News wars: Randy’s still searching for some Merlin magic
Stop the presses. Randy Michaels and I finally agree on something: The radio station he put on the air at the end of July wasn’t very good.
Despite public pronouncements that ranged from confident to arrogant since Merlin Media launched a female-targeted lifestyle news format on WWWN-FM (101.1), the company’s chief executive officer now admits that mistakes were made in the approach and execution.
On Wednesday, Michaels met separately with the news and sales staffs of FM News 101.1 to explain where the strategy had gone wrong and outline a major course correction for the station. For more than an hour, Michaels reassured news staffers who’ve been buffeted by harsh criticism, monumental technical problems, abysmal ratings, and the sudden firing of at least two anchor/reporters — Dave Williams and Jill Urchak — since the launch July 31.
“Randy made it clear that the basic premise [of the format] isn’t wrong, but that a number of things had to be corrected based on what we’ve been hearing, and the feedback we’ve been getting from the audience,” a source who was at the meeting said. One of the biggest mistakes at the outset was tailoring the format too narrowly to women — or at least the assumption of what women wanted to hear on an FM news station, as conceived by Merlin Media’s chief operating officer, Walter Sabo.
“There was a feeling that we’d gone too far in focusing on women. You could hear it in the selection of stories, the way they were presented, and the overall attitude that was coming across,” the source said. “What Randy’s done is swing it back a little more toward the mainstream. We want to make it appeal to men, too.”
Toward that end, sports and financial news have been added to the programming mix. Among other changes, news director Andy Friedman’s initial concept of having multiple anchor teams reading stories back-and-forth has morphed into five-hour air shifts, presumably offering a more professional sound. Further adjustments are in the works.
The challenge for Merlin Media is to incorporate elements of a more traditional news format while differentiating it from the well-entrenched but older-skewing all-news simulcast of CBS Radio’s WBBM-AM (780) and WCFS-FM (105.9). “Randy feels strongly there’s a market for this, but not by doing the same thing as ’BBM,” the source said. “We have to offer a product with different attributes to appeal to younger people already on FM.”
Only after they believe their product is ready will the company begin advertising and promoting FM News 101.1 through other media. The most optimistic estimate for that to happen is late October or early November. Even by then, it may be too late to erase the unfavorable first impression that many listeners had in the station’s first weeks on the air.
So far, most of the consumer and industry press have focused on the dismal audience shares that have hovered around 0.2 or 0.3 percent of the market. But the Arbitron benchmark being watched inside FM News 101.1 is the cumulative weekly audience among listeners between 25 and 54. In September, the station averaged an overall weekly cume of 162,234 adults, according to the Portable People Meter survey. If that figure doesn’t rise steadily in the coming months, little else matters.
As some see it, what’s at stake may be more than Michaels’ considerable ego or the profits of Merlin Media: “There’s a real feeling that something new and important is going on here," said one optimist. "There’s no question that a lot of mistakes were made. But that happens with anything that hasn’t been tried before. If this works, other stations will look at what we’ve done and copy it. It will be good for everyone. In that sense, there’s a lot riding on it for the whole business.”
FRIDAY UPDATE: Two days after the meeting, Michaels became news himself when he was arrested for driving under the influence at 2am in Middletown, Ohio, about 40 miles north of Cincinnati. Of course the story wasn't deemed newsworthy by FM News 101.1.