I suppose I should add not all station owners are smart business people. I recall a very successful small town AM and FM. The AM had morphed in to a mostly news and information with ag emphasis, simulcasting the FM, a top 40, after about 3 and most of the weekend. The two stations were doing about $850,000 a year in the 1980s. The new owners came in and went with a beautiful music format on AM and FM. The AM offered 5 minutes of news at :60 and :30, while the FM ran a minute of news on the hour and weather at :30. The AM format was mainly 60s plus covers while the FM was much more traditional as far as beautiful music went. Billing went down the tubes and folks in the area resented their heritage stations vanishing. Finally they got a nice offer on the FM (eventually upgraded) that actually kept them from going under. A buddy that worked there said the stations billed about $300,000 a year as beautiful music stations.
I do have to mention an AM/FM Combo is a Pennsylvania town. To my understanding they were doing well as an automated local soft AC station with ample local news and sports. They sold for about 1x billing, $300,000. The new owner took both the AM and FM to a Christian format. In the end, this 'new owner' passed away. It was thought the AM and FM combined were billing less than $50,000 a year at the time of his untimely passing. By this time he was doing country on the AM and some secular conservative talk shows on the FM. Granted the new owner felt strongly about offering Christian programming in some form and knew he'd likely be footing the bills.
So, there are times suicide happens but it is when ownership changes. Either the new owner is a fish out of water with the old format even if it was successful or the new owner had a personal reason for doing what they did.
100 miles up I-44 there was KELI, which had a similar sudden departure. A new owner took over the station and decided to flip the format convinced it wasn't working. After signing the contract with a satellite format provider, he reportedly found out the truth and was rumored to have been in tears when he actually pulled the plug.
I've also never understood the flips of all of the full service stations to talk. Maybe it was really good foresight, but full service stations never seemed short on spots and were always successful. I remember reading an article, possibly by Sean Ross, on how baffling those switches could be. I guess most of them ended up doing okay, and the news junkies still knew when to tune them in after they switched.
Kent I have to agree with you on the AM full service stations switching to talk. I was in Dallas/Fort Worth when it began. Sure FM was gaining ground quickly and many stations had flipped from beautiful music to more contemporary formats but the AM stations I recall being very solid in the ratings, flipped. These were stations with good talent, some rather household names in the metro and solid news departments. They had even managed to evolve from pure MOR to adult contemporary, but they all opted for a talk format.
It sure had to be revenue but I recall them with decent commercial loads so unless they were commanding less and less on their commercials, it almost seemed they woke up one day and decided to go with what was one of the most expensive to execute formats on radio. People were not pleased and I recall these stations kept retooling every year or two trying to find their spot. One of the last holdouts was WBAP that was country full service until going talk. WBAP was no slouch on air talent.
Probably one of the more unique was WRR AM that was AC in the last few years, full service, top talent and at :45 past every hour, Library of Laffs, playing a comedy track. They were normally the #3 station in the market by their own admission, when they flipped. Sam From Sales came from the morning talent.
I did notice in Dallas/Fort Worth that when the ratings were combined for Dallas/Fort Worth versus it being two separate markets, the format changes really started to happen. It is interesting to note the first major market where FM listening equaled AM listening happened in Dallas/Fort Worth. I noticed the formats appealing to the younger demos quickly went to FM leaving the AM counterpart looking for it's place while the 35+ tended to stay with the stations they knew on the AM dial because they got what they liked. At that point, FM was top 40, album rock and beautiful music but the adult contemporary was found mostly on AM as was country. The exception was KVIL, an AM/FM simulcast or at least identical programming and talent on AM and FM.
Small but rated (100+) market. AM had been affiliated with NBC's News and Information Service and was getting the best numbers -- both ratings and sales -- in its history. FM came on the air as a new station in 1976, running an automated "contemporary MOR" format with most of its commercials being bonused to AM advertisers and the rest trade accounts.
When NBC pulled the plug on NIS, they started simulcasting the FM on the AM, except for a regional sports network (MLB, NFL, college football/basketball) which they still split to run only on the AM. I went to work for them shortly afterwards because the canned format needed a lot of tweaking, but no one had really noticed how bad it was until it became the only programming in the building.
In 1979, after a format overhaul to morph a 50% current/50% recurrents and gold AC, the simulcast cracked the book for the first time, coming in at #3 in 18-34 and #5 in 25-54. We rode the crest of that wave for two years before a group of "know-it-all" radio guys whose primary experience had been at a standalone AM on the outskirts of Denver offered $1.2M for the station. The keys were barely warm in their hands when they ripped the existing, still-successful AC format off the air, replacing it with a vocal-heavy beautiful music on the FM (I should point out that there was already a beautiful music station in the market, on a far superior signal, and four others on the dial from adjacent markets) and a "personality-based" MOR format on the AM.
What a mess. I left the day the ownership changed after giving them the free advice that they were going to be far from successful with their plan. I even suggested that they go ahead with their AM experiment in the daytime but leave the FM alone and simulcast at night (when the AM signal was 250 watts and had poor coverage) so they would be able to keep as many of the existing clients as possible. Oh, no ... they knew everything. They were from the much larger market of Denver, Colorado!
The AM immediately faltered. Their "personalities" weren't. The morning guy/PD filled the first show with inside jokes like "mile high (insert name of local community)?" and laughingly mispronounced community names. They had six minutes of news on the hour and four minutes plus three minutes of sports on the half-hour. The sports guy was given the last two hours of afternoon drive to do a talk show, which turned into him begging for people "to call in so we talk high school football". The midday guy, who probably should have been the morning guy, had an invented sidekick voice but didn't have the wit to make it work (imagine a very, very bad version of the late Jack Armstrong and the Gorilla then imagine it even worse than what you're thinking). Meanwhile, every one of the FM's advertisers bailed. Every single one.
