'The Buzz' Grabs Regular Guys

by Nate Hinkel  on Monday, Feb. 5, 2007 12:00 am  

Wally Hall, left, Justin Acri, Randy Rainwater, David Bazzel, owner Phillip Jonsson, Tommy Smith and Lindy Blackstone have refined KABZ-FM's appeal, especially to male listeners ages 25 to 54.

The men of Arkansas love their sports. Throw in a hearty helping of barbecue, pop culture, scantily clad women and a guy who calls himself "The Outlaw," mix with 100,000 watts of power and watch as a small army of demographically targeted listeners obey a summons from the state's dominant all-talk radio station.
Its mission is becoming clear as "The Buzz" — KABZ-FM, 103.7, in Little Rock — openly aims to lure to its airwaves young-to-middle-aged men with testosterone-laden chat ranging from the Razorbacks to runway models to politics.
And it's working, as the station generally cleans up in most male categories of the quarterly radio ratings measured by Arbitron Inc., the research and marketing firm whose surveys are the bible for ad sales in the radio industry.
In the latest ratings book from last fall, KABZ's ratings in the "Men 25-54" category are strong nearly across the board, though they have dropped in certain spots. On weekday mornings, 6 to 10 a.m., The Buzz dipped close behind KSSN-FM, 95.7, in the fall "average quarter hour shares" column in the Arbitrons.
"I don't think it's any big secret that the prime demographic we target is men ages 25 to 54," said Phillip Jonsson, owner of Signal Media, which operates The Buzz and KKPT-FM, 94.1, "The Point."
"It's good to know your strengths and be able to play to those strengths as best as you can."
The long and winding road toward defining and refining 103.7's mission has been an experiment from the get-go. With The Buzz one of only a handful of FM stations in the country to pump an all-talk format on 100,000 watts (the maximum signal strength allowed by the Federal Communications Commis-sion), Jonsson said the odds of succeeding were firmly against him.
"They all thought I was crazy, and they were saying a talk-radio station like ours wouldn't work in this market," said Jonsson, who bought 103.7 in 1994 from a Grand Rapids, Mich., owner who favored a rock 'n' roll format.
After buying KABZ, Jonsson had said he would stick with the rock format for one year to see if he could make it work.
After "failing miserably," he said, at adapting to a foreign format and not seeing a bright future, the decision was made precisely a year after the purchase to venture into a talk format.
"My direction must not have been as precise at that time because we kind of struggled with the format," Jonsson said. "We used a lot of syndicated shows, which, of course, are very economical to use, but they have limits on what you can do as far as localization."
That's when he realized the key to success for KABZ was to ditch as many of those syndicated shows as possible (including Dr. Laura Schlesinger, Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus, among others through the years) and to hire local talent to tackle local issues.
"If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it is that you really need to be one with your market," Jonsson said. "But it's one thing to decide you want to get good local talent, and it's quite another to do it. It's taken a long time to get it together, and we finally feel we're at a point where we're solid across the board."
Drive Talkin'
Jonsson learned the importance of sports in a talk format in the early 1970s, when a station he was running in Dallas forked over a large sum of money —more than it could afford — to secure the rights to Dallas Cowboys broadcasts.
That move worked out in the end and is surely one reason he has been open-minded about the role of sports programming on KABZ.
"If they did sports all the time I wouldn't be happy," Jonsson said. "I like to have it as a theme, but I like other stuff mixed in with that."
"Drivetime Sports," airing weekdays from 4 to 7 p.m., began with Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sportswriter Pete Perkins in its early days on Jonsson's 1010 AM. Eventually the newspaper made Perkins choose one outlet or the other, and Perkins chose print.
At the time, Randy Rainwater was working in sales on the first floor of Signal Media's Riverdale headquarters.
"Every time he wasn't closely supervised, I'd find him upstairs on the air," Jonsson said.
When Perkins departed, Rainwater and a revolving cast of sidekicks took over the show. The most recent Arbitron ratings show that "Drivetime Sports" is the clear leader among men 25 to 54 on weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. In second place is KARN-FM, 102.9, which competes sports-wise from 6 to 8 p.m. with "Sports Rap," hosted by Chuck Barrett.
Celebrity Status
"Drivetime Sports" quickly became the marquee local show on KABZ, as Rainwater and co-hosts Rick Schaeffer, a former sports information director at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and Ray Tucker, former television sports anchor and director of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, along with a potpourri of fill-ins and characters have etched a strong local groove into the Arkansas sports scene.
