WBSB drops Top 40 for 'variety' format

It's goodbye B-104, hello Variety 104.3.

WBSB, which as B-104 was a Top 40 institution in the Baltimore radio market for the past dozen years, changed its format to modern adult contemporary yesterday and began promoting itself as Variety 104.3.


The station promised to play "Today's Hits, Yesterday's Favorites."

In a message to listeners broadcast at 9 yesterday morning, general manager Jim Fox said the station would play a "blend of top hits and favorites from the past few years."


"We want to make sure Variety 104.3 is your favorite radio station," he added.

Moments earlier, at a breakfast meeting with the station's advertisers, Mr. Fox explained the changing nature of Top 40 music had been alienating the station's adult listeners. He said parents who had listened to the songs of artists like Billy Joel and Phil Collins in the 1980s were being turned off by the increasing dance and urban influence of today's Top 40 songs.

"This is not a station that is dying," he said. "We just have to change our perception in the marketplace."

As B-104, WBSB became the area's most listened to, and talked about, local radio station in the mid-1980s through its ubiquitous promotional campaigns and notorious morning drive team of Brian Wilson and Don O'Brien. But, in recent years, the station suffered a steep slide in the ratings.

A year and a half ago, WBSB launched a major promotional campaign touting itself as the "all new B-104" and pledged to play no rap or hard rock music but the changes did not reverse its declining fortunes.

The most recent Arbitron ratings had the station in ninth place in the market, with a 4.2 share of listeners ages 12 and over. In contrast, WXYV-FM (V-103), the area's top-ranked station, had a 8.1 share. Each share point translates into approximately 3,500 listeners in an average quarter hour.

WBSB's drop in the ratings had spawned talk for months that the station would be changing its format, and Mr. Fox admitted yesterday it had begun planning a change last August.

Richard Harker, a Raleigh, N.C.-based radio consultant hired by the station to research the change, said the new Variety 104.3 would compete with adult contemporary WMIX-FM (106.5) for listeners ages 25-44, he said. But he said 104.3 would attempt to capture the younger end of that lucrative demographic by having a more contemporary sound than WMIX, which promotes itself as playing songs from the 1960s through the 1990s.


WMIX was ranked fourth in the market with a 6.3 audience share, according to the most recent Arbitron figures.

Greg Dunkin, WMIX's program director, took the announcement of WBSB's format change in stride.

"Our station was the first 'Mix' station in the country and perceptually we are the strongest," he said.

Mr. Harker predicted that the younger teen listeners who tuned into B-104 will probably no longer listen to the station, but he said the station would likely retain its late teen and early 20s listeners who he said had been "disenfranchised" by Top 40 radio.

Mr. Fox said WBSB would downplay its air personalities in favor of playing "wall-to-wall" music for the next several weeks in an effort to establish its new format. The exception would be in the morning drive slot with Chris Emry, a veteran rock personality who was hired by WBSB last year after he was fired by WIYY-FM (98 Rock). Larry Wachs, who teamed with Mr. Emry in the mornings, would be moved to another shift, Mr. Fox said.

The station would begin a major television ad campaign in support of its new format in a few weeks, he said.