"Online since 1999"


by Deon Roberts

(Published in New Orleans CityBusiness on August 8, 2005 and posted here with permission)

     WWL-AM, the leading radio station in New Orleans for decades, is struggling to deal with a combination of changing market conditions and a stretch of bad luck that trimmed its ratings considerably in the past 18 months.

     The "Big 870," known for its news, talk and sports, lost three of its signature talk show hosts in that stretch to death, illness and resignation. Losing personalities such as Buddy Diliberto, David Tyree and Andre Trevigne has given WWL competitors an opening, according to ratings data.

     In the spring Arbitron ratings, WWL-AM booked a 6.6 share, down 16.5 percent from a 7.9 in the summer '04 ratings period. Arbitron ratings are widely used as a guideline for setting advertising rates.

     Back in the fall of 2003, WWL-AM's ratings peaked at 9.5. In New Orleans, the country's 46th-largest radio market, one point equals an average of 10,750 listeners.

     The once-yawning gap between WWL and its competitors has narrowed. KMEZ 102.9 FM, a music station with urban adult contemporary programming, sported a 5.9 rating in the last Arbitron report. KMEZ charges $150 for a 30-second prime-time spot while WWL values a 30-second spot from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at $195 with a three-week contract.

     Industry insiders say losing so many unique personalities in such a short time is a big reason for the WWL ratings vulnerability.

     "So much of why people tune into talk radio is to hear the host," said Michael Harrison, publisher of talk radio trade journal Talkers Magazine. "Three leading local personalities departing in one year are almost certain to cause a dip in the ratings."

Management at WWL-AM did not return repeated calls requesting comment.

    WWL, Louisiana's first publicly licensed radio station, was originally owned by Loyola University New Orleans. The station, which went on the air March 30, 1922, broadcast what is believed to be the first public radio program ever on the Gulf Coast - a piano recital.

     In 1989, Loyola sold WWL-AM to Greenville, S.C.-based Keymarket Communications. In 1999, Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based Entercom Communications bought the station bringing its number of local stations to six. Other Entercom stations in New Orleans include WSMB-AM, WEZB-FM, WLMG-FM, WTKL-FM and WKBU-FM.

     WWL, which broadcasts at 50,000 watts, is a clear-channel station, meaning no other station in the country can broadcast at night on its frequency. Station owner Clear Channel adopted its company name from the procedure.

     WWL can be heard in all 48 continental states. New Orleanians visiting Europe have reported picking up faint broadcasts.

     The station can recover from the ratings hit, Harrison said.

     "It takes time to develop the new habits and the relationships with the listeners, even if the people were well known before taking over," Harrison said. "It takes a long time to lose an audience and it takes a long time to build one."

     Longtime announcers Trevigne, who held the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. slot, and Tyree, who held the 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. slot, left the station earlier this year. Trevigne resigned abruptly for undisclosed reasons and Tyree is battling prostate cancer.

     Local actor John "Spud" McConnell replaced Trevigne, and longtime local newscaster Garland Robinette is taking Tyree's place indefinitely.

     Colorful sports announcer Diliberto, who held the 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. slot for more than 15 years, died Jan. 7 of a heart attack. Announcer Kenny Wilkerson and former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert now fill that time slot.

     According to Harrison, WWL's ratings slide can also be attributed to an overall downtrend in talk radio listenership. WWL daytime programming is anchored around political talk host Rush Limbaugh and interest in political talk is fading, he said.

     "In a nutshell, the post-election year hasn't been a good period for talk radio because the programming really focused on liberal versus conservative," Harrison said. "It seems they kept talking about the same stuff once the election was over."

     Longtime New Orleans radio personality Bob Walker, who began his radio career in New Orleans in 1967 on WTIX-AM, says WWL's ratings slide has more to do with station management than changes in show hosts. The station has lost its "soul," Walker said.

     "During the glory days, WWL radio was locally owned," Walker said. "Programming and staffs were local, entertaining, informative and fun by people who grew up in New Orleans and knew the city. WWL was truly a part of the community."

     Today, Walker says, few station managers in New Orleans are from New Orleans - if any.

     "WWL did not even have special reports and advisories at night during Tropical Storm Cindy after hundreds of thousands of people lost power and searched their portable radios for any information they could find," Walker said. "All that was offered on WWL that night was syndicated radio garbage."

     WWL's lack of community concern that night won't soon be forgotten by its audience, Walker said. Enough cracks like that can eventually bring down a mountain, he said.

     According to Harrison, many stations, WWL-AM included, face increasing competition from other media outlets such as satellite radio and Internet streaming. Listeners have many more choices than they did 10 or 20 years ago, he said.

     "Whether it's the future or not, these emerging technologies have already caused terrestrial radio to take a good look at itself," Harrison said. "I see this as being a real kick in the can for terrestrial radio."