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November 2011
The Right Wavelength
By Barbara Fagan

     As you turn on the radio today, there’s a good chance that what you are listening to has been influenced by Charlie Wilkinson.

     Wilkinson, president and market manager of Clear Channel Broadcasting in Charlotte, is responsible for five of Charlotte’s most popular radio stations as well as Total Traffic Network, a real time traffic information service.

     “I wear a lot of hats,” Wilkinson says, with a certain measure of pride. “I’m responsible for the Charlotte market as a whole with my main focus on revenue and content.”

     Given the wide range of formats in the Charlotte cluster of stations, all those hats look very different from each other. The local market is broken down into five distinct demographics: alternative rock on WEND-FM (“The END” 106.5), Top 40 on WHQC-FM (“Channel 96.1”), country on WKKT-FM (“The Kat” 96.9), soft rock on WLYT-FM (“Lite 102.9”), and classic rock on WRFX-FM (“The Fox” 99.7). Those clear-cut differences are intentional.

     “A tremendous amount of research goes into determining demographics and whether we’re reaching our market,” Wilkinson explains. “We have a programming team for each station. We’re committed to delivering on our promise of giving the listeners exactly what they want as far as music and content.”

     Part of the content includes the popular morning drive shows. Each morning show is uniquely suited to its particular station.

     There’s pop culture with a country twist from 30-year-veteran and the number one morning show in the market, “Paul Schadt and Meg in the Morning,” irreverent Southern humor on “The John Boy and Billy Big Show,” edgy satire for the 18-to-34 demographic on “The Woody and Wilcox Show,” topical water cooler talk from “A.M. Mayhem with Fred and Angi,” and award-winning openness from “Valentine in the Morning.”

     The radio personalities provide yet another way to connect with listeners.

     “Radio is a one-on-one relationship with the listener,” Wilkinson says. But with more and more types of media vying for a consumer’s attention, radio has had to be innovative to maintain that relationship.

     “The alternatives for listeners have increased tremendously,” Wilkinson acknowledges, “but our listenership remains strong and has grown. Radio and radio technology has changed with the times and Clear Channel is leading that change. Listeners today can not only listen to us on air, but also can engage with us online, can stream music through their computer, and can carry us with them wherever they go through smartphones and handheld devices.”

 

Getting in the Groove

     With all his enthusiasm for the industry, it’s surprising that Wilkinson’s radio career began by chance while he was working in hospitality industry in Orlando, Fla.

     “In Orlando you either work in the hospitality industry or you work for Mickey,” Wilkinson kids. “I happened to meet a woman who ran several radio stations in Houston, and she suggested that I should get in the business.”

     In 1998 he moved there to be a radio account executive.

     “I discovered that this was the business for me,” he says. “I love the pace.”

     In 2001 he began his career with Clear Channel in Houston as a sales manager for a struggling alternative rock station.

     “It was an intimidating proposition,” Wilkinson admits. “But it’s where I learned the difference between a manager and a leader—a manager presides over a process but a leader creates.”

     Success in that position led to sales manager responsibilities at a second and then a third station, and then the pivotal opportunity to become general manager with vertical responsibility for all aspects of a station. But there was a catch: this particular station was changing to a total Spanish language format.

     “I’d taken high school and college Spanish and knew about enough Spanish to get along on vacation. I was nervous.” Wilkinson says and smiles. “But I learned Spanish and ran that station for several years. It was a great experience.”

     In 2010 he was offered the market manager position in Charlotte, the 24th largest radio market in the nation, and in April of 2010 assumed the responsibilities of president and market manager of Clear Channel Charlotte.

     With 237 million monthly listeners in the U.S., Clear Channel Broadcasting has the largest reach of any radio or television outlet in America. Clear Channel Broadcasting serves 150 cities through 850 owned radio stations and an additional 100 cities and 4,000 stations through its syndicated products.

     Clear Channel entered the Charlotte market in 2000. So what is it like to have an industry giant as your parent company?

     “We’re an arm of Clear Channel,” Wilkinson explains. “This gives us unlimited capabilities and resources. We have every tool needed to create the best experience for our listeners and advertisers.

     “We’re in a huge paradigm shift as an industry and I’m proud to say Clear Channel’s leading the way. We’re moving from being about tall towers and transmitters to being about building our brands and about our loyal listeners.”

     Proof of Clear Channel’s vanguard position is easy to find. This October, Clear Channel Media Holdings appointed Bob Pittman as its CEO. Pittman, who started his media career at 15 as a radio announcer, co-founded the MTV Network and has been a CEO at MTV, AOL Networks, Six Flags Theme Parks, Quantum Media, Century 21 Real Estate and Time Warner Enterprises.

     “Bob is a leader in the media and entertainment industry,” says Wilkinson of the new CEO. “He will unequivocally lead us into the new look of media. It’s an exciting time for our company and it’s exciting to have Bob Pittman at the helm.

