Radio Radio

We search the airwaves for signs of intelligent life

Call it meat on the bone, shtick, or hate speech, Savage and the rest of the Patriot lineup have managed to put WWTC back on the Twin Cities radio map. Aside from a brief heyday as an oldies station called the Golden Rock in the early Eighties, WWTC has seldom garnered enough listeners to even merit notice in the Arbitron book, the industry's ratings bible. In the period from September to December, however, the station pulled in its best ratings in nearly two decades.

"It's had an interesting history. There were always a lot of strange goings-on there. Management screw-ups. Staff turnover. One thing after the next," says Minneapolis author Jeff Lonto, who wrote and published a book about WWTC called, aptly enough, Fiasco at 1280. Following its glory days as the Golden Rock, WWTC changed ownership and formats with regularity: From urban dance to all-weather to news, briefly back to oldies, then to children's programming, and, finally, to religious broadcasting. The experiments had one thing in common: They all flopped.

The signal's drift came to an end when Salem Communications bought 1280 (and another AM station in Milwaukee) for $7 million last February. The California-based chain, which owns 81 stations nationwide, specializes in commercial Christian teaching and talk, with a sub-specialty in contemporary Christian music. In the past two years, though, Salem has branched out into the secular talk format and now has ten such stations nationwide. It also syndicates its own stable of hosts, including Patriot regulars Hewitt, Gallagher, and Medved.

Because the company already operated KKMS-AM (980), a Christian talk station broadcasting to the Twin Cities market, buying another station here made sense, says Hunt. The Patriot shares offices and staff with KKMS. And since introducing the Patriot format in March, the station has slowly built up an advertiser base.

"We're doing something that hasn't been done in this market before. On the negative side, people say we're biased, we're racists, we're hatemongers," Hunt says. "On the other side, there are people saying, 'I'm glad someone is finally presenting my point of view.'"

The numbers are still relatively modest. According to Arbitron, the station recorded a weekly "cume" (which measures the total size of audiences) of some 40,000 listeners 12 years of age and older during the fall ratings period. By comparison, KSTP-AM pulled in a weekly cume of 305,000 listeners; WCCO-AM (830), the market's dominant AM frequency, scored more than 500,000. Not surprisingly, the Patriot's audience is predominantly male (by a more than three-to-one ratio) and middle-aged.

As Hunt sees it, that's just fine: "We don't intend to be as large as WCCO, and we're not a radio station everyone is going to want to listen to. It's not our goal to be the number-one or number-two station in the market. We're basically a niche direct-marketing company. And marketers know that if you can define a niche, sometimes you can command a higher price. We have very narrowly focused our audience--a little older, a little more affluent, and a little more educated. We think there's money in that demo."

Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine, says the competition for audience has become increasingly intense in recent years. In the mid-Nineties hundreds of former AM music stations switched to the format, and syndicated hosts like Limbaugh, Howard Stern, and Laura Schlessinger became radio's new stars. In the past few years, Harrison adds, the growth of market share has leveled off--at around 16 percent. So stations like WWTC have increasingly staked their hopes on finding the smaller niches.

What sets the Patriot apart, Harrison says, is not the ideological extremity; it's the promotional approach: "Conservative talk radio is a format of talk radio just like Christian talk or sports talk. It's a genre unto itself with a big following. But in terms of marketing, what they're doing is a little bit different. They're actually marketing the fact that they're conservative. Most stations try not to allow themselves to be labeled."

If the Patriot is about nothing else, it is about labeling--from the relentless self-branding ("patriotic before it was cool") to the epithets the hosts spit out at straw men, politicians, and immigrants. Perhaps that's because these stereotypes offer a reassurance to the station's listeners that there is something absolute and definite in an uncertain world.

And how would one label the listeners of the Patriot? A quick survey of the advertisers paints a dismal picture: The baldness-remedy folk. The weight-loss folk. The debt-management folk. The invest-in-gold folk.

Does this mean the station's much-ballyhooed target demo is balding, fat, in debt, and yearning for a return to the gold standard?

Maybe. Or maybe they're just pissed off.


Old-School Sell
Independent promoters work both sides of the biz

To hear local radio promoter Tom Kay tell it, the LeAnn Rimes song had at least two strikes against it. For starters, "Can't Fight the Moonlight" was released more than a year ago on the soundtrack for the movie

Coyote Ugly and, as a result, to radio stations nationwide. Then there was the movie itself: a critically panned box-office dud that threatened to turn any song attached into an entertainment-industry joke.

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