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CLEAR CHANNEL/CUMULUS: IT'S ALL THE SAME

So last week Clear Channel Tucson flipped formats on one of its radio stations. Never mind that the frequency changed its call letters to KNST 97.1 FM last year as part of a simulcast effort for its struggling AM news/talk signal KNST 790 AM. And forget that the transition to talk on FM was actually working.

None of that mattered. Instead, Clear Channel Tucson decided to change the format at 97.1 to Wild Country. Yes, a country music station on a largely scratchy FM signal that it's attempting to convince listeners is a real alternative to the market's No. 1 station, Tucson country music juggernaut KIIM 99.5 FM.

This move is destined for disaster. But far more significant than a simple format change, it underlines many of the issues and mentalities that limit the scope of corporate radio.

There's some cluster A versus cluster B going on with Clear Channel's decision to make the move.

For cluster A, there's an archaic radio strategy that has been commonplace in this and other markets for years. Cluster A wants to protect its big moneymaking station but it's feeling the heat from cluster B's big moneymaking station, which might threaten cluster A's No. 1 standing in the market. So cluster A sacrifices one of its less successful signals to play the same format as cluster B's big money station. The hope is that the signal with the same format will take some listeners away from cluster B, thus propelling cluster A's big money station to the top of the ratings again.

Note the similarities in this approach to what the Cumulus Broadcasting Group did with its Tucson cluster. Last year, as a counterprogramming effort against Clear Channel top-40 station KRQQ 93.7 FM, Cumulus swapped its inoffensive Bob music format for a top-40 station, the so-called i97.5.

This is where it gets creepy. As part of its launch, i97.5 played its first 10,000 songs commercial free. Guess what Wild Country announced it was doing last week? Ten-thousand songs. Commercial free.

Which leads us to a far more disturbing situation for those who still bother to listen to Tucson radio. With Clear Channel's regionalization approach, and the Cumulus purchase of bankrupt Citadel Broadcasting, stations in specific markets have next to no say about how to run themselves. It's one-size-fits-all radio, even if it doesn't fit here.

To Clear Channel and Cumulus, what works in Tucson is of very little importance in the streamlining mentality of the modern terrestrial radio model. Under this approach, the likelihood isn't that i97.5 and Wild Country were launched as pawns to try to lower the ratings of big-money competitors. Instead, they were launched because the clusters are mandated to have stations with similar formats. The specific market dynamics are meaningless.

When Cumulus expanded, it launched its "i" top-40 format in numerous locations. Clear Channel has done a similar thing with its "my" model now in effect at "My 92.9 FM." Cumulus has unveiled a country format, Nash, which it will launch in a number of markets. Like what Clear Channel does with its stable of voice-track professionals, the Cumulus country format will have one person voice-tracking music from an out-of-town location and hope the natives don't notice. To Cumulus' credit, it so far hasn't overhauled some of the successful top-40 formats in other markets that were bringing in money prior to the purchase, so maybe it will be smart enough to leave KIIM alone.

Clear Channel was not smart enough to do that with KRQ. The top-40 station remains among the three highest-rated stations in the market, but according to often shaky Arbitron ratings, it has lost about 20 percent of its audience in the past year. In a market dominated by KIIM, KRQ and Journal Broadcasting-owned KMXZ 94.9 MixFm, KRQ now finds itself closer to the rest of the pack than comfortably at or near the top.

As folks in the Clear Channel building at Fort Lowell and Oracle roads attempt to dissect the reasons for the decline, they'll probably come up with some familiar culprits. For starters, top 40 is geared toward a younger demographic, and that group is more likely to be technologically savvy, and therefore more comfortable accessing the music it wants to hear on MP3 platforms.

But what the regional suits don't get about Tucson, or don't care, is this community's fierce loyalty toward programming with a local voice. To date, no syndicated morning show on a music format has ever been successful in this market. JohnJay and Rich get the ratings they do because they used to broadcast from here, so many of the listeners still consider them local. Mojo gets some of the same benefit at KOHT 98.3 FM because of the time he spent in the market as well. But KRQ has struggled since transitioning from local talent on a number of air shifts. As much as consultants tell radio GMs it's all about the music, in this market it still carries some weight if the perception exists that the person playing the music is based in Tucson. KRQ abandoned that façade a few years ago, and it has backfired.

It's safe to say the syndicated Bobby Bones Show, with Lunchbox and Amy, will not garner "Wild"ly successful numbers. Not when Max, Shannon and Porkchop are actually broadcasting from a studio location in Tucson.

While regional corporate deems the move part of the Clear Channel master plan, there's a strong chance the decision will cripple the cluster in this market. To make room for a country station that has no chance of making a dent against KIIM, Clear Channel pulled the only format that has seen a numbers uptick: news/talker KNST. Now that KNST is no longer accessible on FM, it opens the door for rival talker KQTH 104.1 FM to take the reins. And KNST's cursory move to KRQ's HD 2 signal won't benefit it in the least, because next to nobody listens to anything on HD.

So by putting a country station that will fail in place of a news/talk station that was showing success, while not benefiting its top-40 station in the least, Clear Channel has masterfully delivered a trifecta to make itself something of a nonfactor in Tucson's terrestrial radio landscape.

Well done, Corporate.

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