Thursday, February 07, 2008

Why WBOS Changed and Flipped to Radio 92.9

When I was in Arizona at the Super Bowl, 92.9 WBOS, one of my favorite local stations, flipped to a 90's-based rock format.

I am a bit late to the party in discussing this (I have been following the links and comments on Universal Hub and the sites to which it linked about this), but since I worked in radio for 15 years, many of them on the air for an alternative station, and many more as a researcher / consultant for all formats, I thought I would offer my two cents.

This is a huge mistake.

And I'm not simply in "complaint mode" because I did indeed enjoy the old WBOS. I believe it is a mistake because of many logical reasons.

Greater Media did this because WBOS had terrible ratings, and they are in anticipation of the arrival of a new ratings measurement mechanism to Boston - Arbitron's Personal People Meter.

In both of the PPM test markets - Philly and Houston - early returns showed rock stations being underrepresented in the way ratings had been collected with written diaries submitted through snail mail. After the PPM ratings were released, all of a sudden operators saw better ratings for rock stations with a Grunge-to-today focus. Not great ratings, but much better than they had been.

With the PPM rolling out nationwide in the next year or so, operators recently began flipping underperforming stations to rock stations that sound very similar to what "Radio 92.9" sounds like right now.

But still, even with this information, I just don't understand why this was necessary - a FOURTH rock station in Boston playing this era rock music (modern / alternative rock, however it's labeled).

WFNX, WBCN, and WAAF are fighting over a 6 share of Boston radio listening. (Share is determined by number of listeners and length of listening - so a 6 share is 6 percent of all radio listening done in a market). Add up the 12+ (people 12 and older) shares of these three stations combined, and the triumvirate would lose to either Jam'n 94.5, WBZ, Kiss 108, or WEEI.

The pie isn't that big to start, and it's not exactly growing. But, just for kicks, let's say that the PPM ratings show that there are 8 or 9 shares for this type of music in Boston, instead of 6. Now there's a fourth player in this arena, going up against three stations with fairly loyal followings, stations that have been consistently sticking to their respective corners of the rock market for many years.

Will those "new" shares uncovered by PPM simply all go to the fourth one to the party?

Of course not.

There's no reason for the FNX/BCN/AAF listener to ever convert to being a favorite of this station. Not without a morning show. Not without good, local content. Not without something different.

The future of radio in 2008 and beyond is custom local content - not a jukebox on autoplay. This type of radio will never work again. Ever.

Right on their new website - (a horrible URL), their brand statement is there in blue text - "Want more music and less talk? Then 92.9 is the only place on the dial to get exactly that!"

More music / less talk? Yeah, that positioner worked in the past. But today, the world of entertainment consumption is far different. It's immediate. It's on-demand. It's personalized and customized.

More music / less talk = my ipod.

Those who enjoy this brand of music are exactly the folks who own ipods, and can build their own custom stations as playlists on their ipods. These stations will play their personal favorite songs much more regularly and precisely than any radio station can.

If people who like this era of music are irritated at Toucher & Rich, or The Sandbox, or Opie & Anthony, or The Hill-Man Morning Show, they are probably either ipod only, or listening to XM or Sirius. They have not been longing and waiting for Radio 92.9.

The "more music, no chatty DJ's" position got you to a 1.5 share in the first place, WBOS. So now, Radio 92.9 is hanging its hat on this same irrelevant position, but playing music that is readily available elsewhere (unlike a format with much greater passion, such as the old WBOS).

When I returned from the Super Bowl, I wanted to listen to WEEI to hear their opinions on the game. When I tune to NPR or WBZ, I want to hear news, traffic, and weather. When I listen to Kiss 108, I want to hear the acerbic wit of Matty in the Morning and his crew.

I pulled a monitor of WBOS from Wed night 7pm-9pm. Here's what they played:

GREEN DAY - Brain Stew
LINKIN PARK - Bleed It Out
BODEANS - Closer To Free
NO DOUBT - Don't Speak
JET - Look What You've Done
JACK JOHNSON - Sitting, Waiting, Wishing
RADIOHEAD - Bodysnatchers
BEASTIE BOYS - Intergalactic
NIRVANA - Come As You Are
AUDIOSLAVE - I Am The Highway
DAVE MATTHEWS BAND - Stay (Wasting Time)
BLINK 182 - Dammit
STEREO MC'S - Connected
FOO FIGHTERS - Long Road To Ruin
HOUSE OF PAIN - Jump Around
RAMONES - Blitzkrieg Bop
LIVE - I Alone
FUEL - Shimmer
TONIC - Open Up Your Eyes
MUSE - Starlight
MODEST MOUSE - Dashboard

A solid list with a few surprises. I get what the station wants to be.

