One in a series of articles about successful stations in all market sizes.
In too many markets, there are at least some stations with seemingly little or no commitment to localism. But as we’ve discovered in this series, many U.S. radio stations pride themselves on being live and local while getting results.
Hilary Chambers is music director of 91X.
A good example can be found in San Diego, a highly competitive market (#17 according to Nielsen), home to a unique three-station cluster.
XHITZ(FM) “Z90,” XETRA(FM) “91X” and XHRM(FM) “Magic 92.5” are owned by Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo LLC and operated by Local Media San Diego. Their studios are in San Diego, their programming is in English; but the city of license is Tijuana, Mexico, about 20 minutes away. Every hour, listeners hear a station ID in Spanish; twice an hour, there are public service announcements from the Mexican government, translated into English.
Most of the time, what listeners hear reflects Local Media San Diego’s dedication to doing entertaining radio with a community focus.
Z90 is a CHR station, “Today’s Hit Music,” while 91X plays alternative rock and Magic 92.5 is a rhythmic AC, “The Beat of San Diego.”
Morning hosts Jagger and Kristi are shown with Bodie, who has become the station’s unofficial mascot (and knows how to surf).
Each has longevity in its format. Z90 has been a hit-oriented station since the 1990s, Magic 92.5 is celebrating its 20th anniversary and 91X has been playing modern rock for 30 years. Each features deejays who not only do air shifts but interact with fans on social media, make appearances and raise money for local charities.
Listeners seem to feel a bond with their favorite personalities. At Magic, the saying goes that Xavier the X-Man — who does middays and is known for his “Cruise for the Cause” car show to benefit kids with cancer — is so beloved that if he ran for mayor of the city, he would win.
The name “Local Media San Diego” is more than a slogan, according to Vice President and General Manager Gregg Wolfson. “Everything we do revolves around San Diego. We’re entwined with the community; we’re part of the community’s DNA.”
That devotion is an essential part of what makes Local Media unique, he feels. “We have the most promotionally active radio stations in the market.” He said the stations make money. Declining to offer specifics, he said, “Our rates are similar to our competitors; our profit margins are the best in the market.”
Wolfson has been VP and GM of Local Media for seven years. Prior, he was VP of sales for another San Diego-based firm, Broadcast Company of the Americas. When Thoma Bravo acquired Z90, 91X and Magic 92.5 from Finest City Broadcasting in 2010 and created Local Media, Wolfson was hired. He has worked in the past for several broadcasters and said he prefers this employer. “We’re different from every other group of stations out there. We’re the anti-corporate. We do hands-on broadcasting.”
View from the stage of the annual event Ye Scallywag, 91X’s all-day Craft Beer and Punk Rock festival.
Local Media’s COO/CFO is Norman McKee, one-time CFO for Saga Communications. McKee had retired from broadcasting but missed it, and decided to get involved with Local Media. He says he and Wolfson work well together because their skill sets complement each other. Both men appreciate working for a cluster that is independent and programmed locally.
“It gives us flexibility,” McKee says. “We don’t have to run every decision up the flag to corporate, and we don’t have to do cookie-cutter radio.”
Director of Sales Mark Kallen, a 33-year radio veteran, says Local Media is the best place he’s worked. “It all starts at the top with Gregg Wolfson and Norm McKee. No one works harder than those two guys and they never ask you to do something that they themselves would not do,” Kallen says.
The stations generally air 10 to 12 minutes of commercials an hour. Working for Kallen are three sales managers, one of whom handles national business, another who focuses on digital, and a third who concentrates on local. He has 10 account executives and three sales assistants. The station announcers don’t sell but may accompany an AE on an occasional client call.
Ninety-one people work for the three Local Media stations, 65 full-time. Overseeing it all is Joe Lindsay, director of operations and programming. Wolfson admires Lindsay’s versatility: “He’s like a Swiss army knife. He knows production; he knows engineering; he interprets all the research we do, and helps us to execute [it]. Over the past seven years, he’s developed into a major asset for our company.”
Magic 92.5’s Xavier The X-Man presents an award at Cruise for the Cause.
By his own admission, research is something Lindsay loves. The stations use a lot of it, whether auditorium testing, call-out or talking to listeners at events to get their feedback. But Lindsay is quick to say that while research is important, it’s no substitute for personal interaction with the listeners.
“All our on-air talent [get] very involved with the audience. It’s almost like we’re married — we’re compassionate toward our audience; we want to know what they like.”
Lindsay handles the day-to-day engineering and maintenance. Here’s an airchain sampler: The studios feature Neumann TLM103 and Electro-Voice RE20 microphones, Symetrix 528E Voice Processors, RCS Nexgen automation system and VoxPro phone editing software. For audio feeds to transmitter sites, the stations have a dedicated T1 fiber optic line, plus APT WorldNet Oslo and Barix Instreamer/Exstreamer as backups.
The Mexican transmitter sites in Tijuana and Baja California are managed by engineers at Xersa, a Local Media’s subsidiary. Xersa engineers perform maintenance and operation of transmitters, antennas and tower equipment. Equipment includes Orban Optimod 8700 and 8600 audio processors, ERI 10-bay antennas and Harris and Continental transmitters to serve the three 100 kW stations. Magic and Z90 feed an FM combiner.
