Since Janet Jackson's right breast made an unscheduled appearance at the 2004 Super Bowl, radio may have muzzled some of its most edgy morning shows. But few stations would go so far as to position themselves as "safe for the little ears."
WPOZ(FM) in Florida does.
Known in Orlando as Z88.3, the non-commercial contemporary Christian station is owned by Central Florida Educational Foundation Inc. CFEF owns three other stations and seven translators around central Florida, all of which simulcast WPOZ. The station is live-streamed at ZRadio.org.
It was recently awarded the Gospel Music Association/Christian Music Broadcasters award as major-market station of the year. That may not have come as a complete surprise to station management, though; WPOZ won related awards the last four years as well.
"With the caliber of competition in this town, even we are stunned at the level of success we have had with a 13,000 watt signal," said President/CEO Jim Hoge.
"In an era of cutbacks and consolidation, many stations are forced to work from within their building out to their listener. We go the opposite way. Listeners have a lot of choices, and if you aren't in their world, it's a lost opportunity."
Seeking the passion
Dean O'Neal and Jim Hoge are familiar faces at GMA/CMB award ceremonies. Here they celebrate the 2008 honor for large-market radio station of the year. Hoge comes by his interest in radio naturally. His grandmother was a radio and TV personality in the 1950s. As a young man Jim built an experimental (read that: "illegal") station for a ninth-grade science fair. "It was a wonder they didn't put my father in jail."
His first radio job was at WHIS(AM/FM), Bluefield, W.Va. "I had to take the boss's Lincoln around to the loading dock and wash it. I got to mail out prizes, paint the newsroom and run the board at night," he said. "After six months or a year I finally got on the air."
From there he graduated from college with a degree in business and pursued a patchwork career in radio. Hoge landed in the audio processing business for Texar; later he worked for a physician who owned several AM Christian radio stations.
In 1987 Hoge bought an FM application under the Docket 80-90 rules after his doctor/employer passed on it.
"I had always been a Christian and had some brushes with Christian radio, none of which was successful," he said. "They were always a disaster. No one listened and there was no passion. What was different about this one? I decided to run it like a radio station."
Hoge felt he could either run a brokered operation or target a mass audience with adult contemporary music. He chose the latter. He hired Dean O'Neal, a young programmer from Kansas City. The two have worked together since and WPOZ has prospered.
The station now operates on a budget of $3.8 million each year, 93 percent of which comes from listener support. Some income is derived from real estate owned by the station.
"We also give non-profit organizations paid access to our airwaves, and we allow up to 10 of them to promote events only," he said. "When one drops out we take on another. You can't gain access like this elsewhere in town. We offer them by the week for about $1,500. We don't have a traffic department and everything is made available on a run-of-schedule basis."
Making more with less
"Our station is an attempt to survive in a 100,000 watt world without the 100,000 watts," said O'Neal. "Our main signal is just 13,000 watts at 1,333 feet, but we supplement our FMs with translators to try to shore up our signal in West Orlando. We reach a potential audience of about 1.5 million people a week. While reception in buildings is sometimes a problem, we do very well with in-car listening."
Operating with a full-time staff of 23 and a few part-timers, the station uses live talent with the exception of midnight until 5:30 a.m., when voice-tracking is used.
"The music is the platform we build on," said O'Neal. "But if all you have is music, you're in competition with iPods, satellite and Internet radio.
"What makes terrestrial radio powerful is its ability to be local and involved with the community. Jim and I feel an obligation to be a servant to the area, which is why we are the EAS LP-1 station. We were already providing that kind of information, along with Amber Alerts, and the market recognized this and asked us to take that responsibility officially. Weather is a passion of ours, as we get a lot of thunderstorms and hurricanes down here in Florida."
Web development also is done in-house.
"Our Web master, Ray Hill, is so stinkin' talented that it's unbelievable," said O'Neal. "He also develops the 'creative' for our outdoor campaign and everything else. It is a blessing to have someone like this on staff so we don't have to call in third parties."
ZRadio.org gets more than 617,000 hits a day; the station also airs HD Radio including HD-2 and HD-3 channels. "Y-hot 88.3 HD-2" is a hip-hop R&B Christian format; "88.3 HD-3 The Rock" is Christian alternative rock, both of which are voice-tracked.
O'Neal is a big believer in Internet radio but thinks that the industry needs to communicate a better story about HD Radio.
"The pitch terrestrial radio has made wouldn't make any consumer take on the expense of going out and buying a digital radio," he said. "If we don't get into more dashboards quickly, we'll have a problem."
"We should even pay to get into dashboards," Hoge added. "Currently this is not in the [HD Digital] Radio Alliance business model."
Hoge feels that many terrestrial stations have let down their audiences.
"The big stations now have syndicated shows on mid-days," he said. "Let's face it. The 1996 deregulation didn't work. It destroyed the broadcasting industry. If this were 1995, you'd see a lot of other stations employing our strategies.
"These big groups paid too much for their facilities and they have a bottom line to meet. Since most of them are publicly traded, they look at quarter-to-quarter earnings, not year-to-year. If they have to cannibalize the station to hit those quarterly numbers, they do it."
WPOZ has an audience and a Christian message. But more important to O'Neal and Hoge, they enjoy what they do.
"We might be the last two guys in radio who are actually still having fun," said Hoge.
Visit WPOZ online at www.zradio.org.
Ken Deutsch is a former broadcaster who has written for Radio World since 1985.