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WPGB joins a crowded field of all-talk stations in Pittsburgh

Thursday, January 22, 2004

By Adrian McCoy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More than ever before, Pittsburgh has the gift of gab. The recent switch to all-talk on WPGB-FM (104.7) -- the market's new FM talk station -- gives the Pittsburgh market some of the biggest names in syndicated talk radio: Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Neal Boortz and George Noory.

(Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette)

It also gives the market a total of six full-time talk stations, WPGB, news/talk KDKA-AM (1020), WPTT-AM (1360), WURP-AM (1550) and sports talk stations (WEAE-AM/ESPN 1250) and WBGG-FM (970).

For the 23rd largest radio market in the country, that's a lot of talk.

Or is it? In most markets, radio experts say there are several talk stations, with one or two top dogs fighting it out, and a few smaller ones surviving under the radar.

But for now, talk radio fans here have more choices than ever, as a new ratings battle begins.

KDKA is home to Rush Limbaugh and local personalities including Larry Richert, Fred Honsberger and Mike Pintek. WPTT has a mix of local and syndicated hosts (Bill O'Reilly, Michael Reagan, Jim Bohannon). WURP (The Edge) carries a mostly syndicated lineup -- Don Imus, Gordon Liddy, Don and Mike and Tom Leykis .

A few other stations offer daily talk shows -- WAMO-AM (860) with the nightly Bev Smith and "Open Mike" programs; KQV-AM (1410) with Bruce Williams, and Christian WORD-FM (101.5), which has a daily local talk show hosted by Marty Minto.

The lineup on WPGB (formerly WJJJ) is a mix of local and nationally syndicated talkers. It includes longtime Pittsburgh morning personality Jim Quinn in morning drive (6 to 10 a.m.), and Ellis Cannon on sports (6 to 8 p.m.). The station recently hired Quinn and Rose Tennent away from WRRK-FM, a top-rated morning-drive competitor.

WPGB also features some of the nation's most highly rated syndicated talkers -- Glenn Beck, originating in Philadelphia (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.), avowed libertarian Neal Boortz (1 to 3 p.m.), Sean Hannity (3 to 6 p.m.), who's also host of the nightly "Hannity and Colmes" on the Fox News channel, Michael Savage and "The Savage Nation" (8 to 11 p.m.) and "Coast to Coast with George Noory" (overnight). Weekends feature "best of" the daily shows. (To learn more about individual hosts, follow their links from the station Web site, www.wpgb.com.)

Station owner Clear Channel bills WPGB as "the next generation of talk in Pittsburgh." Research indicated that an FM talk format was the missing piece in the Pittsburgh radio market, says WPGB program director Jay Bohannon. "There was no real compelling talk radio in this town. We had a lot of fans for these shows before they ever got on the air here."

WPGB has set out to change the face of the market.

"KDKA has never faced a challenger that can cover the metro the way we do," Bohannon says.

Success talks

Aimed at the 25- to 54-year age group beloved by radio advertisers, WPGB is being launched with a lot of promotion, including TV, billboards and buses.

The primary elections have sparked a talk radio feeding frenzy, giving Pittsburgh listeners a good introduction to what these guys are about philosophically.

Like Limbaugh, Savage is no longer on TV because of something he said. But unlike most conservative talkers, he's wildly unpredictable, and takes some atypical stands on issues.

He blasts the Bush administration ["Bush is spending like a drunken Democrat"], while the others mostly stick to liberal and Democrat bashing. Savage referred to the Iowa caucuses as "100,000 white pig farmers" and questioned why the first key primary wouldn't be held someplace more ethnically diverse.

The appeal of these hosts is that they present "thoughts that challenge or comfort" listeners, says media consultant Robert Unmacht, partner with iN3 Partners Inc. of Nashville. In some ways, he says, talk radio has become the new home of personality radio, which is on the wane in music formats.

"As music stations let their announcers do less, people have to go other ways to find a companion to ride around with them or listen to at home or in the office," Unmacht says.

Factoring out specialty shows like Cannon and Noory, you have a lineup of hosts who stand politically in a range of right of center to libertarian.

But the station didn't set out to build a lineup based on those principles, Bohannon says. "It was strictly based on who were the most successful programs we could get. We were looking for the most entertaining, successful shows we can find. There aren't left-wingers out there who are making great radio."

There's a formula all the WPGB hosts -- local and syndicated -- understand, Bohannon says. Their programs are designed to entertain as well inform, with humor and irreverence that listeners will either love or hate.

