts arrived in town. But starting Oct. 1, when WIBC parted ways with Jeff Pigeon, its enormously talented morning man of 20 years, there’s been almost daily change.
Emmis announced Oct. 8 that on Jan. 7, 2008, news-talk WIBC will move from 1070 AM to 93.1 FM and 1070 AM will become an all-sports station affiliated with ESPN (taking that programming away from 950 AM, which will be an all-local sports station, according to afternoon host Greg Rakestraw). Until then, WIBC remains as is and 93.1 plays Christmas music. In the process, about 20 people at the Emmis stations lost their job, including everyone from Top 40 WNOU-FM (93.1), better known as Radio Now, and Kevin Lee, the talented and knowledgeable sports-talk host on WIBC.
“Monday was brutal,” Severino said. “I couldn’t break out the Grey Goose fast enough at the end of that day.”
The next night, Severino was on the phone with management from Radio One, which already owns two of the top six stations in the market, hip-hop/R&B WHHH-FM (96.3) and R&B/classic soul WTLC-FM (106.7). Make it three. Radio One bought the Radio Now name and format and, on Thursday afternoon, jettisoned its smooth jazz station, WYJZ-FM (100.9) — along with morning team Ann Craig and John Cinnamon — in favor of Radio Now. Radio One also has the option to hire the Radio Now staff. Marco, of Radio Now’s “Morning Mess,” said they’re trying to work out a deal and hope to have something in the next week. Nigel Laskowski, the afternoon jock on Radio Now, said he’ll know in the next week or two where he’s going.
On Friday, everyone exhaled.
So what’s next? Look to 6810 N. Shadeland Ave. first. As the Indianapolis Business Journal first reported, Cumulus, which parted ways with general manager Charlie Morgan a couple of months ago, brought back Chris Wheat, the longtime G.M. of the local Clear Channel stations (WFBQ 94.7, WRZX 103.3, WNDE 1260), from exile in Virginia, where he’d been working since Clear Channel let him go last year.
Wheat inherits WFMS-FM (95.5) the top-rated station in the city due in large measure to Morgan’s efforts on air and off, as well as two dogs in the all-talk WWFT (93.9) and underperforming pop and rock hits WJJK-FM 104.5, which its 16 listeners know as “Jack.”
In an interview, Wheat wouldn’t say what’s coming, but he noted that neither ’WFT or ’JJK have any local flavor. So he could make that kind of change. And suddenly, there’s lots of local talent to choose from. Or he could find a new format. Oldies, contemporary Christian, smooth jazz, music of your life (Sinatra-esque stuff) are unused, and there’s no law against going head-to-head with an existing format.
Then there’s the matter of having three all-sports stations in a city that can barely support one. Will 950, 1070 and WNDE-AM (1260) all fight for what amounts to two rating points? Doubtful.
I asked Wheat how many local stations he expected to change formats in the next six months. “Probably four. Three to four,” he said.
So expect more ripples.
JEFF PIGEON, who spent 20 years as the morning voice of WIBC-AM (1070)
NUVO: What’s next?
PIGEON: I really don’t know. I’ve been telling everybody I just want to sit for a little bit and decide what happens next. Right now, I just want to go away and clear my head.
NUVO: I’ll take a wild guess that this was a money issue.
PIGEON: I think economics has a lot to do with everything that’s happening in the market today. Radio is a tough sell. There are so many darn stations. On the surface, it seems cold, but if you look at it from a business standpoint, Jeff (Smulyan, CEO of Emmis Communications, which owns WIBC) has to answer to Wall Street and I’m sure these other guys making their moves have to do what they have to do to keep their bottom line where they need to keep it. It’s bad. I don’t like to see people let go. All the people affected by this are all good people and they’re all talented people.
Twenty years is a long time. But the way the station’s changing now, I don’t know if I’d have been a good fit for it. I certainly wouldn’t have fit on the AM. I like sports — I like the Cubs, I like hockey, I like boxing — but I can’t sit down and talk X’s and O’s. The FM? Who knows? But if they want to move in a little different direction, that’s certainly their option.
