When It Comes To Country, Nobody Does It Better Than WIVK-Knoxville’s Mike Hammond (02/21/05)
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief
In the top 200 radio markets, only two stations earned an audience share of 20 or higher (AQH, Monday-Sunday, 6 a.m.-12 midnight, 12+) in the most recent Arbitron ratings. One of those stations is Country-formatted WIVK-Knoxville, where the entire staff recently popped some champagne corks for earning a 24.9 share in the just-released Fall 2004 book. That’s just one-tenth of a point shy of a full quarter of the market’s audience, a virtually impossible feat in today’s post-consolidation radio marketplace.
How does Hammond (and his staff, of course) do it? “We’re a full-service radio station,” he explains. “We have the reputation for being the news station in town. We have people out on the road doing traffic in the morning. We’ve had a really tight relationship with the University of Tennessee since the mid-’80s, carrying their football games. And since the early days of WIVK back in the ’50s, we’ve been very involved with the community.”
That community involvement has helped the station weather some of the cyclical downturns that have plagued Country radio for years, Hammond says. “Years ago, when I first started programming, someone told me: ‘If you live by the music, you die by the music,’” he observes. “Although the music may go up and down, if your radio station is sound on the fundamentals, you should be able to weather just about anything.”
Hammond, who is responsible for the operations, programming and news for five stations in Knoxville, has worked with Citadel Broadcasting (formerly Dick Broadcasting) for 32 years. He began his career at his hometown radio station, WMCH-AM in Church Hill, TN, during his sophomore year in high school. He studied broadcasting at the University of Tennessee and worked at WBIR-AM and WETE-AM radio before joining Dick Broadcasting’s WIVK-FM as a news reporter in 1973. In 1976, he moved to WKDA/WKDF in Nashville, where he worked for more than a year before returning to WIVK. Hammond was named program director in 1980 and became operations manager in 1986. In 1989, he was transferred to Birmingham to manage WZRR and WJOX, then returned to Knoxville in 1994.
During his tenure at Citadel, the news department has been named the Best Radio News Department in the state of Tennessee by the Associated Press 12 times. He won the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award in 1996 for his on-air coverage of tornadoes striking the Knoxville area. While Hammond served as PD, WIVK-FM was five times named CMA Station of the Year and twice named Station of the Year by the Academy of Country Music.
Hammond’s commitment to the Knoxville community includes serving as two-year chairman of the board of the American Red Cross, board member of the Second Harvest Food Bank, Knox Area Rescue Ministries, Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Knoxville and two-year marketing chairman of the United Way of Greater Knoxville. He has spearheaded raidothons for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, which collectively raised more than $3,000,000; he’s also led fund-raisers for East Tennessee Children’s Hospital and The Dream Connection for children with life-threatening illnesses.
Last year, Hammond was elected to the Knox County Board of Commissioners with 65 percent of the vote. He and his wife Vivica have been married 31 years and have four children.
For this issue of Radio Ink, which features the top program directors in Country radio, Hammond agreed to share some (but not all) of his secrets to being one of the most successful programmers — in any format — in the United States.
INK: You’ve had eight straight books above a 20 share, which is almost unprecedented in today’s consolidated radio marketplace. What’s the secret behind WIVK’s continued 20-plus success?
HAMMOND: It’s now nine books: The latest book just came in and we had a 24.9 share 12 plus. We’re sitting here saying, “Wow — where did that come from?” We’re having champagne in about an hour.
So, where did that come from?
The music is one thing, but the main reason we have been able to continue with the high shares is our on-air creativity: imaging, on-air presentation and promotions. For example, we did one of the first radio reality contests in the country. When CBS was doing the Survivor series, we did our own “Survivor” at a local mall. We put 10 people in a glass house, and the survivor got money. We also had six people drive to Florida with the morning show to attend a University of Tennessee football game. At each of five stops along the way, the people had to do things to stay on the trip. Those who were voted off took a bus back to Knoxville; the winner went to the Tennessee-Florida game. We’re also the voice of the University of Tennessee Volunteers, carrying Tennessee football. Plus, we’re very involved in community service, and we have a full news department. We do a lot to bring people into our store.
Where does music fit into the mix? Is Nashville producing music that fits the same demo group(s) that your station is targeting?
I’m just looking for a good song. If the song fits the audience, I’m not too concerned with whether or not it sells. I understand that Nashville needs to reach the 18-34 year-old. Our station does well 18-34, and record sales in our market are very strong.
