If a notorious radio personality came on the air in Baltimore and virtually no one tuned in to his show, might he still have an impact on the market?
It's a question local radio executives have been asking about New York shock jock Howard Stern, whose morning show began being simulcast here Oct. 1 on WJFK-AM (1300 KHz), formerly WLIF-AM and before that WFBR.
It's also a question that begets a couple of others -- namely, what kind of radio market is Baltimore? Or to be more precise, is it too conservative for cutting-edge personalities?
And, ultimately, it's a question that has almost as many gradations of answer as there are formats on the dial.
Mr. Stern's is the top-rated morning show in New York, where it originates on WXRK-FM. It is also on the rise in Los Angeles, where its simulcast began in July, and has been a major factor in Philadelphia and Washington, where it has been simulcast for years.
But in Baltimore, Mr. Stern's station did not even show up among the 36 listed in the recently released September to November Arbitron ratings for the 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. drive-time period.
Many observers believe those ratings -- which include one month when Mr. Stern was not even on the air and the station had a minuscule audience with its light pop vocal format -- are sure to change, if not in the fall numbers due out next month, then somewhere not far down the road. But just how many Baltimore listeners will eventually tune in to Mr. Stern -- who has been dubbed the Sultan of Sleaze but whose mix of commentary and comedy makes him more akin to the late Lenny Bruce -- is a matter of conjecture and debate.
"This is a most unusual market when it comes to people who want to be on the cutting edge," says Johnny Dark, who held forth on WCAO-AM (600 KHz) for 30 years before getting the boot when the station changed to a gospel format last month. "They just don't have mass appeal. People here don't like to be offended."
Tom Taylor, managing editor of Inside Radio, a New Jersey-based industry newsletter, has heard such comments before. "Every time Howard comes into a new market, people
say, 'He's never going to work here. This city is too . . . fill in the blank,' " Mr. Taylor says. "But he's so out of the box, so unusual, he breaks the mold. People are intrigued with Howard."
Many local radio executives -- whose analysis may be clouded by a desire to protect their market shares from an interloper -- insist, however, that whatever inroads he may make here will be small. Among the reasons they give are the lack of promotion; the fact that WJFK-AM is a total simulcast of its Washington FM sister station, down to newsbreaks and ads; and what they say is the increasingly conservative nature of the Baltimore radio market.
"It has so many things going against it that I'd be real surprised if it makes any kind of impact," says Jim Fox, longtime general manager of Top 40 WSBB-FM (B-104), echoing a common refrain.
But Ken Stevens, general manager of WJFK, Philadelphia's WYSP and WLIF-FM (Lite 102) here -- all of which are owned, like WXRK, by New York-based Infinity Broadcasting -- says Mr. Stern's influence is already being felt in calls to the station and other informal samplings; he expects the show to appear in coming ratings books.
In fact, Mr. Stevens contends that it may be easier for Mr. Stern to gain audience share in Baltimore because of the lack of competition for his brand of radio. When the so-called "shock jock" came into Washington, for example, he was up against the Greaseman on WWDC-FM (101.1 MHz), who shares Mr. Stern's penchant for soft porn but has little of his biting social edge, and Mike O'Meara and Don Geronimo on WAVA-FM (105.1 MHz), who have since switched to afternoons on WJFK. Last summer, despite signal problems on WJFK, Mr. Stern had a 3.4 share of the Washington audience, good for 13th place.
And Mr. Stevens, who programmed classic rock WGRX-FM (100.7 MHz) here in the early 1980s, brushes off the suggestion that what goes over in larger markets will not necessarily catch on here. "Baltimore is not more conservative," he insists.
Mr. Stern himself refuses to believe he won't attract an audience. "We have to be getting some ratings in Baltimore," he said on his show last week. "Nothing's going on [in radio] in Baltimore."
History offers mixed clues as to what local listeners respond to. For most of the 13 years he was on the air from the mid-1970s through the late 1980s, Johnny Walker was the area's most popular radio personality, with an iconoclastic approach that may seem quaint by today's standards but was brash at the time. Then in the mid- to late 1980s, Brian Wilson and Don O'Brien ruled the morning ratings roost with a show composed of caustic comments, shrill invective and Top 40 music.
Currently, however, news/talk WBAL-AM (1090 KHz) is the top-rated morning drive show, with a 10.7 share of the audience; country station WPOC-FM (103.1 MHz), with nice-girl Laurie DeYoung, is second. Locally, no one is doing anything approaching shock radio; nor, for that matter, any kind of radio at all that gets listeners talking about what they've heard after they've switched off their car radios.
Still, the market for the format may well be there: In the summer ratings, the Greaseman's show on DC-101 drew a 3.0 audience share, good for 10th place in the Baltimore market.
'Back to reality'
The fractionalized nature of radio means that a show need not have mass appeal to be successful. At any given time, 90 percent of all listeners are not tuning in to the top-rated station.
Whatever may have worked in the past, several local radio programmers are betting that present, and future, audiences want less shooting from the hip and more down-to-earth honesty.
Mr. Fox, who brought Brian and O'Brien to B-104 in the mid-1980s and watched them self-destruct from personal and contractual problems a few years later, says "my gut tells me they wouldn't be as successful" if they were coming on the air today.
"In 1985, the times were freer and looser," he says. "Now, we're back into reality. Listeners want people on the air they can relate to; familiarity is very important. They want to have fun, but they don't want to take on a sarcastic tone."
Russ Mottla, on-air program director of WIYY-FM (98 Rock) who moved his show from afternoons to mornings this fall, says Baltimore's "homespun" character is becoming even more conservative in the current economy. "I have a thing that in tough economic times people have less tolerance for shock radio," he says.
Greg Dunkin, program director of adult contemporary WMIX-FM (106.5 MHz), points out that shock radio has typically worked best in bigger, more transient cities. "There has to be a large enough market that the sense of community is diluted by the pressures of a big city," he says. Mr. Stern "would not play in a Kansas City or Oklahoma City."
With a population of more than 2 million, the Baltimore area comprises the nation's 17th largest radio market. It is characterized by what Mr. Dunkin sees as a "sense of values" that is deepening as the once wild and crazy baby boomers who grew up on radio settle down to have their own families.
"Before, morning shows would scream at the audience, hang up on callers, use bells and whistles," he says, describing what became known in the business as "zoo" programs. "That's changed. Today, the audience wants real people talking to them about real things."
And not just in Baltimore.
"People are reacting against morning zoos; they tend to see them as silly and frivolous," says Inside Radio managing editor Tom Taylor. "They're more concerned with spending their precious time with a medium they can get the most from."
Mr. Taylor, however, doesn't see that same negative reaction with shock radio. In fact, he argues that there's still room in radio for "real originals"; it's just that they're few and far between.
"Radio went through a homogenizing process in the '80s," he explained. "Everyone got slick and packaged. There was a sameness to radio. Stations had a kind of liner-card mentality: 'Read with enthusiasm and shut up.' It was safe radio, 10-songs-in-a-row radio.
"We're reaping the results of that now. There's not a very large crop of talent out there."
Cleary, Howard Stern is a talent and a unique one at that.
Almost as clearly, he goes against the grain of what many feel Baltimore listeners want. Whether his simulcast show goes over here is something to which people can only stay tuned.