November 27, 2015

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First Mediaworks

Bill Weston’s Resurrection Of Legendary Rocker WMMR (10/16/06)

By Editor-In-Chief Joe Howard

For nearly 40 years, Greater Media’s WMMR-Philadelphia has been a favorite station for generations of Philadelphians whose hunger for rock and roll was as insatiable as the city’s appetite for piping hot cheesesteaks. WMMR was instrumental in building the city’s still-vibrant pack of Bruce Springsteen fans — The Boss’ Philly fans arguably rival the dedication of those from his home state of New Jersey — and through the years has earned a reputation as one of the country’s premier Rock stations.

But as recently as two years ago, this legendary station had fallen on hard times. Weak ratings had relegated it to also-ran status in the nation’s number six market, and it looked like this once-vibrant beacon on the Philadelphia radio landscape may have lost its relevance.

Enter Bill Weston. An innovative programmer who in eight years with WHJY-Providence, RI, gave the station its first number one Arbitron ratings book — and followed that with 13 more. After stops at WWRX-Providence and WAXQ-New York, Weston was serving as PD for Cox Radio’s WKLR and OM of WDYL when he got the call to move up to Philly.

When he arrived, WMMR was ranked 15th 12 plus in the market with a cume of 390,000. In Spring 2006, the stating ranked fourth 12plus with a cume of 580,000. While Weston acknowledges that Radio One’s flip of the former WPLY (Y100) from Alternative to CHR/Rhythmic chased some listeners to WMMR, he also believes the changes he made — including luring Y100’s old morning team over to his station — gave listeners a reason to come back. “It’s the classic model,” he says. “Get a great morning show, feed the cume in the morning drive, convert it through the workday.”

That may be an oversimplification of how to build a successful radio station, but Greater Media VP/Program Development Buzz Knight believes it comes just that easily to Weston. “The WMMR turnaround is one of the great success stories in the 2006 world of radio,” he tells Radio Ink. “Bill is a gifted leader who has made a great team even greater. I’m proud of what he and his crew have accomplished. Bill Weston is one of the premier rock programmers in America.”

RADIOINK: When you arrived in 2004, WMMR was struggling. What were the first changes you instituted to improve the station’s performance?
The first thing I considered was the morning show. The show then was called the Philly Guys, a group of talented individuals who’d been brought together piecemeal. There was no chemistry — actually, there were some water and oil components. At the time, I was listening to Preston and Steve on Y100, and laughing my ass off. I recommended them to Greater Media Philadelphia Market Manager John Fullham, who told me to first look under every rock in every market for the right morning show. So, we spent another three months bringing people in, and at the end of the day, the answer was Preston and Steve. I had actually talked to them before Howard announced he was leaving terrestrial radio, and I think a lot of people talked to them after they heard that. Since we’d had a first conversation, it didn’t look like we were desperate. I think they felt good that I had recognized they had a great show. Along the way, we talked to Twisted Sister vocalist Dee Snyder, because he had some success up in Hartford. We hired him to do 7-midnight. It was a neat experiment, because it was something the station could talk about in the midst of this mediocrity that we just weren’t breaking through.

RI: They weren’t getting great numbers on Y100, but they get great numbers at WMMR. What was the formula?
This is a great example of one plus one equals three. The analogy I use is that people in Philadelphia root for the Phillies no matter how good or bad they are. MMR is a brand like the Phillies. There were a lot of people listening to MMR, and we gave them a show they could love, not just tolerate. We had a great cume magnet in Preston & Steve, and we promoted the hell out of them. We started super-serving this cume that rooted for MMR, and we brought in some new blood. After we hired them, Y100 flipped to Hip-Hop, so there were some Preston and Steve fans that followed them, and I think we also picked up some Y100 alternative music fans who gave us a shot for lack of a better place.

RI: Rock and Alternative radio are two formats that have struggled, with many flipping to Spanish. Yet these formats appeal to the highly sought-after young male demo. What’s going wrong?
You have to look at it market by market. A lot of it has to do with having a great morning show, because a morning show is unique to the radio station. Whether I play 10 in a row or 600 songs in active rotation, they can get music everywhere. They can’t always get people who can make a connection with them. Even if they’re sitting in their car alone, they feel connected. That is where we can jump ahead and not just base it all on music. Preston & Steve involve the listener and share a little bit about themselves. They open it up to listeners — phone calls, a lot of participation. The arms are open. You feel like you’re part of the club, connected. People do all these things in a solitary environment, and a human voice, making a connection, is a really powerful thing. People like feeling part of something that is not cookie cutter.

RI: Do you think that Stern’s departure negatively impacted Rock and Alternative?
As formats, no. It’s like a big forest fire: The forests are all burning down, but people realize this is also a natural process, it’s been going on for thousands of years when some brush needs to be cleared away. Maybe Howard leaving was the forest fire that will allow the radio stations that he was on to re-brand themselves.

RI: You talk about the value of a good morning show, the most competitive timeslot in radio. Talent sometimes push the limits to get attention. How do you control that?
It’s something we work with every day, and it’s a challenge. Preston & Steve are an edgy show. They’re not debasing of women, they’re not just shock value, but they will talk about the occasional body part. Maybe it’s a segment on nicknames that your mother made you call your private parts when you were growing up, and some of the nicknames get too close to that line. When they get in discussions that get close to that zone, I’ll walk down to the studio, and they’ll know that maybe they need to back off a bit. We have meetings every week where we talk about things that may have gotten a little too close for comfort. Theirs is such a welcoming show, I’d hate to see them labeled as the first to get hit with the FCC’s new fines structure. $325,000 would be a major hit. We run the show in delay, and they are pretty good about hitting dump buttons when a listener will hit an f-bomb.