But, I already own every one of these songs. Lots of people in Boston do. I can put them on my ipod in this order, and not have to listen to the commercials. Or, I could flip around among the AAF, BCN, and FNX and hear things that sounded quite similar to this.

Nothing differentiates this station from what is already available, or from what I already own.

It's unfortunate that Greater Media did this. They had a loyal (albeit not-so-big) audience, a great brand, a great signal, and probably great qualitative metrics on its former audience. I am guessing they were relatively affluent, active, and socially conscious.

WBOS' old format worked elsewhere in the U.S., notably in Denver (KBCO) and Minneapolis (KTCZ). Both of those stations have been around for many years, have stuck to their respective brands, have built personality, events, and unique content around their stations, and have built strong local followings. (Unfortunately, both of their websites are stuck with the awful Clear Channel web templates - but trust me, they are both good listens).

WBOS had all of this - Studio 7 music, Earth Fest, Copley Summer Concerts, Sunday morning Over Easy - but had poor ratings. It's weird, I truly don't believe the ratings ever accurately reflected WBOS' actual audience.

Perhaps they never did accurately reflect the true audience, and never were going to either. And unfortunately, when it comes down to it, commercial stations sell their ratings first and foremost.
When it comes to branding, they had it. Now, they are a faceless format, fourth in the race, playing the ratings game in anticipation of the Personal People Meter.

Any research company that advised WBOS to do this has done them a disservice. If they were looking for a new format, there were no other format holes? You're kidding. Smooth Jazz? Urban AC (older R&B)? You wanted a 25-39 format, and picked a very crowded lane on the highway.

The radio industry needs brands like WBOS to survive and remain relevant well into the future. It's a good thing the WEEI's, Z100's, KROQ's, Magic 106.7's, and Jam'n 94.5's of the world still exist. These stations fill a need, understand their audiences, and are RELEVANT. People care about them. Their audiences hear programming and content that they can't get elsewhere (sure, Jam'n plays the same 80 songs all week long, but they always play new music, do tons of mixing, and have a great morning show in Ramiro & Pebbles that deliver unique content every weekday).

There appear to be far more loyal, angry "old WBOS" listeners than thrilled new listeners to Radio 92.9.

This posting is not designed to be a rant. I am attempting to think about this logically, something I would imagine Greater Media also attempted to do.

But Radio 92.9 is irrelevant. It never will be relevant. Greater Media should be smarter than this.


N said...

Very good essay. I agree with you 99%. However, I don't miss the old WBOS. I think that WBOS duplicated WXRV The River, but The River did it better: their artist rosters were identical, except The River goes for the less-played tracks by the same bands.

Gins said...

Very well written. Having spent many years at 'BOS, it's just sad to see what it's become. The potential was always there for 'BOS to succeed: qualitative audience, passion, healthy cume, etc. However, when you have 7 PD's in 10 years...clearly the issue isn't who is in that chair...

Alex G. said...

The old WBOS and WXRV were very similar, yes, but WXRV broadcasts from Andover/Haverhill, and there are many who live closer to Boston than to Haverhill who still cannot listen to WXRV's signal even if they want to.

Still, I am sure that WXRV now has a larger listener base due to WBOS's format change. I think this isn't a bad thing at all, but I just wish they were based in Boston and not up in the Merrimack Valley.

WBOS's music now is actually a blend of the "old" WBOS and the stuff they typically play on stations like WFNX ("alternative"). When they first switched, they went to a 90's rock/grunge format that was too narrow and awful, and sparked a strong outcry among loyal WBOS listeners like myself. It's actually not so bad now with their new blended format, but I'm not sure that no DJ's is a great decision (WBOS had a good air staff), and I'm not sure that the niche is big enough now for this sort of station. I guess we'll have to wait and see when the ratings come back.

The old format would always have been around, even if it was a small listener base, and I will miss WBOS's promotion of their Earthfest artists every year, many of which were good. Some of these new artists like KT Tunstall and the Fray crossed over to pop radio stations such as Mix 98.5. The new WBOS, unfortunately, doesn't play very much new music at all, which is the biggest loss.