In recent Nielsen ratings, Magic 92.5 was fourth in the market, with a 4.9 share; Z90 was 12th with a 3.7, and 91X was 16th with a 2.5 (these are topline numbers for listeners 6+ Mon-Sun, 6a–12mid).
The familiar 91X station logo is visible atop this float at a 2016 gay pride event.
SAN DIEGO INSTITUTION
The staff says listeners are devoted, and that seems particularly true at 91X.
Josh Hammond, Local Media’s promotion director, cites what he sees on social media, including a Facebook page with 104,000 likes. The modern rocker is also well-known for its iconic logo, the same identifiable logo it has used for 35 years. Mid-day deejay and Music Director Hilary Chambers describes 91X as “a San Diego institution. When people think of San Diego, they think of us.” She and Program Director Garrett Michaels believe in playing local music; they also take chances on new artists.
“When radio is conservative, when it plays the same songs, it just becomes ‘sonic wallpaper.’ Playing new music keeps a station relevant.”
Joi Lewis is “director of first impressions” at the front desk.
Local Media’s stations, like many others, hope to appeal to millennials; there is a constant effort to reach out to them. And billboards generally are not part of the promotional strategy. “We are lifestyle-oriented; you will hear about us by word of mouth,” Hammond says. “Our street team goes wherever the listeners are — at concerts, bars, and clubs.”
The stations have their own vans as well as a party bus. They conduct some unusual promotions and contests, such as one that airs on Z90 called Epic 48 (the most epic 48 hours of your life). A reporter for USA Today called it “the greatest radio giveaway of all time.” Last year’s winners enjoyed a weekend to remember, being flown to Hollywood, going shopping for boots in Austin, attending the Super Bowl in Houston and meeting Lady Gaga. (See video about it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbFFPYtIV58.)
Local Media’s social media presence is led by Director of Digital Media Lisa Waters, who grew up in England dreaming of being an artist or graphic designer. A graduate of San Diego State, she began her media career in television and joined Local Media seven years ago.
At the time, she recalls, “There wasn’t Instagram or Snapchat, very few people used Twitter, and the jocks only occasionally updated the Facebook page.” The company has since made a commitment to social media. Among her duties is to make sure jocks post regularly and that listeners get a response.
“We’re hoping to have some podcasts in early 2018, and we’re developing a YouTube and Facebook channel that will be hosted by our deejays. It will feature fun, local San Diego stories, unique local characters and tourist attractions.”
R.Dub! in the Magic 92.5 studios.
The air personalities say they try to treat listeners like friends. When Z90 morning host Rick Morton married, he not only shared honeymoon plans with his listeners but posted regular updates on Instagram as he and his bride Vanessa experienced a dream trip to Paris.
Morton loves San Diego and says there’s no market quite like it.
“Our geography makes us unique. To the north there’s [Marine Corps Base] Camp Pendleton; to the south there’s Mexico; to the west there’s the ocean; and to the east there’s the mountains. In other words, we are our own community. We’re not an extension of a larger metropolis.”
He adds that unlike its vibe in some large markets, “Radio is good-natured here. We’re not slick, we’re not Hollywood. We don’t want to be the coolest. We just want to be natural.”
Magic 92.5 morning hosts Jagger & Kristi share Morton’s philosophy. Mark and Kristi Jagger, one of the few married morning radio teams in the country, have been doing morning drive here since 2005. Listeners treat them like rock stars when they make an appearance at an event, and that extends to their dog Bodie, an Australian shepherd who has become the unofficial station mascot.
Their show is fun to listen to. “We’re not a morning zoo,” says Kristi. “Everything is family-friendly … Our target is 35-42 year-old women, or even young grandparents who watch the kids while their sons and daughters are at work.” They never talk politics; news focuses on what celebrities are doing.
“We try to keep things light,” Mark says. “We take people’s mind off the bad traffic.”
Jagger & Kristi are known for their Christmas Wish-A-Thon, a 14-hour annual broadcast to raise money for local people in need. They blog and emcee events. They own three horses and are known for their work with animal shelters. “Jagger & Kristi’s Critters” has helped numerous pets to get adopted.
Another deejay with a unique brand is “R Dub!” (real name Randy Williams). A 25-year radio veteran, he is the program director of Magic and Z90, and Magic’s afternoon drive deejay. He is best known for his long-running “Sunday Night Slow Jams” program, which features classic and current love songs along with requests and dedications. Back in 2015, he was hoping to expand his show, so he went on ABC-TV’s “Shark Tank,” seeking $75,000 to hire a sales manager; he didn’t win, but the publicity was invaluable. “Sunday Night Slow Jams” now has fans all over the world and is syndicated on 130 stations.
Williams reiterates what others at Local Media have said: Millennials will listen to radio if a station has good content and interesting personalities. But he believes radio needs to do a better job of telling its story; he sees how the listeners respond to station events and how they get in touch on social media, and he knows radio matters to the audience.
VP/GM Gregg Wolfson agrees. “Being live and local is how you distinguish yourself from a Pandora or Spotify.” Or, as Promotion Director Josh Hammond put it, “What makes us special is we really are local. … We can build relationships with people.”
Donna Halper wrote recently about WOOF(AM/FM) in Dothan, Ala., and “Giant 96: Real Radio” in Shelbyville, Ind., among other stations.