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July 2009
Targeting Your Audience
By Ellison Clary

     Magnetic personalities have keyed the success of venerable Charlotte radio station WBT-AM. They deliver its conservative talk format with the verve necessary to attract and keep listeners who, in turn, patronize advertisers.

     These distinctive personalities create programs and fill them with original content that makes WBT-AM, along with simulcaster WBT-FM and sister WLNK-FM, unlike any others, says Rick Jackson, vice president and general manager of Greater Media Charlotte, the entity that presides directly over the stations.

     Not only has that ensured the current success of WBT and WLNK, it bodes well for the future in a changing media world, he adds.

     “We’re big believers in bigger-than-life personalities,” says Jackson, who took his Charlotte job 17 years ago. “I love what we have right now,” he adds, reeling off locally familiar names such as Al Gardner and Stacey Simms, Keith Larson, Bob and Sheri, Matt and Ramona and John Hancock.

     “We hope we have a consistent product that the vast majority of our listeners enjoy,” he smiles. “And I think we’ve got that.”

 

Tuning It Up

     The numbers back him up. When Jackson joined WBT from Denver in 1992, the station had lost money—millions—for a decade. In 1993, he turned a $340,000 profit. That grew to $6.8 million in 2007, before the severe economic downturn.

     On his arrival, Jackson found a fledgling talk format. WBT had Rush Limbaugh’s program, still relatively new but attracting droves of listeners. Additionally, the station featured John Hancock and the late Henry Boggan hosting Charlotte-based, spoken-word formats.

     Jackson, who’d worked his way up in Denver area radio to morning personality and program director at KYGO-AM, nurtured the talk and built on it. Through the years, he added Gardner and Simms on Charlotte’s Morning News, Larson in mid-morning, and most recently, Tara Servatius and Pete Kaliner in afternoons and late night, respectively.

     The formula worked so well that he tried it on sister station WLNK-FM, the Link. Bob Lacey and Sheri Lynch have turned their morning drive “Bob & Sheri Show” into a syndicated product heard on 60 stations. Other personalities gradually populated WLNK, but in 2001 it was still playing recorded music during evening drive time, and getting drubbed.

     So Jackson found Ramona Holloway and Matt Harris for the Matt & Ramona Show in which they mostly talked through the afternoon commute. It worked. Matt & Ramona have potential sponsors standing in line and they, too, are syndicated. Further, Matt & Ramona imitators have sprung up, some in Charlotte.

     Still, Jackson admits he’s not sure what to call the WLNK format. “The truth is,” he chuckles, “we’re kind of alone going in that direction on the FM band. We call it personality adult contemporary. It’s morning shows all day long.”

Does the format have legs? Competitor Bill Schoening doesn’t know.

     Schoening is senior vice president and market manager for CBS Radio in Charlotte, where his company operates seven stations. He does think he will know next year, after the “people meter,” a pager-like device that measures listening habits in real time, is introduced in Charlotte.

     Schoening has presided over the CBS Charlotte stations since 1994 and is quick to praise Jackson as a solid competitor. “I like working with him and I like competing with him, Schoening says. “We’ve always had a mutual respect for one another.”

     If the Matt & Ramona experiment hadn’t worked, Jackson doubts he’d still have his job. But nobody came up with a better idea, either in Charlotte or at Lincoln Financial Media headquarters in Greensboro, the previous owner of WLNK.

     The ultimate proof of success comes from national radio research firm Miller, Kaplan, Arase & Co. It’s numbers show, Jackson says, that WBT bills more money than any station in Charlotte, and has for six years. WLNK currently ranks third, in a 29- station market.

 

Jackson Seeks Older Audience

     Jackson, 55, and his stations go for an audience that is older than radio usually seeks. Part of the reason is that the median age of a WBT listener when Jackson arrived was 63. Now it’s 49. But, generally, advertisers go for the 18-to-49 or 25- to-54 segments.

     “A lot of older Americans are doing just fine,” Jackson says. “They’re spending money hand over fist. We like to sell just like we program. We don’t care whether you’re a 25-year-old or a 90-year-old, as long as you’re buying.”

     It boils down to delivering results for advertisers, he explains. “Our sales people want to find out about your business and create a results-driven campaign that can get qualified buyers in your store.”

     A major reason Jackson joined WBT was its storied past. KDKA in Pittsburgh was the nation’s first commercially licensed radio station, but WBT started soon after. It traces its roots to a Charlotte chicken shed. Founders Fred Laxton, Earle Gluck and Fred Bunker had WBT on the air with an “experimental” license by June 1921, beating out WSB of Atlanta as the country’s second station.

     An untrue—but popular—tale has it that the WBT call letters stood for “Watch Buick Travel.” Jackson says that was merely the creation of a colorful car dealer. But such things did happen, he admits, pointing to WLS in Chicago, which actually was short for “World’s Largest Store,” an early claim by Sears.

     Long-time executive Charles Crutchfield steered WBT, which still blasts out its signal with 50,000 watts, making it a regional powerhouse that, at night, can be heard from Canada to Cuba.

