We'll take the 72nd caller with the answer to this question: What are the seven words heard most often on Washington radio these days?
Sorry, too late. Try again next hour. The answer was: "You only have to listen to win."
These are the days of big-time radio promotion in Washington, of stupendous contests, lavish advertising campaigns and outrageous hype, all designed to attract more listeners and hence, higher ratings.
Twenty-three major stations battle it out in Washington for ratings shares, and no station has more than 10 percent of the market; only a handful command even 5 percent.
"Everything's so fragmented now that everybody's trying to establish their position," said Andrew Ockershausen, vice president and general manager of WMAL-AM, one of the Washington market's traditional ratings leaders. "Everybody's got to promote like hell to establish that niche."
Washington radio executives say they aren't sure if the current blitz of self-promotion by area radio stations is the biggest ever, but they say it probably is as big as any in the past few years.
The prize for the stations that can attract the most listeners is as good as anything being offered in the umpteen contests going on these days: millions of dollars in advertising revenue. In a business where success and failure is measured in ratings points, a few ticks up the Arbitron ratings chart that ranks area radio stations can be quite lucrative. One local radio executive estimates that a one-point increase in ratings can be worth about $1 million in potential advertising.
Winter months are traditionally times of major promotion for radio stations, a remnant, perhaps, of the days when February was a major ratings-taking period (ratings surveys are now done virtually year-round), or just as likely a reflection of the theory that when the weather is cold, the potential market is bigger because more people are in their houses and cars listening to the radio.
The fever pitch has been heightened this year by an unusually high number of format or call-letter changes by local radio stations, which thus have to try to woo the listening public to their new sound or identity. Within the past few weeks, WASH, WCLY (formerly WPGC-FM), WBMW (nee WEZR) and WWRC have changed their formats and/or call letters, giving them something to shout about in television or newspaper advertising, as well as in on-the-air promotions.
A recent change of ownership at WWRC, for instance, also brought a change in formats, from talk to the big-band sound. As a result, station manager Ted Dorf says the station must attract a new group of listeners. "We blew off the old audience, and now we've got to find a new audience," he said.
Other stations are promoting themselves in an effort to hold onto or expand their followings. WWDC-AM, which a few months ago adopted a beautiful-music format designed to reach older listeners, has been running television commercials featuring singer Tony Bennett extolling the virtues of the station's "The Music of Your Life" sound. Its FM sister station, DC-101, has its popular disc jockey "Greaseman" on television pushing the station's sound in an effort to cement its virtually unchallenged position as the king of Washington's hard-rock stations, while WMAL-AM is using low-key on-air pitches, advertising and community promotions to stay on top of the overall Washington market.
Several stations are holding assorted on-the-air giveaways, a long-time staple of ratings wars. It seems like every station in town gave away tickets to Redskins games or Prince concerts, and in bigger recent contests, WPGC has given money away to listeners holding dollar bills with certain serial numbers, WAVA has offered to give listeners a year off from work or let them live like a millionaire for a day, and WASH had an on-air "money machine" that paid cash to the right caller.
But perhaps the most aggressive promotion in town these days is coming from top-40 giant WRQX. The station, also known as Q-107, has papered households in the area with a total of 1.3 million prize catalogues containing offerings such as $50,000 in cash, cruises, automobiles, mink coats, shopping sprees and even a Hollywood screen test, all available to listeners who call in within a few minutes of when a station disc jockey reads one of the numbers on the prize coupons printed in the back of the 16-page, full-color booklet. Q-107 has a penchant for such splashy giveaways -- last fall, it gave away 15 Pontiac Fiero sports cars in another promotion.
What is not clear is the effect of all this advertising and promotion work: Despite its constant ballyhoo and prize-giving, Q-107 recently slipped from fifth to sixth in the ratings chart of area radio stations, rival station managers note smugly. Meanwhile, WHUR-FM, the extremely low-key Howard University-owned station, has run a strong third or fourth in town in recent months with little or no promotion.
"It's hard to say that promotion was the reason why you did better and why you did not so well," says Joe Alfenito, manager of promotions and operations for WKYS. "There are so many other factors." Still, Alfenito, who claims his station has stayed consistently near the top of the ratings chart by emphasizing community service over hype, says, "Promotions can act to make the station look more exciting, like you're out there and doing something."
"This is a very competitive market. You try to do things on a promotional basis," says Ernie Fears, station manager at Q-107. "You do things for survival, you do things for your audience, you do things for your listener. . . . You do things that will enhance your position."
Radio executives say that promotion and advertising have become more and more important in recent years as the radio market has become more fragmented. While a few years ago, two or three big AM stations usually dominated a market, the rise of FM radio and an increased variety of listening tastes -- from rock to big-band to all-talk radio -- have split radio markets into smaller pieces.
"There's less of a piece of the pie for us to go for," says Dorf, who runs No. 2-rated WGAY-FM as well as WWRC.
One of the most fascinating battles for a market niche in Washington radio is going on right now between Dorf's stations and other challengers for the older segment of the listening market. Although their approaches differ, WGAY-FM, WWRC, WWDC-AM and WMAL all are targeted to listeners who are looking for something a little easier to listen to than the rock or pop that dominates most of the rest of the dial.
To woo those listeners, the four stations are advertising and promoting harder than ever before, local station executives say, pushing for listeners with tactics that would have been unheard of a few years ago for such stations, tactics that Goff Lebhar, station manager of WWDC-AM, says resemble nothing so much as the kind of promotion usually reserved for rock and roll stations. Lebhar should know -- he's also station manager of rocker DC-101. "You've never seen more people going after the older audience than now," he says -- perhaps a backlash against the huge increase in the number of rock stations on the air in the past decade, an increase that many experts believe left older listeners without much choice.
To woo older listeners, stations are advertising agressively in print and on television, sponsoring well-attended dances featuring the big-band or easy-listening music they play on the air, stressing news and other service programming and doing other kinds of promotions designed to build audience loyalty. Lebhar says there's another parallel between the easy-listening stations and the rock powerhouses: "The listeners to these stations treat them like the younger listeners do -- they get very involved in the station."
That's the kind of loyalty station managers like, because it builds ratings, as measured by the Arbitron ratings service, radio's version of the Nielsen television ratings. Arbitron conducts 12-week ratings "sweeps" four times a year, asking a random sampling of local residents to fill out diaries of their radio-listening habits.
Some local radio executives downplay the Arbitrons, questioning some of the ratings' more detailed demographic findings and claiming there are occasionally statistical aberrations -- such as WMAL's marked increase in fall ratings (more than two full points this year from the summer "book," to 9.7 percent of the market), which rivals attribute more to the station's broadcasts of Redskin games than any other reason. But like them or not, everybody keeps close watch on the ratings numbers.
"There's one ballgame in town, and that's Arbitron," Dorf says. "That's the one that keeps the report card. . . . We rise and fall on what we do in Arbitron."
Hence the frantic promotion. The contrasting cases of WHUR and Q-107 may leave one wondering whether it's worth it. But -- given the stakes -- radio executives say anything that might have a chance to increase ratings, be it flashy advertising, big-bucks contests or just plain quality programming, is a sound investment. "If you spend $1 million on a campaign and get a rating point and keep it, you've paid off your investment," Lebhar says.
"It's expensive, but it pays off when it wins," says Fears, who says Q-107's latest contest, with its claimed $1 million worth of prizes, 1.3 million catalogues and extensive on-air hype, may be the station's promotion to end all promotions. "This is a big one -- my sleeves are empty," he says. "But I'll have another one the next quarter."