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Radio's Rites of Spring Ratings

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Against the backdrop of a shaky economy, radio stations are gearing up with promotions and new programming for the all-important Arbitron spring ratings survey, which begins this Thursday (March 29) and ends June 20. Normally a big part of radio's rites of spring, TV advertising is likely to be down, as groups look to trim costs.

"A number of stations have already deferred TV schedules," said Dave Nichols, senior vp of marketing for Film House, the industry's largest producer of TV commercials for radio stations. Instead, groups are relying on group-wide contests or other nontraditional revenue drivers. Taking a page out of Clear Channel's marketing book, Viacom's Infinity last week rolled out a group-wide contest among 35 stations in 23 markets, including Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The contest, which started March 22 and ends May 2, awards a listener $1,000 every hour except on Thursdays, when the prize increases to $10,000. "It's akin to a national lottery," said Dave Robbins, the manager of Infinity's stations in Columbus, Ohio, who spearheaded the effort with the group's other outlets. "We wanted to make group contesting more appealing to listeners and fully disclose that they would be competing with listeners to stations in other markets."

Group contesting got a bad rap last year when Clear Channel, the first group to leverage contesting across its stations, found itself in hot water with the Florida attorney general for not adequately disclosing that the contest was national. About a third of Clear Channel's 1,170 stations will participate in its retooled group-wide contest this spring, which will reward a listener $10,000 a day during the survey.

Not surprisingly, many stations are also marking the start of the survey with programming changes. "To get back to being top dog, we need a spectacular morning show," said Jeff Cochran, the new program director of Clear Channel's Soft Adult Contemporary station in Chicago, WLIT-FM. Cochran dismissed the station's six-month-old morning show and retained well-known Chicago personality Melissa Forman, who takes the microphone in early April.

In Los Angeles, where Emmis Communications has owned Country KZLA-FM since last October, program director R. J. Curtis has brought in a familiar L.A. voice, Peter Tilden. And Atlanta's newest radio station, Cox's WBTS-FM, is today (March 26) launching Woody & The Morning Beat, hosted by radio vet Woody Woodward. Replacing all music, the show completes the station's on-air lineup since it signed on last October.