NUVO: Why was your announcement followed so quickly by you leaving?
PIGEON: I said it on Friday and left on Monday because we had been talking for a while and it got to the point where it wasn’t going to happen. For me to come on three months ago and say, “This is going to be my last three months on the air,” that just wasn’t going to fly. It’s best to do these things quick because the changes are dramatic. I didn’t think I could sit and do a show — even if I did it a week in advance, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that. It would have affected my performance. If this is the end, this is the end — let’s just announce it.
When I took over for Gary Todd 20 years ago, they never gave Gary a chance to say goodbye. And that was important — he was a guy who had a huge impact on the market. What they did was, they brought him back three months later. They brought him back to say goodbye when I was three months into the show already. I had to step aside and everybody who wanted to say goodbye to Gary — the mayor, the governor, this guy, that guy — all had a chance to do that. That’s how bizarre that was.
So I’m glad it happened the way it happened.
NUVO: Do you think you’re going to go back on the air at some point?
PIGEON: Oh, yeah. I can’t stay away from the communication business. It’s in your blood. But what I did want to do before I made any moves was sit back and think about which direction I want to go. I appreciate all the well wishes and the nice things people have been saying.
TOM SEVERINO, vice president/market manager, Emmis Radio in Indianapolis
NUVO: Nothing like these two weeks has happened in the 20 years I’ve been watching the Indianapolis radio business.
SEVERINO: Exactly. As difficult as it can be at times, it was absolutely the right decision. And necessary.
NUVO: Let’s start with Pidge. I’m guessing this is an economic decision as much as anything. The guy’s about as good as there is, so I can’t think you’re cutting him for talent reasons.
SEVERINO: It was really as much his (decision) as anything. All of this was a strategic decision. (The changes were) all made for strategic reasons moving forward. Obviously, any time you go through that exercise, the economics do play a role in it. But it wasn’t the driver in this thing at all.
NUVO: Then what was it?
SEVERINO: Ultimately, we felt we had to move the WIBC brand to a new platform. Part of the problem WIBC faced in this market was we were really the only destination on the AM dial. People used to look at me with this quizzical twist of the head when I’d say, “The best thing that could ever happen to us is that WNDE becomes a 4- or 5-share radio station and ’XNT becomes a 4-share station. That would have at least driven more (listeners) to the AM dial, which would have floated everybody’s boat up. If you were listening to WIBC, you came to WIBC. You didn’t just happen to be scanning the dial and stopping on it.
This idea really took hold about three years ago and really picked up more significantly in the last six months, and the decision was made in the last 30 days. I explored every possible scenario, including buying another FM in town and putting WIBC on that and just adding it to our cluster. There really wasn’t a viable station available that made any economic sense.
Then I explored each of our properties. The only one that wasn’t in play was B105.7 (WYXB), simply because it does so well and cash flow is three times what any of the other products did. I looked at Hank (WLHK, 97.1), I looked at Radio Now WNOU, 93.1), I ran financial scenarios on all of them for five years out. I’ll grant you, after the first year it all becomes a little bit muddy and every year after that is like a wish list.
But I explored this from every which way. Unfortunately, the Radio Now side was the best decision for us. It was a very difficult decision on a couple of levels. It wasn’t a content decision — it was an excellent radio station. We did some of the best radio in this building out of Radio Now. That’s one of the reasons that I stuck with it for the last couple of years. We’ve lost money the last three years with Radio Now. I was now forecasting we might make a little this year, but when I say a little, I mean a little. In the scheme of things, less than $100,000. When you’re talking about the kind of money we’re talking about, that’s almost a rounding error.
It frustrates me. So many people talk about how radio’s losing the young end and we should have more products that appeal to younger listeners to get them back into radio. Well, you know what? We had a great one. We put on as good a young-end product as any in the country. The problem was, we couldn’t get enough advertiser support to make the thing work.
NUVO: That’s just weird because everyone says, “Go young. Appeal to the young demographic.”