     Crutchfield brought in personalities of his own. He formed the Briarhoppers, a bluegrass band that played on the radio as well as in person. Some of the originals continue to perform today. Among his high-profile hires was Grady Cole, a household name around these parts in the mid-20th century.

     “There never has been anyone with the kind of influence on the radio in the southeast that was more pronounced than Grady Cole,” Jackson says simply.

     Jackson fondly recalls lunches with Crutchfield, before he died. “I wanted to know everything about his ideas on leadership and on Charlotte and WBT, because he was a walking encyclopedia,” Jackson says.

     Jackson needed help. Besides the red ink, there was what he calls “chaos in the hallways.” He felt he had to alter what he saw as a “culture of complacency.”

     As he went about changing personnel, Jackson aimed at making the work force as much like family as possible. He’s most proud, he says, that many employees have stayed with the station for years.

     Among them are veteran WBT news anchors Jim Barroll and John Stokes. “WBT has a fully staffed newsroom with network quality anchors and our reporters are practiced journalists who know the local newsmakers and fully understand the issues.”

     He praises the Chuck Roads traffic service his stations have used for 14 years.   AccuWeather has been a popular feature for a quarter century.

 

Not All Sweetness and Light

     All hasn’t been sweetness and light, however. The down side of dealing with big personalities, Jackson admits, is that firings can be messy.

     Last fall’s forced divorce from WBT afternoon host Jeff Katz brought a firestorm of criticism. Jackson and program director Bill White took to the airways to talk directly with disgruntled listeners. It didn’t stem the tide of e-mails and letters.

     Still, Jackson is sure that personalities who create their own unique content are worth occasional personnel headaches. It has to do with his vision of radio’s future, which he believes will rely heavily on delivering high-quality digital audio to myriad devices, possibly even to coffee cups or toasters.

      “If you’re a radio station delivering U2 or Garth Brooks, I think there’s trouble looming ahead,” he says. “You don’t own those products. That’s dangerous.

     “I would much rather be in our position where we own the product,” he continues. “You still have to come to me to get it. I’m in control of the content and I can still figure out a business template that can make money for us.”

     Yet Jackson produces his own syndicated music program, the weekly “Rick Jackson’s Country Hall of Fame,” heard on 160 stations across the country. With wife Gina’s help, he puts it together in his Weddington home studio.

     “It gives me a fair amount of independence,” he says. “I don’t have to work. I can make a good living just hosting that show.”

     Jackson has survived significant ownership upheaval. Longtime parent Jefferson Pilot Financial merged with Lincoln Financial Group in 2006. Two years later, Greater Media, Inc. bought WBT and WLNK. Jackson reports to Peter Smyth, chairman and chief executive, based in Braintree, Massachusetts.

     Though WBT and WLNK still share a building with WBTV, longtime sibling Channel 3 now has a separate owner in Raycom Sports.

     “The biggest difference for me, personally, has been getting used to the quirky nature of a private company,” says Jackson, admitting he’d become “button-down” to harmonize with corporate ownership. Now he’s happy with “fleet-footed” family ownership and is relieved that his stations aren’t subject to the whims of shareholders. That allows a longer financial view in this recessionary time.

     He’s not too concerned about rumors the Obama Administration might entertain a new version of the Fairness Doctrine, under which the Federal Communications Commission required broadcasters to present controversial issues with a balance of views. The doctrine’s 1987 demise led to the rise of Limbaugh and other conservative talkers who flocked to the AM band.

     A Fairness Doctrine revival is a long shot, Jackson believes, because people realize it didn’t work. “It was very hard to regulate,” he says.

     He does see a future for National Public Radio. “They have a great product,” he says, but adds: “I dislike the fact that we support them with our tax dollars. They should be out there competing just as we do.”

     He continues his praise with another caveat: “National Public Radio (NPR) and public television are great products. And they should be. They have hundreds of millions of dollars in operating funds. My annual budget is less than $12 million. More and more,” he adds, “you’re going to see the divide between AM radio stations like WBT and NPR. NPR has clearly evolved into a liberal network voice.”

     Jackson likes to think of himself as a natural leader who brought harmony and profitability back to his sister radio stations. He gets an endorsement from H.A. Thompson, who worked at WBT from 1971 through 1991. A veteran mid-day host, he overlapped a bit with Jackson.

     “Everything changes,” says Thompson, now president of Rose Chauffeured Transportation, Ltd., a company he created. “Rick took it where it needed to go.”

     Jackson professes to enjoy Charlotte and hopes he’ll finish his career here. “It’s my home and I love it.”

     Besides the work force he’s crafted, he’s most proud of creating the WBT Hall of Fame. Its inaugural member was Crutchfield. Other inductees since its 1997 inception have been Gluck, Cole, the Briarhoppers, Loonis McGlohon and Arthur Smith.

     He thinks the Hall of Fame will be his most enduring legacy.

     His current challenge—along with his talented crew—is to shape shows to fit audience preferences. He acknowledges that can be tricky. But for now, he reiterates that he’s happy.

     “When you get it right, there’s nothing else like it,” he grins.

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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