Stern-Less Radio Stations See Their Ratings Plunge

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 29, 2006

What a difference Howard Stern makes. Or more accurately, what a difference Howard Stern makes by not being on the local airwaves.

The morning shock jock's departure for satellite radio in January had a devastating impact on WJFK (106.7 FM), the local station that had carried his program, according to quarterly audience ratings compiled by Arbitron that were released yesterday.

Audiences deserted not only Stern's replacements in the morning, the Junkies, but also other programs that followed, including the stalwart afternoon team of Don Geronimo and Mike O'Meara. Sunup to sundown, WJFK lost roughly half its market share; it tumbled from an average of 3 percent of all local listeners to 1.6 percent during the ratings period, which covered January through March.

A similar sucking sound has been heard at other stations across the country that lost Stern's program. David Lee Roth -- Stern's replacement in New York and several other markets -- bombed so badly after less than three months on the air that he was replaced by the raunchy "Opie & Anthony" show (also heard on XM Satellite Radio) this week. Comedian Adam Carolla, who replaced Stern in Los Angeles and other West Coast cities, also has fared poorly.

The only consolation for WJFK, which is owned by CBS Radio, was that it wasn't worse. WJFK fell from fifth with Stern to ninth with the Junkies among 25- to 54-year-olds, the listeners most coveted by advertisers. By comparison, KLSX-FM in Los Angeles plummeted from No. 3 to No. 27 in the mornings with Carolla.

But the downward pull on the station was otherwise unmistakable. With the Junkies moving from middays to replace Stern, WJFK had to shuffle the rest of its lineup, bringing in two new midday shows and a syndicated evening talk show hosted by right-wing talker Jay Severin. All those moving pieces apparently hurt the "Don & Mike" show, whose audience share among adults 25-54 slipped 27 percent.

CBS's local chief, Michael Hughes, yesterday painted a silver lining on the ratings, saying that WJFK performed well, at least compared with other stations that lost Stern. "I would submit to you that the glass is more than half full," he said. "We anticipated taking a step backward. Replacing Howard Stern is a monumental feat, as we've seen in other markets. We feel we're off to a pretty good start."

The Junkies -- four local men who do a humorous show aimed at other guys -- lost about 40 percent of the adult (25-54) audience that Stern had. But the overall figure might mask some momentum. From a low ebb in January, the program began to pick up listeners in February and March, said Eric "E.B." Bickel, one of the Junkies. "We feel like we have a foundation that will grow," he said.

Stern's departure wasn't the only major change. It was an unusually tumultuous quarter, with Bonneville International Corp. shaking up the AM and FM dials by dropping music station Z104-FM and moving classical station WGMS and all-news WTOP AM-FM to new frequencies. The company also started WTWP AM-FM with The Washington Post (the station began March 30 and wasn't covered by these ratings).

Stations that made some major programming changes must wait to see whether those make much difference in future ratings periods. But the latest ratings offer a mixed verdict on whether the stations should have changed their programming.

WBIG (100.3 FM) improved its ratings with a format that it has since dropped. (In early April, the '60s oldies format was changed to add more '70s rock hits.) The station's "Murphy & Cash" morning program, now canceled, was a big winner during the quarter; its audience share increased nearly 50 percent, from 2.0 to 2.9.

WHUR (96.3 FM) -- which dropped its local morning show in March, amid listener protests, for a syndicated program starring comedian Steve Harvey -- was Washington's top-rated station for the quarter, moving up from third over perpetual rivals WMMJ (102.3 FM) and WPGC (95.5 FM). WHUR's decision to drop its "Real DC Morning Show" apparently is reflected by declining ratings. Although the station was the overall ratings winner, the morning program could manage no better than No. 6 among morning listen ers.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company