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THE RISE AND FALL OF WLTF:

TEN LESSONS ON HOW TO WIN AND LOSE THE BATTLE

by Dave Popovich

(Vice President AC/Oldies, McVay Media)

WLTF in Cleveland is now WMVX, Mix 106.5. The station has changed its format and changed its name. The jury is still out on Mix 106.5 FM. Jacor is a good company. I wouldn't be surprised if 106.5 does very well 25- 44. Regardless, WLTF/LIte Rock 106 1/2 is dead, but the memory of how the station became one of America's most innovative and imitated Adult Contemporary radio stations is still alive. The logo, which is still the style for many "lite" stations around the country, was created at WLTF. "Coats for Kids" was created at WLTF. The Jim Brickman "Lovelite" jingles were originally created for the station in 1987. WLTF/Lite Rock 106 1/2 was Cleveland's #1 radio station through the late 80s and early 90s. In fact, in the fall of 1990, the station had double digits with a 10.7 share, thanks to a winning season of the Browns which the station carried for a year. In 1991, Billboard magazine named WLTF the "Adult Contemporary Station of the Year." Then the dynasty began to crumble. Increased competition and increased pressure to improve the bottom line contributed to the demise.

I was the Operations Manager of WLTF for ten and a half years. I always considered myself the orchestra leader with a great group of musicians. The success of the station was a cooperative effort between sales and programming. We were aggressive. We had the "eye of the tiger." We wanted to be the number one station and we achieved our goal. We did a great job of executing some basic programming concepts. The purpose of this article is to share the experience so you can avoid the mistakes. While the industry is different today versus the 80s and early 90s, there are still lessons that can be learned from the WLTF experience that can help your radio station win...today and tomorrow.

THE BEGINNING: As the Program Director of WMJI in March 1984, I watched WZZP make the transformation to WLTF/Lite Rock 106 1/2. WZZP was Cleveland's first Adult Contemporary FM radio station which had experienced great success. . .until WMJI debuted in 1982 with a gold-based AC format. WMJI, under the direction of Mike Mcvay as PD and ultimately GM, took the AC position away from WZZP in one book. WMJI promoted "Favorites of Yesterday and Today" and played lots of 60s oldies while WZZP continued with a Soft AC approach. While the ratings of WZZP were declining, the station was still a solid revenue producer. When WZZP flipped to WLTF, the music stayed about the same, but what was to follow was a massive television campaign that positioned WLTF as the "Contemporary Lite Rock" station in Cleveland. During the fall of 1984, WLTF was running as high as 1100 GRP's per Week on television! They were aggressively trying to create awareness of the product and increase sampling of the station.

The result: WLTF debuted with solid cume numbers and a 5.1 share while WMJI slipped from a 5.6 to a 5.3. WMJI was still the AC leader, but WLTF had made an impact. This effect was confirmed in a research study. WMJI ownership was not happy and I was relieved of my duties. In September of 1984, 1 became the Program Director of WLTF.

Lesson #1: Never underestimate your competitor. WMJI never took the WLTF attack seriously at the beginning. The management egos did not let them believe that WLTF could execute and commit to a strategy and game plan. Nor did they believe that WLTF had the financial support to sustain their marketing efforts.

Lesson #2: Dominate a medium.
WLTF's television buy in the fall of 1984 was overwhelming! You couldn't watch TV without seeing one of their commercials. The impact was so great that listeners were still talking about the spot five years later. If you're going to launch a new product, you have to make a commitment to dominate the best medium to reach your target audience.

Lesson #3: Never fire your PD after a research presentation. I walked across the street with the market information that was supposed to make WMJI a stronger radio station. It helped to launch an attack against them.

THE REPOSITIONING: It was a landmark case in the 8Os. WLTF changed its image by changing its name, not its music. Focus groups were done prior to the change and the respondents referred to the music as "Lite Rock." "Lite Rock 106 1/2" was born. WLTF was to become the contemporary adult music station against WMJI, which was the oldies- based adult music station. We took one of WMJI's strengths - oldies - and made it a point of differentiation. And we explained it in terms that the average person could understand based on their perceptions of the stations. The following positioning promo highlighted the differences:

There's a lot of radio stations to listen to in Cleveland. For hard rock, WMMS is one of the best in the country. To hear the top forty songs played over and over, there's G98. And for a trip down memory lane, there's Magic. But when you want today's Lite Rock with less talk, there's Lite Rock 106 1/2.

There were some who were amazed that we would use other stations' call letters in a positioning promo for AC radio. But we never put down the competition. We simply used the audience's perception of each station to describe them. It was the reality of the perception that made the competition cringe. They knew we were highlighting their vulnerabilities. The battle was on!

Lesson #4: The best ideas for promos come from the listeners. There has been a movement away from focus groups. If you need to recharge your station positioning promos, focus groups will do it.

Lesson #5: Attach your station name to the big events you create. We were partly to blame for the generic status that one campaign achieved. We should have enforced the rule that the station name be included in all publicity. But the concept grew so big and so fast, it was impossible. The bottom line...a wonderful campaign was created by WLTF and the station never fully got credit for doing it.

Example: Coats for Kids - An article appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1981 that said school attendance was down in the city schools in the winter because kids did not have warm coats to wear. The "Coats for Kids" campaign was born! The station was collecting upwards of 20,000 usable coats per season and more than $200,000 each year in cash to buy new coats. The campaign became so big that the station was no longer getting credit for it. Coats for Kids had become another generic Cleveland charity like the Easter Seals, March of Dimes, and Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

Example: Lovelite Jingles - In 1987 a local commercial writer/producer/musician named Jim Brickman presented a jingle package that he had produced. The package wasn't right for WLTF. But one cut named "Turn on the Night" sounded like it could be a jingle for our love song show called "Lovelite." Jim rewrote the jingle to say, "Turn on the Lovelite," and it became one of the most popular love song jingles in AC radio.