Still, the record labels often accuse Country radio of not moving records up or off the charts fast enough to suit their sales needs.
The record labels would like us to move songs and get them off the charts more quickly than we do. If I’m ready to move on a record, I move on it. Even though I have a lot of great friends on Music Row, I play the songs our listeners want to hear as often as they want to hear them. I try to distance myself from the hype of the record labels and artist fan clubs.
What music research do you conduct to see what records you should be playing?
We do some call-out. I also look at record sales in the Knoxville market to get a feel for what’s selling. If people are willing to pay $15 for a CD, it tells me something about an artist, particularly a new artist. If a new artist is selling really well in our market, that goes into the mix.
Do you look at regional and local artists as well as those coming out of Nashville?
We’re getting a good response to a new group here called Sugarland. This market leans a little traditional blue-grassy, so people like Rhonda Vincent may do better here than in the rest of the country, because it’s one of the nuances of east Tennessee.
Many music stations have all but abandoned news. How important is local news to WIVK’s daily programming mix?
We have a four-person news staff. They not only report on the air, but they’re out on the street covering news events. We’ve been affiliated with ABC for more than 30 years, and we’ve had Paul Harvey on our station since the ’70s. We also have a sports department that serves our cluster, including WIVK. All of our stations work together — while we all want our individual stations to have success, we understand that we need to have cluster success.
Likewise, how important is reaching out into the market to be active in community endeavors?
Looking back at the things we’ve done is almost unbelievable. We wonder how in the world we can do it all. For years, we have sponsored the Knoxville Christmas Parade, which really is the WIVK Santa Claus Parade. This year, Josh Grayson was our grand marshal. Knoxville did not have a New Year’s Eve celebration, so we started one this year. We called it New Year at the Sun Sphere, and 10,000 people showed up for a free New Year’s Eve countdown, with music and fireworks.
For Saturday Night On The Town, we block off the downtown area and set up music stages. The hugely successful event draws 50,000 people. For the Dogwood Arts Festival, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, we host a concert to celebrate the dogwood trees in April. Last year’s concert drew 10,000 people. Last years’ radiothon to benefit St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital raised more than half a million dollars. We’re involved with the local Children’s Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House; we do the duck race with the Boys and Girls Clubs, and we’re involved with Big Brothers and Big Sisters. We’re very proud of everything we’ve accomplished.
What prompted you to send one of your jocks to Iraq last year?
In a way, it was kind of funny. We were in a meeting, and someone asked about sending Gunner, our afternoon drive personality, to Iraq. We all just laughed — but then we thought, why not? It took a while to get the details worked out, but he was able to go. He was there for a month as an embedded reporter with the 489th Civil Affairs unit, doing broadcasts on Armed Forces Radio. We sent a satellite phone and computers, so we were able to talk to some of the troops and get regular reports from him.
Was he glad to get back?
Absolutely. He was very glad to get home.
It seems as if there’s a pendulum in Country radio that constantly swings among audience, sales and format popularity. Where is that pendulum today?
I think it’s on the upswing. Since I first got into programming in the late 1970s, we have gone through peaks and valleys. I remember the Urban Cowboy craze, where you had people in the market with the bulls and the cowboy hats. The music seemed to slide down after that. We didn’t feel like the music coming out of Nashville was enough to sustain us, so we started looking for other songs that would fit the Country audience. At one point we were even playing things like The Pointer Sisters and Credence Clearwater Revival. In the late ’80s, George Strait, Garth Brooks and Clint Black came along, and we saw an explosion of country.
In the ’90s, I went to my first Country Radio Seminar, and I heard gloom and doom. People were saying that the music was not where it needed to be, that some stations were playing Celine Dion, that country needed to reinvent itself, that we were losing our young audience. I thought, “I’ve been here before. It’s a cycle; it will come back, because we have too many talented people in the business for it to just go away.” Sure enough, it’s coming back. The songs have been getting better, the production is getting better and we’re seeing some creativity in Nashville. We’re definitely moving upward, and we haven’t reached the top yet.
For a long time, Madison Avenue had a misperception about the Country radio audience. Have advertisers become more receptive to the strengths of the Country audience?
