Low Power TV Station enters Chicago Top 10 Radio Stations

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Low Power TV Station enters Chicago Top 10 Radio Stations

Postby jon » Thu May 03, 2018 4:46 pm

MeTV FM goes from low-power TV station to top-10 Chicago radio station
Robert Channick
Contact Reporter
Chicago Tribune

The fastest-growing radio station in Chicago has no DJs, plays way too many songs, targets aging baby boomers and is so far down the FM dial it can’t be picked up by many car radios.

Also, it’s not technically a radio station.

Three years after launching, MeTV FM’s eclectic soft oldies format has turned a low-power TV signal at 87.7 FM into a top-10 Chicago radio station, confounding competitors and rewriting the unwritten rules of broadcast radio.

“A lot of people think it’s amazing that we’re doing the kind of numbers we are without all those traditional things,” said Neal Sabin, 61, vice chairman of Weigel Broadcasting, which operates the station. “But we’ve broken a lot of radio rules here.”

The mastermind behind the national MeTV classic television network, Sabin used his own iPod playlist to create an unlikely radio success story at WRME-LP, which can be heard at 87.7 FM but is actually licensed as Ch. 6, a low-power Chicago TV station.

The so-called Franken FM station is one of a handful of TV channels operating as radio stations across the country. All are potentially on borrowed time, facing a three-year window before regulators may force them off the FM band.

None has progressed beyond the fringes as fast and far as WRME, which has resonated with its target audience by playing both familiar and forgotten songs for listeners who grew up glued to the radio from the 1960s through the 1980s.

Owned by Los Angeles-based Venture Technologies Group, WRME has been everything from Spanish language to country to smooth jazz to alternative rock to sports talk in the nine years since it fired up its signal in Chicago, with varying degrees of ratings success.

The previous operator, Tribune Media and WGN-AM 720, launched an FM sports-talk station called “The Game” that lasted less than a year. Now leased by Weigel, 87.7 is actually beating WGN in the ratings.

MeTV FM has steadily built its audience since debuting in February 2015, ranking in the middle of the pack with a solid 2.4 share as recently as January, according to Nielsen. But in February, the station jumped all the way to a 3.6 share and a top-10 ranking.

It proved to be no fluke, with MeTV FM notching a 3.5 share in March, tied for eighth in Chicago and besting such perennial powerhouses as WKSC-FM 103.5 (“Kiss FM”), WSCR-AM 670 (“The Score”) and WGN.

The secret sauce, Sabin said, is an underserved older audience and an enormous playlist of about 3,500 songs. The format draws heavily on mainstays such as the Beach Boys, the Beatles and Billy Joel, but it also brings in more obscure singer-songwriters, one-hit wonders, deep album cuts and plenty of guilty pleasures.

For example, it is likely the only station in Chicago where you can hear the infectious 1969 bubblegum hit “Tracy” by the Cuff Links on the air — and then in an endless loop inside your head for the next 24 hours.

“One of the things it has going for it is the unpredictability of it because of the spectrum that’s covered by having that many songs in there,” said Norm Winer, the longtime program director at WXRT-FM 93.1, who left the seminal Chicago rock station two years ago.

The demise of K-Hits, WJMK-FM 104.3 FM, the classic hits station that new owner Entercom flipped to classic hip-hop in November, no doubt sent some listeners to MeTV FM, but Sabin said the station’s growth has been mostly organic.

The accomplishment is even more remarkable considering MeTV FM has about a half-dozen employees and a main studio the size of a broom closet. One of the first hires was veteran Chicago radio programmer Rick O’Dell, who refined Sabin’s initial playlist, tamping down slightly his predilection for esoteric singer-songwriters and adding a few edgier artists and some guilty pleasures of his own, such as Donny Osmond’s “Puppy Love.”

“Donny Osmond wasn’t on my iPod,” Sabin said. “But the core of the format was the feeling, and we fleshed it out with things that made sense.”

After much debate with Sabin, O’Dell also added “Light My Fire” by The Doors, the hardest-rocking song on the station’s soft rock playlist.