SEVERINO: When they say that, though, they’re not talking 12-24. The youngest they get it 18-49. That’s what they consider younger. Trust me, we had every advertiser who wanted a teen audience or 12-24 audience. We had them all. Then it started to get a little slimmer as we got into 18-34. Then you get these ad agencies who say, “We want 18-49.” You know what? Once you ad that 35- to 49-year-old into that, we couldn’t afford to sell them Radio Now at the kind of rates that would make it financially viable for us.
NUVO: I’ve heard anywhere from 14-20 people were let go.
SEVERINO: It was just under 20. There are three or four people who had some choices.
NUVO: Of all those people, Kevin Lee was the one that surprised me the most. If the AM station is going all-sports, why cut Kevin Lee?
SEVERINO: This was strictly a strategic decision. The people were retained to position WIBC on the FM dial and to position the new 1070. We haven’t filed for new call letters yet, frankly because I don’t know what we’re going to call it yet.
WIBC will be a news-talk station, targeted a little bit younger than it is currently but retaining the heart and soul — the news operation. And 1070 will be an all-sports station marrying the best local brand of what WIBC was with the best national brand.
NUVO: The decision to move WIBC to FM also had something to do with the nighttime signal, right?
SEVERINO: That was a component in it. Especially with Daylight Saving Time, with morning and afternoon drive, we’d miss 30 percent of our market.
NUVO:When WIBC-FM launches, we’re talking about substantially the same station, right?
SEVERINO: There are going to be some changes. Obviously, the morning show has changed already with Jake (Query) and Terri (Stacy), but the news part of it is exactly the same. We may do some reshuffling of some of the lineup, but the lineup will pretty much stay the same. It will be WIBC, but it will be a new WIBC to reflect a new day, new (FM) band, new year.
NUVO: Will Jersey Johnny go to the sports station?
SEVERINO: Eventually. He’ll stay on the FM for now, but some of those decisions haven’t been finalized.
NUVO: So WIBC-FM will have some sports?
SEVERINO: It’ll be sports only when sports is a news story. The only time you’ll ever hear a sports show or any play by play is when we run into conflicts we can’t avoid and we need to move (that programming) over.
NUVO: The changes this week have been unbelievable. And I’m thinking it’s not the end. It might be for Emmis, but not for the market.
SEVERINO: This is the first rock in the water. The ripples will start touching everybody else and everybody will start modifying or changing. There’s a lot of meetings going on somewhere. I’m done with my meetings for a while.
CHRIS WHEAT, general manager, Indianapolis Cumulus stations
NUVO: What happens next in the market? All eyes are on you because you have one and possibly two stations that may go somewhere else.
WHEAT: One of the reasons I’m here is that two of our three properties are not performing at the levels they want them to. WJJK (104.5), in the recent Arbitrons, had a nice rebound and has begun to ramp up — not to the level of expectations, but to levels that were higher than they were before, which was not acceptable.
The WWFT (93.9), on the other hand, hasn’t gotten traction yet. As I told our sales staff, it would be crazy for us not to look at opportunities to improve our position here. What are those opportunities? I looked at it immediately and said that one of the things that’s definitely missing is any kind of local flavor. It has absolutely no local flavor. WIBC has Rush Limbaugh and some of the evening programs are syndicated, but it still has a morning show and midday show that are live and from Indianapolis, then Rush and then Dave Wilson. I totally expect them to have less local programming there in the next six months.
We will be looking at what’s out there to improve our product. Even without the movement of WIBC to the FM band, the ’WFT product wasn’t performing.
NUVO: Is a format switch a possibility?
WHEAT: That’s one thing you would look at. There are some commitments that would maybe make that a little more difficult than just flipping a switch from (one music format to another). It’s not as easy as that. You have syndicated programming that have contracts.
My other prediction is that one of the remaining sports-talk radio stations on the AM dial will go oldies. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t look at it. Obviously, it is one of the gaping holes here. In fact, it is THE gapi"