Rivals weaken 'Pulse of the City'

Monday, March 17, 2003

Rivals weaken 'Pulse of the City'


[photo] WCIN took a hit when former talk host Lincoln Ware left in 2000 to launch WDBZ.
(Enquirer file photo)
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He has his finger on "The Pulse of the City," and he's worried.

As WCIN-AM (1480) celebrates its 50th anniversary year, owner John Thomas wonders how much longer the station can continue.

The locally owned "Pulse of the City," as the city's heritage African-American station calls itself, has been stressed to the max by competition from huge broadcasting companies like Clear Channel, Infinity and Radio One.

"Sitting here today, I don't see - or think - that WCIN can survive as a single, stand-alone radio station in this market to see a 60th anniversary," says Thomas, who bought the station in 1992.

These should be happy times at WCIN-AM. Thomas has applied to the federal government for a power increase that would extend his daytime signal to Dayton and strengthen his nighttime reach inside the I-275 belt.

He has embarked on a year-long anniversary celebration that will include a couple of June jazz concerts at Cincinnati Zoo and an October birthday concert and reunion for WCIN-AM personalities.

The events kicked off last month with a gala honoring the "50 Most Influential Blacks in Cincinnati in the Past 50 Years." The station saluted Oscar Robertson, Theodore Berry, William Bowen, Ezzard Charles, Nikki Giovanni, Nathaniel Jones, Fred Suggs and Fred Shuttlesworth, among others.

But not Lincoln Ware.

Competition hurts

It was Ware's unexpected departure in 2000, to launch the rival WDBZ-AM (1230) "Buzz" urban talk station, that sent WCIN-AM into a downward financial and legal spiral.

Ware, the midday talk host and operations director, took Tom Joyner's syndicated morning show with him.

"We introduced Tom Joyner to the market. Lincoln was black talk in Cincinnati. I had promoted them very heavily," says Thomas, 55.

"People listened to them and enjoyed them - and when they left, the audience left with them. More than half of our audience left, and our revenues were cut in half. We're still struggling."

WDBZ-AM, No. 18 in the market, had twice the audience share (1.2) of WCIN-AM (0.6) in the most recent quarterly ratings. WCIN-AM ranks No. 22, tied with WBOB-AM and Middletown's WPFB-AM. WIZF-FM ranks No. 6, with a 5.5 share.

WCIN-AM's audience was so small last summer quarter that Arbitron didn't list any ratings for the station.

Since Ware quit, Thomas has hired three operations directors. He blames their inexperience with new equipment, and a faulty remote-control device, for the illegal power output at WCIN-AM's Hartwell's towers, which resulted in a $5,000 fine from the Federal Communications Commission.

WCIN-AM also was sued last month in federal court by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for failing to pay music royalties.

"It's been difficult for me, because of our revenue base, to maintain (ASCAP) payments on a consistent basis," he says.

Eclectic programming

Today's WCIN-AM is an eclectic mix of rhythm and blues, Motown, light jazz and some talk. Program director Fredd E. Redd, a former WIZF-FM disc jockey, co-hosts mornings with Everett Cork, offering a local alternative to the syndicated morning shows on Radio One's WIZF-FM and WDBZ-AM. A jazz show airs noon-4 p.m. Saturdays.

Courtis Fuller, the former Channel 5 anchor and mayoral candidate, has hosted a 10 a.m.-noon weekday talk show since January 2002. But Thomas isn't sure how much longer he'll have Fuller, who says his "priority is getting back into television" in Cincinnati.

Fuller praises Thomas for "maintaining the tradition of urban radio here ... with a combination of information, inspiration, entertainment and education."

After losing Ware, Fuller put WCIN-AM back on the map.

"I'm very appreciative that Courtis has stayed as long as he has. It's been over a year. He's really been a savior for us," Thomas says.

"Courtis has given people a reason to tune in, and stay tuned in. It's a different kind of talk show. It's allowing everyone to voice their views and opinions in a respectful manner. To me, in our community, that's the way talk should be - not the combative, name-calling, bashing and all that kind of stuff."

David vs. Goliath

That kind of talk can be found elsewhere on the dial, another change in the business since Thomas left banking for broadcasting 11 years ago.

Back then, broadcasters were limited to owning two stations in a market. Congress lifted restrictions in 1996, so he's competing here with Clear Channel's eight stations, Infinity's four and Radio One's pair of urban-oriented stations.

More power could help somewhat. Thomas hopes to hear soon from the federal government on his request to increase his daytime signal from 250 watts to 4,500 watts, and nights from 15 to 250 watts. Today his station is tough to get outside the I-275 loop - and inside Fourth Street's concrete canyon downtown.

But reaching Dayton, and some of the Tristate counties served by Cincinnati's FM stations, won't completely solve the problem. Media giants like Clear Channel, Infinity and Radio One can offer advertisers dozens to hundreds of cities, or saturation of one market, by writing a single check.

WCIN-AM has weathered tough times before. In the late 1980s, faced with competition from WIZF-FM and the old WBLZ-FM, a previous owner dumped African-American-oriented programming and played classical music on the weak AM signal.

"I understood the rationale," he says. "They felt they could not compete against two FMs, and the hole in the market on the AM band was classical music."

Today, the weakened pulse prompts Thomas to think about selling out.

"With the Internet, more TV choices, FM radio and satellite radio, to name a few options, it would not be unreasonable to question the staying power of an independent AM station like WCIN-AM over the next 10 years," Fuller says. "I think most people would understand the business logic if John is confronted with that decision."

`Extremely difficult'

Near the end of our conversation, I ask Thomas, the former banker, if he's still having fun in radio. He doesn't answer immediately.

"Not as much as I used when I first got involved," he says. "The landscape in the radio industry has changed. It's tough. It's extremely difficult. Extremely difficult."

E-mail jkiesewetter@enquirer.com

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