Six months in, they were simulcasting again, with a less personality/more music approach, but still running the beautiful music format on both stations overnight. By the end of the first year, none of the original airstaff was still there, and all but two of the staff I'd had there under the previous owners had also moved on. (I should also mention that for much of that year, they had been reduced to recording the two-minute FM news briefs for the automation and doing production the rest of the time.)
Before the end of the second year, they went Chapter 11 and converted to a Chapter 7 before it was over. The new new owners split the simulcast again, went live AOR on the FM and automated standards plus Larry King on the AM, then went CHR with the FM in 1984 (at which point I inexplicably rejoined the station). In the midst of an internal argument between the GM who wanted to stay CHR and the majority owner who wanted us to transition to AC, I left again. They went dark in less than nine more months and ended up spinning the AM and FM off to separate owners.
Through all this, I remained in touch with the original owners, who said if they'd been able to know all that would happen they would have just kept the stations and not changed anything. At least, they said, we were solidly in the black once we went AC.
I should note a correction. In the paragraph a couple of posts ago. I mentioned Sam From Sales in the WRR paragraph instead of the WBAP paragraph.
Sam from Sales was a hoot. Sam from Sales was the salesman that sold from both sides of the desk. A lengthy daily bit where the Cajun sounding Sam claimed to have a long lost relative that somehow was related to what happened that day in history. There was the Columbus Day story of 'Chris' setting off to discover the new world with three ships that had been gathering barnacles. One of the ships was the 'Sangria', the party barge captained by twin brothers Juan and Two La Bamba, Sam's distant relatives...one of 'em invented a dance according to Sam. Then there was the two twin brothers in Lubbock. On the same day one brother's wife died, the other brother's boat sank. An elderly lady mistook one of the twins as the one who lost his wife and expressed her condolences. The brother thinking she was speaking of that fishing boat he loved so much, responded to the lady with "That's okay, but her bottom was all chewed up and smelled like fish anyway. In fact, she's not really gone. Got her hanging up in the garage." Sam always had a factoid. He said Jefferson was wrong in the Declaration of Independence when he said that all men are created equal. Sam said, had he never been in a men's locker room?
I can think of a couple of station "suicides" in the definition given:
- WVGO in Richmond, VA. Locally owned AAA station in the early 90's with surprising commercial appeal and great ratings. Eventually sold out to the owner of WBZU 104.7, a rimshot which had flipped a few months before in 8/1995 to modern rock. They tweaked the music a bit to a harder mix, then decided to add Howard Stern. Listenership plunged quick. That caused fines and an eventual ad boycott from Richmond's biggest grocery chain which got a lot of attention. Stern and WVGO's AAA format were gone within a couple of months, only to be replaced by the WBZU modern rock format that started off on the rimshot less than a year before.
- WRLX 92.1 in West Palm Beach had an alternative rock format in the early 2000's called "Planet Radio". Got ridiculous 6+ ratings -- like, routinely top 3. That being said, in a place like WPB which has more elderly folks than a "traditional" town, it is tough to keep a format on that appeals to a small niche of younger folks when the big money (Soft AC, IIRC) was not really being pursued. Still don't know why they did so well (maybe Bubba the Love Sponge was THAT popular down there and/or cooking ratings books)
- WJFK-FM in DC. Never a huge ratings-winner, but it was Washington's dominant talk station for 10-15 years. I dare say they invented "hot talk" as a format in late 1988 when Infinity acquiesced and put Howard Stern on what was then a freshly-minted "new age" station. Obviously, that did not work well and eventually the smooth jazz was moved to overnights. By about 1990-91 they had their three longtime day hosts (Stern, Don and Mike, G Gordon Liddy) and started programming rock on nights/weekends. Got caught up in the "Free FM" debacle when Stern left and nothing was the same after that. When Don and Mike split up in 2008, the station withered away and eventually flipped to sports. "Washington's Superstation" is no more.
- Of course, there's the previously-mentioned WAVA-FM 105.1/DC. The ultimate station "suicide"...though top 40 went through a big slump in the early-mid 90's. Rumor had it that Salem, upon buying the station from Emmis in '91, offered to maintain the secular format so long as Don and Mike remained. D&M took a better offer at WJFK-FM (and seeing the writing on the wall that they were on borrowed time with Salem), and within 90 days of their departure, Salem had flipped to Christian talk. They did the top 40 thing so well, they pushed two competitors aside (WBMW 106.7 and WRQX 107.3 which switched to a hot AC format about a year prior to AVA's demise). DC was without a top 40 station for about 4 years until Bonneville took two rimshot signals and started Z104.
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Probably almost every EMF sale was a "suicide", unless the station was doing poorly.
WRKS-FM was also the biggest station "suicide" in New York history (excluding the occasional AM music-to-talk "suicides"). 98.7 Kiss FM was the most popular R&B station in the world, and Disney had to bring it down.
Yes, WRKS was a big station throughout the 80's. But by the time Emmis sold it to Disney in 2012, it was in a huge ratings slump, and Emmis had sold off WRXP/101.9 already to try to stem the red ink flowing from the books in New York. WBLS had changed hands not long before that in a bankruptcy settlement, and they agreed to merge some of the programming from WRKS (which was seen as a survival move).
The real suicide would have been if Emmis had tried to save 98.7 under the circumstances. But "Disney had to bring it down" is a misstatement of huge proportions; they were shopping for an FM in the Big Apple and when Emmis put WRKS up for sale, they jumped at the opportunity.
Instead of two troubled Adult Urban stations, there is now one leading station which just pulled a #1 25-54 book in November.
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