As behind-the-scenes image makers, radio consultants claim to have the cure for their clients' ratings ills. Armed with listener profiles and ratings statistics, they sell an "objective" view of audience irritations and programming mistakes and then prescribe ways to alter stations' sounds.
Advice ranges from which songs to play down to DJs' ad libs: "Crank it up!" and "the spirit of rock 'n' roll" are current catch-phrases to be worked into song introductions, one announcer says.
Appreciative clients have ratings improvements to show for their investment. With a single rating point valued at $60 in Washington, and the consultant's monthly fee pegged at $5,000 here, it would take an increase of a 10th of a rating point (a 12-1/2 percent increase in the average station's audience) for a station to break even on the consultant expense.
There's no lack of incentive. According to WMAL research director Marshall Smith, "If you increase your audience in this market by one full point through one full broadcast year, in a desirable demographic, it would be worth $4 million."
But critics say the consultants have created a monster, squeezing the spontaneity out of local radio. In talking about one station that was coached, a competitor refers to the consultants' widespread influence as "franchised radio."
Is it fair to say the best-known ratings fix-it team, Burkhart/Abrams/Michaels/Douglas of Atlanta, is responsible for a proliferation of sound-alike stations across the country, a McDonald's of the air? "Well, McDonald's sells a lot of hamburgers," Kent Burkhart says, "so I'll accept that."
Burkhart joined with Lee Abrams in 1971 to create a consultancy that now has 150 stations under contract, paying $1,000 to $5,000 a month according to market size. Their concept of "model" programming -- very specific formats targeted to hard album rock or smoother adult-contemporary listening tastes -- has caught on around the dial.
When they helped client WKTU in New York score a huge ratings victory with a disco format, stations in nearly every market in the country jumped on the disco bandwagon. Now disco is out, but the consultants are still going strong.
"I don't know why the concept of radio consultants is so scary," says WWDC program director Denise Oliver. "I guess the staff is afraid of losing their autonomy." Oliver's station consults Burkhart/Abrams, and she says she's never felt threatened. After all, she notes, the station still answers to the Federal Communications Commission for what goes on the air.
Others in the industry shudder to think a generation of DJs has been trained to read 3x5 cards announcing upcoming promotional events, written according to the consultants' formula.
Of Burkhart/Abrams' 150 clients, half follow the album-rock format. According to a trade publication report early this year, Burkhart/Abrams' clients dominated the top 25 "album-oriented rock" stations in the country and held the top six positions (in Toledo, Wichita, Columbus, Flint, Memphis and Grand Rapids).
In response to staff raids and a ratings beating at the hands of album-rock formated WAVA, WWDC became a Burkhart/Abrams client in November 1980 for the second time.
"The station made dramatic changes," says Goff Lebhar, general manager since March 1. Specifically, it narrowed the play list and targeted the 18- to 24-year-old males in the audience. Since then, Lebhar says, "Our total audience is up, and a different, younger segment is doing better."
Currently, WWDC-FM is trailing top-40 formated WRQX-FM by 4.4 percent to 7.9 percent of the audience in Media-trend's most recent two-month averages. WAVA-FM lags with a 3.5 share.Future ratings will reflect WWDC's part-time simulcasting of AM and FM, effective March 1. (Unlike Arbitron's tri-annual ratings used as a sales tool, Media-trend issues a monthly guide to the market used by programmers.)
Alan Burns, program director at WRQX ("Q107"), the major competitor, says "Cross-pollination of an idea can be a good thing. If somebody has a good idea in Kansas City, why not spread it to Milwaukee?" But there are potential hazards, he adds, citing the disco flop after a first flash: "When WKTU got a 14 share, there was a lemming reaction to the disco format. That lasted a year or less. You have to be discriminating."
The degree of Burkhart/Abrams involvement varies from station to station. "If you want to have a consultant run your radio station, they will," WWDC's Lebhar says. He disagreed with Burkhart/Abrams' urgings to use a "kickass rock'n'roll" slogan, for instance, but agreed to try it on-air. After some complaints, the kicky expression is being phased out.
The consultants send a weekly memo to clients with tips on what's winning ratings in other markets: Which contests, promotions and catchy slogans go over well; which music groups drive listeners to other stations, and which songs are about to bolt to the top of the charts. "I first heard about The Knack and [their song] 'My Sharona' through Burkhart/Abrams," Oliver says.
At WWDC, Oliver and operations manager Dave Brown call Atlanta once or twice a week to discuss which album cuts are being over-played, which new groups are worth breaking into the station's tight music play list, and who deserves heavy exposure.
Dwight Douglas of Burhkart/Abrams, a former WWDC program director, makes six trips to his old station each year, listens to tapes every few weeks to critique the DJs and recommends particular syndicated specials or news features. ("The trend is toward lifestyle news sources," away from newsy news, according to Burkhart.)
Should they feel the station needs a new jock, the consultants offer four or five names. This prompts one competitor, WJMD general manager Gary Hess, to dub Burkhart/Abrams "an unofficial employment agency."
WAVA program director Gary Chase, a WWDC staffer for three years, claims consultants add an extra bureaucratic step. "We can deal with new album product more quickly," he says, without the burden of checking an Atlanta office.
But Oliver denies any slow-ups, saying, "We add new music immediately and call Atlanta later to reconsider which cuts off the album are best to play." A veteran of four stints with Burkhart/Abrams at three stations, Oliver notes "all Burkhart/Abrams stations play lists . . . are different. They don't play Dire Straits in Baltimore [on WIYY, the B/A client], but Ted Nugent is well received there. We don't play as much Nugent in Washington."
Such local touches are based on mountains of audience research -- close communications with stations in other cities plus "call-back cards" distributed at record stores, asking the buyer's demographics and musical tastes, and mailed questionnaires and promotional surveys.
Another competitor, WKYS general manager Bartley Walsh, worked with Burkhart/Abrams when his former employer, WWWW in Detroit, hired the consultants to help them out of a ratings slump. "Burkhart/Abrams' big advantage," Walsh says, "is an objective viewpoint. A lot of stations get mired in selection and rotation and presentation problems. As outsiders to the station, they can correct mistakes.
"Would you play Dolly Parton and Led Zeppelin back to back, or even on the same station?" Walsh asks. "It takes research and objective thinking to discern which one is turning off the audience. It starts to get very narrowly defined. Stations that don't follow [Burkhart/Abrams] advice don't win."
Indeed, after 1 1/2 years of following the consultants' strictures, WWWW's share of the Detroit market jumped from 1.3 to 6.1, to become the No. 2 station. The WWWW sound, Walsh notes, is "similar to WWDC."
"I call Burkhart/Abrams the magicians of radio," says WJMD's Hess. "There's a lot of truth to the argument that consultants take free-form formats and make them into capitalistic radio ventures. There are advantages and drawbacks to consultants."
Are we headed for a homogeneous sound at every stop along the freeway? "There are McDonald's in all cities, too," Oliver says. "but it's not a malevolent force."
This summer, the consultants plan to take the next step: beaming their own network via satellite to clients around the country. Satellite Music Network is scheduled to debut on Satcom I in August, offering "contemporary country" and "pop adult" music services in stereo daily, 24 hours a day.
Stations will pay a flat $1,000 a month and carry two minutes per hour of national advertising contracted by the consultants. The appeal is simple: "Guys in Enid, Okla., will get really good professional announcers for the first time," Burkhart says. "And big-city stations can reduce their overhead by as much as $1 million a year in talent."
There's something comforting about tuning in a familiar voice in any city, like heading for trusted golden arches . . . and if the secret sauce works in Eureka, it's bound to tempt Tulsa.