A computer schedules and plays the songs, promos and commercials, but O’Dell reviews and tweaks the programming in advance to ensure the best mix, adding songs on a daily basis to reflect everything from the weather to topical issues.

One such real-time adjustment is paying tribute to its roster of aging artists as they come to town or, with similar regularity, when they die.

"With the age of our artists, any day, any week, we could lose an artist or two,” said O’Dell, 59. “Last year, we lost two to three dozen different artists who had passed. We’re able to turn on a dime and feature those artists the day they pass away.”

There are no on-air personalities, but the station uses clever promos and well-produced artist profiles to create a strong connection with listeners. WGN Radio provides bite-size newscasts twice per hour in drive time, but a shared passion for the music is what drives the relationship.

“It doesn’t feel like a station that doesn’t have someone there,” said Bill Cochran, 60, imaging and production director at MeTV FM.

The station’s core demographic is 45- to 64-year-olds, with a fairly even split between men and women. The aging audience makes MeTV FM something of a tough sell for advertisers, who traditionally covet younger consumers.

Cheryl Esken, sales director at MeTV FM, is a 25-year radio veteran who headed up regional sales for Clear Channel before joining Weigel 12 years ago. Esken, 60, said target advertisers for MeTV FM include home improvement stores, hospitals and entertainment venues —because the older, more affluent listeners “can afford the tickets.”

Sabin didn’t disclose annual sales but said the station’s revenues are up 50 to 60 percent from last year, thanks in part to the recent ratings boost.

Launched in 2010, MeTV, a classic television network featuring programs like "The Andy Griffith Show” and the original "Star Trek" series, has 186 broadcast affiliates reaching 95 percent of the country.

Sabin envisions MeTV FM as the radio companion to the nostalgic TV network, and he has aspirations to pair broadcast affiliates in each market, at least promotionally. He has engaged a radio syndication company, Cleveland-based Envision Networks, to farm out the MeTV FM format to stations across the U.S. Its first affiliate launched last month in Saginaw, Mich., under the WJMK call letters that 104.3 FM in Chicago relinquished when it switched to hip-hop.

Gary Berkowitz, a Detroit-based radio programming consultant who specializes in adult contemporary and classic hits formats, said MeTV FM may find its niche nationally.

“They’re playing music that you can’t get anywhere else,” Berkowitz said. “I believe that there’s a huge hole in every market for what they’re doing.”

In Chicago, MeTV FM may be facing another challenge. Despite its success, WRME and all low-power TV stations have been given a 2021 deadline by the Federal Communications Commission to convert to a digital broadcasting signal, which would end the de facto radio stations, since FM is still an analog medium.

Venture, which owns six low-power TV stations operating as radio stations, has a pending petition that, if granted, would permit it to continue transmitting their FM signals in analog after they transition to digital TV, FCC spokesman Charlie Meisch said. Otherwise the Franken FMs will disappear within three years.

Sabin is well-aware of the looming deadline, but he is confident MeTV FM will stay on the air in Chicago for years to come.

“We’ve proven the viability of this format, and if that becomes an issue, we will handle it,” Sabin said.
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Re: Low Power TV Station enters Chicago Top 10 Radio Station

Postby paterson » Thu May 03, 2018 7:31 pm

What a great article! Oldies stations are inherently repetitive. Totally agree that all gold stations should be opening up the playlist with those songs that were in the bottom 30 on the Billboard 100. There also is a ton of good cancon that never gets played any longer. Lots of artists that only had one or two radio hits, but the audience will remember right away. Album cuts are a no brainer. Hotel California sold well over 1 million copies in Canada so right away a large segment of your audience would recognize any song from that album.

A friend of mine has a family member that works at our local oldies station in Kitchener (70 to 90's). This station plays everything into the ground, they sound like they have a playlist of about 1,500 songs. Also overplay certain artists and songs, (eg. we don't need to hear Hall & Oates I Can't Go For That two or three times per week.) Recently a radio consultant came in and wanted them to "tighten up" the playlist! So glad to hear about MeFM in Chicago with a huge playlist and the fact that they are catering to a neglected audience of 45+. Good on them and good on Chicago listeners who seem to appreciate the station.
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