In our market, Country radio is very profitable. We signed this station on in 1953 and we were fighting stereotypes into the ’70s and even the ’80s. But we don’t see those stereotypes in our market anymore, largely because people now see country listeners as people who have money. They have disposable income, they drive nice cars, they go out to eat. We have not heard any of the complaints we heard 15 or 20 years ago, about the audience we bring in to remotes and to advertisers’ stores. That stereotype has gone away, at least in Knoxville. Also, the more people watch the CMA and ACM awards, where country artists are on national television, the more it has helped with the format’s image.
Are you concerned about the effect that emerging technologies such as satellite radio and iPods will have on Country radio?
Any technology that offers music and entertainment is a competitor. People only have 24 hours in a day, so if they spend time on a computer or with an iPod, it’s time they are not listening to radio. I can’t do much about new technologies. Things are going to change; therefore, we must make radio as entertaining and exciting as we can — something people will want to listen to. As the music continues to get better — with artists like Gretchen Wolfson and Big & Rich coming onto the scene, as well as some younger artists — we’re attracting a younger audience. Artists like Rascal Flatts and George Strait are attracting the younger crowd.
Why do Country artists seem more “touchable” than artists in other formats?
I attribute much of that to Music Row, and I take my hat off to the folks at the record labels. When they bring in an artist, they say, “If you want to be successful, you need to do A, B, C and D.” One of those elements is developing relationships with Country radio and with the fan base. The artists who have come into the station have been very touchable; they’re willing to do autograph sessions and meet-and-greets. I was in Rock radio for about five years in Birmingham, and that is a totally different world. You really can’t get rock artists to do those kinds of things, but in country they’re groomed from the very beginning to be touchable. Dolly Parton has been the master of that throughout the years. In fact, Dolly got her start at WIVK when she was 9 years old.
That’s incredible! How did that happen?
Dolly started here on the old Cas Walker Show; she’s one of our success stories, like Kenny Chesney and Archie Campbell. In fact, Dolly was here for our 50th anniversary. Archie Campbell did our morning show for a year way back when. People like Archie and the Grand Ole Opry stars showed other artists how to be successful and develop that connect with the audience — and that has continued to today.
What are the greatest challenges facing Country radio?
The greatest challenge is not to become complacent. We can’t say to ourselves, “The music is good now, so we’re set for the next 10 years.” People in Country radio must understand that times change and technology changes. Look at some of the great radio stations across the country, such as KMOX St. Louis, WCCO Minneapolis and KDKA Pittsburgh: At one time they had huge audience shares, and I’ve always known the same could happen to WIVK. We saw our shares begin to diminish, so I challenged our people to welcome and embrace change. We already have satellite radio, iPods and the Internet — and we don’t know what new technology will develop in three to five years. As radio broadcasters, we must understand that how we respond to change will dictate our future.
What is Country’s greatest strength?
The music, and the connection our listeners feel with our station. As we’ve discussed, the people in Country radio are very touchable. In most formats that’s not the case, but Country radio has the impression of being very involved in the community.
Is there a problem finding new, young on-air talent?
Yes, and I’m very concerned about this. When I meet with the broadcasting classes at the University of Tennessee, I find very few students who want to go on the air. They want to go into television, production, sales, marketing, management. It’s not that they can’t make money on the air, because many people in the industry are making good money.
Why do you think this is?
It may be fewer opportunities. When stations had weekend slots, people could work weekends and groom for an on-air career. Now, when people come in with no on-air experience, it’s hard to hire them. I am definitely concerned about the next generation of talent. We’ve been successful finding people in the theatre department at the university, and we come across people out on the street. We look for people who have good wit, personality, voice quality.
What part of your job makes you want to come to work every morning?
I enjoy knowing that when I come to work I can make a difference in the life of someone in the community — through a song, a promotion, a news event we’re covering, or community involvement. It’s all about the music, the artists, the people on the air, our listeners and our advertisers. If I can help advance those elements, I’ve done my job.
Could you do what you do at any station, or is WIVK special because it’s part of Country radio?
I love country music. I grew up on a farm, and Saturday night The Grand Ole Opry was huge with our family. On weekend afternoons the ladies in the area fixed food while the men brought out their instruments. I also listened to WLS radio at night; I could pick up the station on my little radio, and I listened to a guy named Bill Bailey. I’ve always had a fondness for radio and music; being able to get involved in country music and helping people with their careers is a great source of pride to me. I love seeing how Kenny Chesney has come along, and knowing that we have played a small part in his success. I’m just bullish on Country radio; this is the greatest format. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.
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