Mixing it up locally

Competitors such as KDKA and WPTT say they offer a very different product with a balance of liberal and conservative points of view.

But it's another L-word -- local -- that's the magic word, says KDKA program director Steve Hansen. "The thing that sets KDKA apart is that local news coverage, and local and national [talk] from a Pittsburgh perspective. Being live and local is what we do, and what people expect from us."

Radio promos for WPGB have KDKA targeted straight in their cross hairs, with a slogan that claims, "We're not your father's talk radio station," followed by a series of elderly sounding voices -- clearly a jab at KDKA's status as a favorite among older listeners.

Hansen takes issue with that image, saying that KDKA's audience draws from all age groups. "We're your father's station. We're also your brother's and your sister's and your friend's station. And we'll also be your children's."

That's because the station's history and heritage in the market are something that took a long time to build, and that can't be duplicated, he adds. "KDKA and Pittsburgh are intertwined. They kind of define each other. That's something that takes a long time. We've nurtured it. We're protective of it. We'll continue to do that."

Programmers aren't too happy when a new format directly competes with theirs. But WPTT program director John Poister actually welcomes the newcomer. He says FM talk tends to introduce a pool of new listeners to the format.

"Any time you get an additional competitor, it's good for the format in general, because it brings more people to the table. As they get into the talk format, they may begin to search around and see what else is in the spectrum. "

WPTT's mix of local and syndicated hosts offers a wider range of points of views -- Lynn Cullen on the liberal end of the spectrum and Jerry Bowyer on the other, with Doug Hoerth somewhere in between. "We want to stimulate people, to get people thinking and talking," Poister says. "We have a lineup of hosts who do that extremely well, and who have done it for years."

Like KDKA's Hansen, Poister sees local programming as having an edge. When something major happens locally and listeners need a place to talk about it, they're going to tune into the local hosts, he says. He cites the death of Fred Rogers last year as a time when the switchboards lit up because people just needed to talk.

WURP has no plans make any changes to its talk lineup, says WURP sales manager Jeff Rush, because there is little or no overlap of audiences. "We have our niche," Rush says.

Always room for more

Pittsburgh is hearing lot of talk on the airwaves now, but industry observers think there's room for more than one major talk station in town. Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming for Edison Media Research and former radio editor for the trade publication Billboard/Airplay Monitor, says it's not uncommon to have several talk formats on the air these days in a given market. "There are usually one or two winners and a lot of also-rans. New York has two traditional talk AMs (WOR and WABC), two stations doing some talk programming for the African-American community (WWRL and WLIB), an NPR talk AM (WNYC), three news/talk AMs (WINS, WCBS, WBBR), and two sports-talk stations (WEPN and WFAN)."

As for Pittsburgh, he says, it's "not out of the question that a medium-to-large market can support two talk stations, as well as at least one sports talker. Usually there are two sets of stations -- the serious contenders and the smaller folks who are more reliant on syndication and don't get significant ratings. Even then, they're probably happier doing what they're doing than doing music on AM."

Unmacht concurs, and says KDKA presents a unique kind of competitor for the new FM talker. "KD is a game by itself, really. It's very local by most talk station standards. It fills a lot of different positions. It's a news source. It's a talk station. It's a companion. Given the fact that KDKA is so strong and unique, I think there's room for a second talk station of this kind.

And it doesn't necessarily mean the little guys will be casualties, Unmacht believes. "Since WPTT isn't a dominant player, it's going to do OK."

But the new voice in town will also face some challenges, observers say. "Building a new talk station is time consuming and expensive,' Ross says. "WABC and WLS in Chicago each took about five years to kick in, and few owners will have that sort of tenacity. It helps if you can walk in with the rights to Rush Limbaugh or a major sports team or a Howard Stern." Here, Limbaugh is on competitor KDKA, and Stern is on sister station WXDX.

And while the talk landscape is suddenly more diverse, the music landscape is less so. Along with its old call letters, WPGB has dropped its R&B oldies Jammin' Hits programming, leaving Pittsburgh with one less music format.

Launching a new talk format is very different from a new music format, which will already have an audience in waiting, says Unmacht. "You have to wait for it to work. You can go classic rock and everyone knows whether they like Led Zeppelin or not." Talk can take years vs. months to establish. However, once it is established, Unmacht says it can be a force for life.


Adrian McCoy can be reached at amccoy@post-gazette.com .

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