The angst surrounding the Razor-backs last season that has leaked into the off-season is poetic fodder for critical callers and the mostly U of A-loyal talent, and enhances the call-in show's standing as an authority in the state's sports landscape.
"The drama up on the 'The Hill' has been good for this station in terms of letting fans speak their mind," said Justin Acri, program director at KABZ, "not that our callers were ever hesitant to do that to start with."
But the station's steady success with men in the afternoons wasn't necessarily translating into success in the mornings, though KABZ knew where it was aiming. "We had a period where our sole purpose was to get out and grab some of Tommy Smith's audience," Jonsson said, referring to the longtime morning powerhouse at KMJX-FM, 105.1.
"And we did that a little, but then that wasn't very desirable any more," he said, putting it mildly. In July 2004, two KABZ morning hosts were charged with distributing pornographic DVDs to bystanders, including at least one minor, as part of a publicity stunt at a "gay pride" parade in Conway. And that was the end of "The Morning Buzz."
Tommy Time
Near the same time, Clear Channel and the FCC's crackdown on indecency put an end to "The Outlaw" Tommy Smith's morning juggernaut on "Magic 105," where the sometimes controversial jock had built an Arbitron empire across many demographics. (Bob Robbins, the longtime host on KSSN-FM, 95.7, often competed neck-and-neck with Smith in some male demographics and is still the most listened to overall in a strong country music foothold.)
Jonsson said David Bazzel, who previously co-hosted "The Morning Buzz" and often sat in during "Drivetime Sports," was lobbying for the morning gig at the same time KABZ was trying to land Smith.
"David said he wanted the morning job, but he also wanted what was best for the station," Jonsson said. "I said I wanted them both."
And so "The Odd Couple" was born in December 2004. After his gig at Clear Channel's Magic 105 ended, Smith was flirting with the idea of teaming up in the mornings with Democrat-Gazette Sports Editor Wally Hall, a scribe who often had been on the receiving end of Smith's criticism. Smith and Bazzel were the headliners, with Hall contributing to the show part time.
Jonsson said the excitement about the show's possibilities was enough to bend some of the barriers standing in the way.
"It was a big deal for us to get Tommy, and it was compacted because we were hiring David and Wally," he said.
Acri, who stepped in to keep the morning show alive between "the incident" in Conway and the arrival of Smith's "Show With No Name," is now joined with Nathan Christian and Joe Franklin from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. for "The Zone."
The morning show's audience has more or less carried over into the midday slot, which is unusual, but the slightly younger audience and mix of sports entertainment seem to be a logical fit, Jonsson said.
The localized morning, midday and evening drive-time slots, combined with Razorbacks broadcasts through the Arkansas Razorbacks Sports Network, provide a good start for what Acri, as program director, is hoping will become an even more localized format.
Particular shows produced at the station, mainly "Drivetime Sports," are also carried on a network of 14 affiliates that largely covers the state.
On the Market
Despite its success with its refined target audience, KABZ has somewhat leveled off in the latest ratings book and is actually losing some of its other listeners. For example, the station pulled in a 4.6 share among women 18 to 49 in the fall 2005 book, a number that had dropped to 2.5 in the latest book.
"We have noticed a slight drop in some categories, and we're experimenting with some new marketing initiatives to see if we can correct that," said Steve Jonsson, Phillip's son and vice president of Signal Media.
The effect of Smith in the mornings is reflected in the ratings, as his former station, Magic 105, pulled in an average share of 3.2 over the last four ratings books in the men 25 to 54 demo, compared with KABZ's 13.8. That's nearly a flip-flop from "The Outlaw's" days at the classic rock institution. Magic 105 now syndicates the "Bob and Tom Show" out of Indianapolis in the mornings, though KSSN, also under Clear Channel's umbrella, still pulled a four-book average of 10.1 with Robbins.
But with KABZ's mix of sports and entertainment coming from a largely male cast, media buyers recognize the station's strong suits, and those often fit the needs of clients. Listeners get a steady dose of pitches for cars and trucks, bars and grills and, of course, lingerie and other "adult" items.
"KABZ continues to perform well against their core audiences of men 25 to 54 and men 35 to 54, ranking No. 1 or No. 2 across most day parts," said Brian Kratkiewicz, vice president and media director at Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods, the Little Rock advertising agency. "These key male audiences are often important to most marketers, as they are some of the most affluent audience segments."



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