RI: With all of this pressure, and competition from other media, has radio lost its coolness? If so, what can be done to fix it?
Embrace new technologies. Even though 7 1/2 people own HD radios right now, Greater Media jumped in. We’ve got to start somewhere, so start the process. MMR was one of the first stations to offer its own digital music store. We don’t sell a ton — around 13-1,500 titles a month — and don’t make a ton of money from it, but it’s an interactive experience. We also podcast. We didn’t know how we could make money with it, but credit again to our company. We decided to just start, and figure out how to make money later. And we sold our first podcast sponsorship — a long-term sponsorship — to Verizon. Right now, Preston and Steve have 2,500 subscribers for their podcast. In July they had 100,000 downloads. We offer a large chunk of their show, and we have little concerns — we have to cut out the commercials and any music they might play — but it’s a way of addressing the people who are mobile . It costs a lot of money for the producers to cut it up, but it’s a start. We’re developing the loyalty and love for the brand. Our afternoon guy Jaxon does a local music podcast, 30 minutes of local bands, so we get around the copyright issue. It’s offers an avenue for more people to come to us.

Here’s the thing about podcasts; If I get it every day because I’m a subscriber, or I pull a show that I love, it can be forwarded to somebody in St. Louis or South Philly who doesn’t get the show. Maybe there was some remarkable moment that you want to share. You spread the word that way.

We’ve also started a text-messaging program. That also costs money, but Greater Media gave me the money to set up our own text-messaging service. It’s great for contests. If you do a contest and 300 people call in to the six request lines, 293 people get busy signals. If you do a texting contest, everyone who doesn’t win gets an automated reply thanking them for trying, and inviting them to try again. That’s one thing I love about the program — it’s a great way to talk to people over a platform they’re already doing. We have to keep looking for more.

We also have downloadable ringtones available on our website that are clutch phrases from our shows, and I recently read about getting programming on cell phones. I want to find out more about that because that’s another portable device that people have with them all the time. How do we get an FM tuner in your Nokia? That’s what I want.

RI: What are you thoughts on the Portable People Meter?
I look forward to it. Even though it will be a big transition and our TSL levels will probably drop — Philadelphia was a test market; they’ve done it once before — I’d rather have more finite information that may be hard to swallow initially. It’s all about usage, it’s not about recall. I approach it with trepidation but I still think it’s a step in the right direction. I’m a little nervous about the panel because once they are in there in for the long haul, you have to trust that Arbitron knows what they’re doing, and that that panel is truly representative of 5 1/2 million people.

RI: What is it about the panel approach that concerns you?
A station like WMMR could get hurt. I mentioned that people want to give us the vote, root for the uniform. But there could be some older cume that doesn’t listen to the radio all that much. If they got one of those old ratings books, some of the older demos may write our radio station down, even though they’re not giving us all of the usage they reported. We could get dinged on the upper end, but hopefully it will be compensated by better performance on the younger end, which has always been a struggle for Arbitron to capture.

RI: Where do you see HD Radio going? From a content standpoint, what will get people interested enough buy receivers and to make it successful?
I wish I had the answer for that. We’re about ready to launch HD. It’s a good product extension and imaging thing as far as usage. We talk about fragmentation and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. It’s kind of like TV; we had three network stations, and now you’ve got 150 cable stations. We’re doing a live music channel, something complementary to what MMR does on its main channel. I don’t know what the killer app is, but in order for us to move forward, it’s a great idea. It’s like what we did with podcasting; we put our toe in the water, and figured some things out along the way. With HD, we’ve got to jump in now, put the live music channel on and see from there. Maybe something will come up for a niche audience that will make them willing to spend the $300 to get it full time.

RI: How has Elliot Spitzer’s payola investigation affected the kinds of promotions stations can do?
It’s very basic. Radio stations cannot accept promotional support from record companies in return for implied or actual airplay or adds, but we can ask them for support after the add. We’ve got some pretty decent marketing budgets and we have good promotional ads. We spend tens of thousands of dollars on t-shirts, so that support isn’t something that we really need. But some of the smaller-market radio stations might say, “Hey, we’re playing your band. Can we do some station t-shirts and put the band logo on the t-shirt?’ In the past, they might have heard, “Well, if you give me the bump from 15 to 25 spins.” That stuff isn’t happening anymore.

RI: What about music giveaways. How prickly has it become since the investigations started?
For a radio station like WMMR, which plays a lot of current music and reaches 580,000 people 12 plus, the amount of product we get into the radio station is tiny. Even if we’re playing a record and a label offers some giveaways to thank us for supporting a record, I have to have the vice president or market manager sign that it’s not an exchange for airplay. It’s ridiculous. And I think the record companies are really skittish about anything.

RI: But is it ultimately good for PDs, since these steps cover your tracks and protect you from a possible investigation?
It seems a little bit of a hassle for a box of records. If you get a band who generally charges $10,000 to do a show for you, that is something you want to be real clear about — that we’re not going to play this record so this band plays our station party. If we’ve had a band on the playlist six or eight weeks and they’re starting to work for us, if they can play an event for us before they get too big it’s kind of neat. It will promote the artist, and it will promote their record being available.

I think overall it’s good, but I miss the creative, zanier types of promotional ideas that might come from the record companies. There’s not a whole lot of creative input on the record company side of things. I think some of the creativity has gone out of it a little bit in this quest to keep the I’s dotted, T’s crossed.

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