     “The future of radio is about providing listeners with the content and the music they want, when they want it, where they want it, and how they want it.”

 

Enter iHeartRadio

     To accomplish that goal, Clear Channel recently launched its newest product, iHeartRadio.

     iHeartRadio can be accessed online or through apps on handheld devices, allowing users to listen to live programming on more than 800 of Clear Channel’s radio stations or create their own personalized custom stations from a catalog of over 11 million songs by 400,000 artists.

     The two-day product launch at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in September, was the largest concert event in radio history. The iHeartRadio Music Festival featured a diverse line up of artists including: Lady Gaga, The Black Eyed Peas, Kenny Chesney, John Mayer, Jennifer Lopez, Sting, Coldplay, Usher, Nicki Minaj, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Rascal Flatts, Jane’s Addiction and Steven Tyler.

     The concert sold inside of 10 minutes and was broadcast live over Clear Channel stations as well as streamed over the Internet.

     “iHeartRadio combines the best of both worlds,” Wilkinson explains. “It delivers everything a listener wants in one free, fully integrated service. It’s a competitor to Pandora (another customizable Internet radio service offered by Pandora Media, Inc.) but in reality, the iHeartRadio application, coupled with our live radio stations, puts iHeartRadio in a different league. We have more albums than Pandora has songs.”

     Wilkinson demonstrates the program on his smartphone by clicking on the iHeartRadio icon. “You can find a station by city or format,” he explains. “It’s their live programming streaming right from your cell phone. I’ve created several stations with its customized station ability.

     “You can pick an artist or even a song and tell it to ‘like’ songs like that and customize it even further by telling it to stick with familiar artists or broaden it out to other artists, maybe new artists, with the same sound. In that way, it can introduce you to a much wider variety of artists that you might like. If you hear something you like, you press the ‘thumbs up’ button and it gives you more songs like that. Hit ‘thumbs down’ and it won’t. You can create your own station that has predictive playlisting.”

     Clear Channel has partnered with Facebook on the launch and roll out of iHeartRadio and iHeartRadio continues their partnership with social media by allowing users to share songs and stations through posts on Facebook or Twitter, and lets them view the recent music selections of others in their social media network, to add another dimension to the listening experience.

     Last month, Clear Channel expanded its partnership with Microsoft to offer iHeartRadio on the Xbox 360 through its Xbox LIVE service. Xbox Gold members with Kinect have the unique ability to control the radio using their voice and body movements.

     The month before, Clear Channel announced a partnership with Univision Radio, the leading Spanish language radio group serving Hispanic Americans. This connection allows iHeartRadio listeners to access Univision’s range of stations and programming on any platform supported by the iHeartRadio program.

     “We’re changing with the times,” comments Wilkinson. “We’re committed to being a change agent and to maximizing our ability to connect with our audience. Building partnerships is one way we do that.”

 

A Word from Our Sponsors

     Partnerships with advertisers are also key to Clear Channel Charlotte’s success.

     Marcus Smith, president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway and president and COO of Speedway Motorsports, partners with Clear Channel Charlotte to promote events and festivals throughout the year.

     “We currently spend about 20 to 25 percent of our advertising budget on radio and we’ve increased our spending from last year,” Smith notes. “As more people spend time in their cars, they’re listening to the radio. Radio advertising does a great job of reaching people and Charlie Wilkinson and his team develop the best marketing program for us with added touches like mentioning that it’s a great day for the race during the weather broadcast.”

     Keith Hawthorne, owner and president of Keith Hawthorne Automotive, gives his advertising with Clear Channel Charlotte a personal twist. “I record weekly commercial spots at the station,” Hawthorne says. “I like to have a dialogue with my customers through my ads, and Arroe Collins at the station works with me to come up with a concept. They’re very sensitive to what my company needs. I advertise primarily on the radio because it hits my demographic right in the sweet spot. And Charlie Wilkinson is very hands on, very involved.”

     “I advertise mainly on ‘The Kat’” says, Scott Clark, of Scott Clark’s Toyota City, “but I also run ads on the four other stations. The stations do live remotes from the dealerships and Paul Schadt and I even do live commercials every morning. He tracks me down on my cell phone wherever I am, even in Alaska.

     “We use radio, TV and print for advertising but we really like radio because we get so much more frequency for the cost. And we advertise with Clear Channel Charlotte because of their understanding of the marketplace. They’re always looking to do something new.”

     “We promote like nobody else,” says Wilkinson. “We have robust options for our advertisers. You can use our on-air radio, or a live endorsement from John Boy and Billy or Paul Schadt or a comprehensive in-depth campaign using our website and Web capabilities. We provide equivalent or better solutions for our advertisers to reach new and existing clients. We have national reach but can execute locally.”

     Wilkinson is excited about the future. “Radio is so dynamic and the technology is changing all the time, but some things will always remain the same. Our job is to be engaging and relevant. We’re committed to connecting with our listeners. After all, radio is America’s companion.”

Barbara Fagan is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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