Wank & O’Brien’s no-brainer Say you’re the top-rated morning radio team among women ages 18 to 34, and second among all listeners in that age group. You’ve hit your stride creatively, your station is ensconced in the Top 10 and although you’re in a volatile business, you’re facing nothing but blue skies ahead. Ed Wank and Dave O’Brien working on the air. Then say your boss — and his boss, and her boss, and his boss — comes to you and suggests you move from the station where you’re a success to another station in the same building.
The station they’d like you to move to has been in relative free-fall for a few years, with ratings dropping as low as a 1.7 percent share of the audience the previous fall. Not only that, but they’re tweaking the format of this station to mix long stretches of talk with music.
Turn this station around and you will be golden because this is the first station your boss’ boss’ boss’ boss ever bought, and he has a proprietary interest in seeing it succeed. Don’t turn it around, of course, and you could find yourself out of work.
Are you moving? Ed Wank and Dave O’Brien did.
Around Memorial Day, The Wank & O’Brien Show moved from WNOU-FM (93.1) to the retooled WENS-FM (97.1). They didn’t have to change hours (still 5:30 to 10 a.m. weekdays) or studios or even move their desks within the Emmis Communications building on Monument Circle. All they had to do was persuade their audience to switch from the hipper, younger Radio Now to the more adult-oriented Real 97.1. That, and attract new listeners.
“There was hesitation,” Wank said in an interview, “until the folks here started presenting their business model to us, what exactly they were going to do for us. They made it a no-brainer.”
An offer they couldn’t refuse, perhaps? “It wasn’t an offer we couldn’t refuse,” he adds with a laugh, “but it had all the necessary stuff to make us comfortable. I know there are some people out there who will scoff at this, but it’s not just the cash. It’s a belief in the product, it’s the environment you work in, the physical plant here, it’s a promise of longevity, it’s about being a part of this company for a long period of time.”
Change in radio programming in Indianapolis has a mixed track record. Luring Julie Patterson and Steve King from WZPL-FM (99.5) to WENS proved to be a failure that led to the station’s overhaul. On the other hand, WTLC-FM made a flawless switch from 105.7 to 106.7 on the FM dial.
The idea for Wank & O’Brien’s move first came up in late March, shortly before the duo and producer Kassie took off to broadcast from Cancun. At the time, David Edgar had been promoted from program director of Radio Now to operations manager for Emmis’ three Indianapolis FM stations. He told Wank & O’Brien he was moving to Real 97.1 and asked, “Do you want to come with me?”
Edgar is the one who’d lured Wank & O’Brien back to Indianapolis in January 2001. (They’d been at WRZX-FM (103.3), then moved to San Jose.) When he asked, it didn’t take Wank & O’Brien long to see the logic.
Their brand of funny, intelligent and somewhat irreverent radio was attracting an audience that was older than normally listened to Radio Now — pretty much the same listeners Real 97.1 craved.
“By the time we decided to do it,” O’Brien says, “it became almost a non-issue: ‘You mean we get to do the exact same show we’ve always done?’”
There are a couple of differences. One is the music they play — Maroon 5 rather than Kanye West, for example. Another is what they talk about. “It allowed us some growth on the show,” O’Brien says. “We all had certain elements of our lives, such as being parents, being homeowners, things like that, that we didn’t necessarily suppress on Radio Now but we certainly didn’t highlight when you’re talking to people who maybe aren’t at that stage yet in their lives and are going out to clubs every night. Now we can add to those experiences our family lives for this audience because they connect with the fact that we’re doing yard work on the weekends and things like that.”
How successful they’ve been is anyone’s guess. Their first full Arbitron ratings period ended last week but the numbers won’t be released until Oct. 25.
“You’ve got to have a gut feeling,” Wank says. “The gut feeling I’m getting from Real 97.1 right now is that yes, there are challenges that lie ahead, but currently I think we’re having a tremendous impact on the demographic that came along with us — and the new demographic that we’re talking to now.”
Editors note: Wank & O’Brien are occasional contributors to NUVO; in 2003, they won a NUVO Cultural Vision Award.