Lesson #6: Production and jingles add to your stationality. Our love song show was good, but the jingle package helped to crystallize the concept and made the show memorable.

THE MARKETING MACHINE - For years I watched WMMS totally dominate the Cleveland market with newspaper ads, outdoor, bumper stickers, tee shirts, and television ads. The average person in Cleveland could not travel through their normal, everyday life without seeing WMMS. It was a marketing machine. It was no surprise that the station was number one for so long! We decided at WLTF that if we wanted to be the #1 station in the market, we had to step up our marketing effort. This resolution began our marketing assault on Cleveland.

We decided to follow a good marketing rule by dominating a medium. We chose outdoor. We decided to buy the best outdoor location on every inbound route into Cleveland. We signed a 12-month contract so we could get a better rate. Additionally, we bought a 100 showing, year long with the local bus company. You could not drive into Cleveland from any area of the metro without seeing a WLTF billboard or bus side.

Our competitor WMJI was doing a full-market, direct-mail campaign with the Prize Catalogue. This campaign was a strong part of their marketing that had netted them some great ratings. We decided to neutralize their campaign with our own direct mail piece. "The Free Money" direct mail campaigns became a standard part of the marketing mix at WLTF.

The third area of marketing domination was event marketing, We allocated money in the budget for concert tickets to own the big image events. We bought our way into the big "Home and Garden Show" in the winter by giving away a house in the first quarter. We were the sponsor of the "Parade of Lights" at the city's Riverfest celebration in the summer. Through the late 8Os, WLTF became more visible than WMMS and was the most visible radio station in the market.

Lesson #7: If you want to be number one, do what the number one stations do. Like in any good battle, you have to block, attack, and neutralize the competition. We still play a top-of-mind game with Arbitron. Marketing and promoting help to achieve these goals.

THE COMPETITION - Through the late 8Os and into the 90s, WLTF was the dominant adult radio station in Cleveland. WLTF owned all of the AC images. So it was no surprise to see Easy Listening stations WQAL and WDOK adjust their formats to become more competitive with WLTF. WQAL had become Hot AC. WDOK had become Soft AC. WMJI had become a full-time Oldies station. And the Country format got hot, making WGAR one of the leading stations almost overnight. With all of these changes in the market, we decided to "stay the course." We had a big morning show with Trapper Jack and The Wake Up Club. We had marketing dominance. We believed that the new competitors would have little impact because we were so strong in so many areas. And the station was the number one biller in the market, so the general feeling was, "You're number one. Don't mess with success!"

Lesson #8: If it ain't broke, break it! We knew that we needed to protect either our hot or soft flank, but no one wanted to make the changes. We thought we would be messing with the winning formula. it sometimes takes courage in the battle to use your gut and apply good programming common sense and marketing logic. We let emotion, cash flow, and greed guide us through one of the most critical points of the WLTF evolution. We were under attack!

THE ACQUISITION - Even with the increased competition, WLTF was riding high into the 90s. We had won two Billboard Station of the Year Awards, and we were the first #1 station in Cleveland going into the 90s. And in 1991, we purchased WWWE, 3WE . . . the flagship station of the Indians, Browns, and Cavs. This acquisition gave WLTF a new opportunity for growth. We strengthened our information elements on WLTF by using the resources of the 3WE news department. We utilized the power of the News/Talk station to bring guests to the WLTF morning show. We became the FM home of the Cleveland Browns and aligned ourselves with the hottest team in town. The result in the fall of 1991, WLTF was #1 with a 10.7 share. It was the first time the station had been in double digits. Through all of the joy and exultation, the end was near. The foundation was beginning to crumble from tremors that came from inside our own organization, as well as from the competition. This crumbling was the beginning of the end of the WLTF dynasty.

Lesson #9: Share with your sister station. One of the advantages of multiopoly is to be stronger than your multiopoly competitor in one or many areas. For example, if you buy a station that has a strong meteorologist, why not make him the weather service for all of the stations? If there is that much duplication of audience with your sister, you probably should be in another format. Don't be afraid to share!

THE QUEST TO BE A PLAYER - The business was changing in the early 90s. Deregulation and multiple ownership were becoming reality. And Wall Street was becoming enamored with the broadcasting industry because of the new environment. The investors saw the potential. Broadcasters saw Wall Street as a new source of money to buy and the move was on by many companies to go public. The Booth American Company, the owner of WLTF, was one of them. The company wanted to be a player and the IPO (initial public offering) was a goal to raise funds. While the original plan was to increase revenues to make the bottom line attractive to investors, it became necessary to cut expenses to hit the numbers. For WLTF, it meant cuts that accelerated the implosion. There were three key areas where money was eliminated.

I. The marketing budget was cut. This came at a time when the competition was getting more aggressive.

2. Programming decisions were dictated by the budget. We didn't match an offer made to the morning sidekick and he left. We didn't research our music. We didn't even renew the license for the Lovelite jingles, all in order to save money!

3. We fired the consultant. We were a Mcvay Media client for four years. The input from Mike Mcvay was an important dimension to our programming effort. McVay Media was soon to become the consultant for WDOK. It wasn't long before WDOK began to consistently beat WLTF.

After a year of trying to go public, the company decided the best move for the future was to merge. In June of 1994, the Booth American-Company became Secret Communications.

Lesson #10: Don't forget about what made you famous. This scenario is even more applicable in the age of multiopoly. When you make cuts that affect the sound of the station or the attitude of a winning staff, you leave yourself open to attack or failure!

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