Why Cleveland Radio Sucks, the True Story Behind 87.7 Cleveland Sound, and the Future of Radio Innovation

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The Cleveland Sound

Most insiders say terrestrial radio isn't going away, and could even thrive by embracing its local roots. As it stands, terrestrial radio is challenged by digital services like Spotify.

According to the Pew Research Center's State of the News Media report for 2012, while most Americans still listen to AM/FM stations weekly, nearly 40 percent listen to radio through portable devices such as smart phones and tablets. With Internet based services like Spotify and Pandora on the rise (not to mention apps like TuneIn, which allows you to listen to any station in the country on your portable device), that could double by 2015. One source familiar with recent local ratings says AM numbers are way down in recent years (especially for WTAM and WKNR), while FM is somehow treading water. Still.

Herschel says that pronouncements of terrestrial radio's death have been exaggerated. Twenty percent of CBS Radio's local audience tunes in via the Internet, and DJs now interact with listeners by blogging, engaging in social media and responding to email. "It's not an either/or option," Herschel says. "We're players in the digital spectrum."

He adds that CBS's total revenues, including events, web and radio ads, are on the rise. Nationally, radio revenues grew by one percentage point in 2011, the Pew study says – yet the bulk of that growth stemmed from a 15-percent increase in digital revenue.

Yet there remains a big hole in the Cleveland market when it comes to rock music. In the fall of 2012, a new station called 87.7 Cleveland Sound went on air with great fanfare and assertions that it would bring back local radio. 87.7 played a mix of rock and alternative, had Cleveland personalities on air, and had some local music.

The new venture attracted a loyal following, yet it lasted just 15 months. Citing a lack of advertising, the owners replaced it with La Mega, a Latin station, in January of this year.

"So much of radio is programmed out of corporate offices, by people who have never set foot in the market ... we'll win because we'll be different and we'll think out of the box," owner Tom Wilson told the Plain Dealer, which didn't dig past his assertions to determine if he was serious. Yet the truth is Wilson was playing a short-term game.

During its brief history, Cleveland Sound lacked a robust marketing budget, never even filled the General Manager position, and rotated through four program directors. Former staffers say Wilson and his partners simply lacked the kind of hands-on management and investment that would have made the station successful over the long-term.

The station also faced an uphill battle given its spot on the left fringe of the dial. Many Clevelanders probably never knew it existed or assumed it was a college radio station.

Gorman, who was approached to become a part of the station's leadership but didn't sign on, offers a blunt assessment: "87.7 was a joke. Cleveland got taken for a ride."

Denny Sanders, former creative services director with WMMS and current brand and marketing manager at Omnia Audio, agrees. "The owners never appeared to be genuine about creating a cohesive alternative station," he says. "The music was all over the place, the marketing was amateurish and the whole thing was run like it was somebody's plaything."

Ex-staffers sound off

What many listeners don't know is that 87.7, as a frequency, is slated to go off-air in September 2015. Some critics say that Wilson was trying to turn a quick buck while the station was alive.  

87.7 operates on the analog audio carrier of a TV Channel 6, which is a technical way of saying that it's a low power (LP) television station that's operating as a radio station. Essentially, folks who want to buy a cheap radio station get a Channel 6 signal and then only broadcast the audio portion. Next year, LPTV stations will cease analog broadcasts and begin operating only in digital. At that time, stations will have a chance to convert to digital operations.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created LPTV service in 1982 in order to provide opportunities for local programming, yet because of lax regulations, many of these stations are now owned by media entrepreneurs. Wilson is a former Gannett media executive who has made lots of money buying and selling radio stations.

In interviews, former Sound staffers said that Wilson's grandiose plans weren't serious. Archie Berwick, aka "Black Mr. Robinson," was living in New York City and dancing for the Gong Show when he learned from a friend that a Cleveland radio station was hiring. An entertainer "since I was in Huggies," Archie says he was excited to apply for the job.

Despite having no radio experience, the owners hired him for the morning drive-time slot because he came "cheap," says Berwick. The learning curve was steep, yet he attracted listeners with comedy, local music and an eclectic mix of rock and soul.

Despite assurances from Wilson that he was doing great, Archie was fired after a year. He doesn't hold any grudges, but says that the owners were never serious about 87.7.

"Everyone who's ever hustled in their lives knows a hustler," he says. "Tom is a good guy, but he's a businessman. I think they're trying to get to a certain point and flip it."

Another staffer, Kelly Standish, left a 25-year career with Sterling Jewelers to sells ads for 87.7. She says that although 87.7 lacked direction from management, the sales efforts were gradually picking up steam and the station broke even in December.

"I don't think the owners were ever really invested in it," says Standish, who now works for 98.5 as a salesperson. "They were putting money into it, but it was poorly managed."

Kendall Embrescia, who signed on as marketing director, says she had a budget of just $2,000 per month. Without the budget to wrap cars, produce radio swag or hold cheesy promotions, she did a lot of "guerilla marketing" to try to get listeners' attention.

"It was kind of freewheeling," she says. "The owners' expectations probably weren't realistic."

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