Radio Turns the Dial to Face Challenges

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Like other traditional media, radio faced extra challenges in 2020 because of the pandemic.

The industry was projected to see a nationwide year-to-year decline of 13% in local ad revenue as struggling companies scaled back media buys, according to RadioInk.com.

Radio has been losing ground to streaming services for years. But the stay-at-home orders designed to halt the spread of COVID-19 also led to an increase in listeners.

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Keith Kennedy, iHeartMedia’s senior vice president of programming for Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown.

iHeartMedia has six stations in the competitive Youngstown market: Mix 98.9, CD 93 The Wolf, 106.1 The Bull, Real 95.9, 570 WKBN and 1390 The Gambler.

“What’s been good for us [in terms of advertising] is that radio usage in the home has grown,” Kennedy says. “Smart speakers started that process two years ago and it is hitting critical mass now because folks are working from home.”

With phones and laptops plugged into hi-fi speakers, residents are sampling iHeartMedia stations for the first time in a while, Kennedy says.

“Maybe we had them in their car and lost them,” he says. “But at home, they are hearing us more often now.”

It bodes well for next year, as coronavirus vaccines come into play and likely boost the economy.

Media ad buyers formulating their 2021 spending are expected to have more money to work with, according to InsideRadio.com.

“We are happy where we are at,” Kennedy says. “This year is a challenge for all but we feel good about 2021.”

Skip Bednarczyk, owner and general manager of Star 94.7 WGFT, the Valley’s urban adult contemporary station, points out that the pandemic sped up the rate of austerity, and innovation, in the radio industry.

He estimates that the Youngstown market’s total radio revenues stood at $23 million in 2008 but are roughly half of that today.

“If there is fear [by consumers] or closed businesses, that causes people to stop going to restaurants or a car dealer, they cut back on advertising,” Bednarczyk says. “If there is a mandate to stay home, what is the point of [an advertiser] telling people to [visit their business]?”

He notes one bit of good news: The federal government has earmarked $250 million to buy ads on radio stations to convince people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

As consumers shift to streaming services, radio must evolve as well, Bednarczyk says.

“We are in a period of transition,” he continues. “There is a lot going on behind the scene to make things more profitable and manageable. … Everybody is going to have to think of new and innovative ways [to compete]. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like five years from now.”

One industry direction that Bednarczyk refuses to take is the move to automated programming, which means fewer live DJs in the studio.

“They can voice-track shows on multiple markets from anywhere in the U.S.,” he says. “I fight that tooth and nail because DJs are part of the fabric. You know them like a neighbor.”

Star 94.7’s programming has a mix of local DJs and syndicated shows. It’s R&B format caters to the over-35 audience and routinely places the station among the ratings leaders.

The area’s perennial ratings champs are AM 570 WKBN (news and talk, owned by iHeartMedia), WQXK (K-105, country, Cumulus Broadcasting), WYFM (Y-103, classic rock, Cumulus), Mix 98.9 (adult contemporary, iHeart), Hot 101 (contemporary hits, Cumulus), 93.3 The Wolf (classic rock, iHeart), 106.1 The Bull (country, iHeart), WWIZ (Z-104, oldies, Cumulus), and Star 94.7.

Bill Kelly, market manager for Cumulus, declined to be interviewed for this story.

iHeartMedia is the nation’s largest radio chain, with more than 850 stations in 153 markets. It has jumped heavily into internet radio, with channels  such as Indie Radio (indie rock) and Comedy 24/7.

“iHeart is not afraid to try new things,” says Youngstown market Vice President Kennedy. He points out that the former KISS-FM (95.9) has become REAL 95.9, a hip-hop station.

Also this year, iHeart flipped the format of its sports talk station WNIO AM-1390 to The Gambler, which offers betting odds for sporting events as well as sports news and talk.

The Gambler, Kennedy says, is positioned to take advantage of the expected legalization of sports betting in Ohio.

In July, iHeart launched Black Information Network, a news audio service dedicated to objective coverage with a Black perspective. BIN content is distributed through the iHeartRadio app and on its stations.

iHeart also has staked its place in the burgeoning world of podcasts; its many titles can be accessed via the iHeartRadio app and at iheartpodcastnetwork.com.

Locally, popular talk radio shows, such as The Dan Rivers Show on AM 570 WKBN, can be listened to on-demand as a podcast.

While affirming digital is “incredibly” important, Kennedy says, “The legacy audio products still perform and the demand is there. It’s the relationship with personalities we offer.”

The strength of local personalities was on full view at AM 570 WKBN during the run-up to the November election.

“Every candidate wanted to be on WKBN,” Kennedy says. “I don’t recall an election season when every candidate knew they needed radio. It’s a social gathering. Talk radio is a gathering of the like-minded. But you can lean conservative and still get a liberal audience. And vice versa.”

The newest station in the Youngstown market is LOUD 102.3 FM, which became the first local hip-hop station in about a decade when it went on the air in 2018.

LOUD’s studio and transmitter are in downtown Youngstown. Its signal emanates from WLOA-1470 AM in Farrell, Pa., through an AM translator, a technology that allows owners of AM stations to create an FM presence.

Jonathan Steele, operations manager and morning show host, says the station filled a hole in the market.

“The owners did their homework and saw a void for rhythmic top-40 and hip-hop in Youngstown,” he says.

Chip Banks, who is an event DJ and former broadcaster on Star 94.7, is part of the ownership team for LOUD, and also its sales manager.

Banks also does a Sunday night show that spotlights local musicians.

“We are the only [hip hop] station in the area that gives artists from the area time,” he says.

Banks described LOUD as “entrenched” in the community because of its local on-air personalities and its presence at public events.

“Despite the COVID pandemic and us being new, I think we did an amazing job in sales,” he says. “And what helped was the live and local DJs.”

Steele points out that LOUD’s music has crossover appeal. “It’s hip-hop driven but it speaks to everyone,” he says, because it mixes in modern R&B-influenced pop.

“We embrace artists that [our competitors] wouldn’t,” he says.

Pictured: Antonio Swinson, a.k.a. DJ Swin, relaxes as he looks over some hardware in the studio of LOUD FM. The hip-hop station, which went on the air about two years ago, likes to maintain a comfortable relationship with its listeners.