Merlin’s miracle: How 101 came back from the dead
No one was a harsher critic of Merlin Media than I during the year it tried to foist a fatally flawed news format onto the airwaves. It may have been rude to call WIQI-FM (101.1) “the worst product launch in the history of Chicago radio,” but month after month, the ratings bore me out.
Now all that has changed.
On July 17, FM News 101 morphed into an adult-contemporary music station targeting primarily female listeners (specifically between the ages of 28 and 38) with a playlist focused on hits of the ’90s. Ratings released this week for its first full month show the new i101 more than tripling the overall audience shares it had throughout its disastrous experiment with news.
Without any advertising or promotion, the station drew a cumulative weekly audience of more than 900,000 listeners in the last two weeks of Arbitron’s August measurement — an achievement that surprised even the veteran programmer who put the format on the air.
“Luckily, people didn’t flat out remove 101.1 from their presets,” said Jim Richards, operations manager of Merlin Media’s three music stations in Chicago. “In their overall radio listening habits, they either continued to hit that button or they just normally hit ‘seek’ or ‘scan’ anyway while they’re driving around. When they found it, it had the surprise and the uniqueness and the freshness of all those ‘oh, wow’ songs that hadn’t been heard in a very, very long time. So it generated a lot of word of mouth with social media buzz very quickly. That was why we based [the format] in the ’90s.”
Among adults between 25 and 54, the new format debuted with a respectable 1.6 percent share, and opened with an even more impressive 2.3 share among adults between 18 and 34. (Compare that with the final month of FM News 101, when the station posted a minuscule 0.4 and 0.5 in those demographics, respectively.)
“The younger side of your demo target is always the first to react because young people are more adventurous,” Richards said, explaining the stronger showing on the 18-to-34 side. “It clearly shows there is a hole between Mix and Rewind, and we’re here to occupy that position.”
It was always his plan to expand the station’s playlist beyond the ’90s, Richards said, “otherwise those ‘oh, wow’ songs become ‘oh, no’ songs.” But he acknowledged that he acted too hastily when he introduced a wider range of music after only four weeks on the air. Backlash from fans was intense and almost entirely negative.
“The overwhelming feedback so far is that we swung the pendulum too far (and too quickly) in one direction,” Richards wrote in what amounted to a mea culpa on Facebook August 17. “We’re going to keep tweaking the playlist and want to hear from you on what you like and don’t like. But the fact is that we need to keep growing our audience base — it’s a reality we can’t ignore.”
Whether that programming misstep will have any impact on the station’s ratings momentum won’t be known for another month or so. But for now, the company headed by Randy Michaels can bask in positive ratings news for the first time on its flagship station in Chicago.
And yes, I can’t believe I just wrote that last sentence, either.