Bloomberg radio network to go national on May 1


NEW YORK -- His all-business-news radio station in New York had barely turned one year old when Michael Bloomberg decided to celebrate by going national with it.

The decision was easy, because the radio station, WBBR-AM, can tag along at no additional expense on the satellite service that Bloomberg is leasing to start a 13-hour-a-day television service of business news.

Along with the video channel, called Bloomberg Direct, which will be part of GM Hughes Electronics' satellite-to-home broadcasting service, will come an audio channel carrying WBBR. A subscriber to the satellite service, which will start about May 1, will be able to hear the station through a television set, with the screen blank, or by connecting a radio to the system.

The audio channel is just one more unusual way in which 'D Bloomberg is taking advantage of the radio station he bought (the former WNEW-AM, at the frequency of 1130) in the fall of 1992 for $13.5 million. Mr. Bloomberg is the founder of Bloomberg Financial Markets, which provides computerized financial data to business customers, and Bloomberg Business News, a news service that reports and interprets the data.

Another innovation from Mr. Bloomberg is to put the radio programming inside the computer terminals he leases to business customers for $1,000 a month. The terminals are used to retrieve and display all the data gathered by Bloomberg Financial Markets -- and the Bloomberg software runs only on the Bloomberg hardware. But more than 20,000 of Bloomberg's 34,000 terminals now have built-in speakers for the radio programming.

Because WBBR broadcasts a digitally encoded signal, it can be captured and stored electronically on the Bloomberg computer system, then played on demand. If a broker, instead of typing a stock symbol on the keyboard, types in "WBBR," the terminal displays a menu of recent radio programming, like the most recent market report, news broadcast, weather or traffic report, or perhaps Alan Greenspan's speech of the day. Hit the number of a menu item, and the selection is replayed.

WNEW-AM, which played big band music and crooners, attracted about 1.6 percent of the listening audience in the New York area. Since WBBR began broadcasting on Jan. 3, 1993, the station's share, as measured by the Arbitron Co., has averaged about three-tenths of 1 percent.

While others in the radio business deride the station and its paltry ratings, Mr. Bloomberg, in the time-honored fashion of stations with low Arbitron numbers, prefers to bash the rating service.

"The people who listen to my station, investment bankers and the like, don't take the time to talk to market researchers on the phone, or to fill out Arbitron phone diaries," Mr. Bloomberg said in a recent interview at his Park Avenue office.

To prove his point, Bloomberg has commissioned "qualitative ratings" from Accuratings of Chicago, a relative newcomer that is offering its services to radio stations as a way of getting beyond the raw numbers of Arbitron to measure the wealth, education and buying habits of radio listeners. Many classical-music stations also use qualitative ratings, hoping to demonstrate that they, too, have an attractive audience in terms of buying power and taste.

"A bigger percentage of WBBR's listeners have bought a new car in the last six months than at any of the top 20 stations in New York," Kurt Hanson, the president of Accuratings, said. "A bigger percentage of WBBR's audience went to graduate school than of any station in New York except that of WQXR," the classical-music FM station owned by The New York Times Co., he said.

Whatever Accuratings may show, and however tony the advertisers WBBR attracts -- at rates of $500 a minute in morning drive time to $150 in off hours -- executives at New York's all-news stations, which Mr. Bloomberg likes to call "all-crime" stations, are happy to sneer in return.

"We don't look at them as competition," said Scott Herman, the vice president and general manager of WINS-AM, the all-news station owned by the Westinghouse Electric Corp. In the latest Arbitron ratings, WINS had 3.9 percent of the listening audience, or 13 times that of WBBR.

"They're not in the business of attracting listeners," Mr. Herman said of WBBR. "He's just trying to sell his data."

At WCBS-AM, Harvey Nagler, the director of news and programming, said the countermeasures that his station took when WBBR began broadcasting had proved unnecessary.

"When we first heard about WBBR, we started a small-business report that airs twice a day," he said, "and we increased what we were doing off-air. Four times a year, we rent a hotel hall and do breakfasts for the community with well-known figures to talk about business and economic issues."

But aside from losing two part-time employees to Bloomberg, Mr. Nagler said, the new station had had no effect on WCBS, which had 2.9 percent of the audience in the latest Arbitron ratings.

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