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Wednesday, May 2, 2007 02:33 pm

Radio daze

Mid-West switches formats, personalities; former owner reclaims Clear Channel stations

Untitled Document There’s change in the air, and we don’t just mean spring. The airwaves of the capital city are experiencing some turbulence, with an unusual number of on-air personalities coming and going and generally playing musical microphones. Behind the scenes, the biggest change will come in July, when four local stations now owned by Clear Channel will be reclaimed by former owner Geoff Neuhoff. At Mid-West Family Broadcasting, the juiciest jobs in radio — morning drive time — are changing hands at three of the group’s four stations.
At lite-rock WNNS (98.7 FM), a pair of cute young Gen-Y types are due to arrive May 14 to take over the mics that for years belonged to Brian Pierce and Kellie Michaels, whose unexpected exodus in February is still a touchy topic. “I legally cannot talk about the circumstances of their departure,” says Kevan Kavanaugh, Mid-West Family’s president and general manager. He’s more eager to talk about the new morning team, Amy Nelson and Bryan Major, who currently host the same time slot at WQQB (96.1 FM) in Champaign-Urbana. “We’re very, very excited about them. They’ll bring a very contemporary, energetic approach to mornings on WNNS, which is exactly what we’re looking for,” Kavanaugh says.
Nelson says that she and Major are looking forward to living in a bigger city. “I think it’ll be a ton o’ fun,” she says. She has worked in the Kansas City area; Major has worked in Grand Rapids, Mich., and they’ve worked together in Jackson, Miss., and the Lansing, Mich., area. Nelson describes their shtick as “talk about celebrities, TV, fashion — pretty much what you would talk about with your friends.” She won’t reveal their ages, except that they’re “definitely younger” than Pierce and Michaels. At Mid-West’s hard-rock station, WQLZ (92.7 FM), Kavanaugh bought a syndicated morning show called Free Beer and Hot Wings, which debuted here April 16. Hosted by four dignity-challenged males — Eric Zane, Producer Joe, Hot Wings, and Free Beer — the show airs in a dozen other markets, ranging from little Lima, Ohio, to Nashville. Kavanaugh, who arrived in Springfield from Wisconsin in September, says that some of these changes were inspired by a “perceptual study” performed by Coleman, a consulting group specializing in music, trends, and branding, according to the company Web site. Coleman’s survey of 600 local radio listeners revealed that the 97.7 FM station then called The River — featuring adult-contemporary pop — was drawing only about 9,000 listeners, whereas Mid-West’s other stations drew audiences up to 26,000. The same survey found a dearth of adult-alternative and adult-contemporary programming. Kavanaugh decided to replace The River with an adult-alternative/adult-contemporary format known as Alice.
“We also wanted to add a high-profile morning show, but not right away. We wanted to establish the music first,” Kavanaugh says. The Coleman study had revealed the need for the kind of “dominant morning show” that would fuel water-cooler conversations on a daily basis — on the FM side of the dial. Kavanaugh says he looked at a variety of syndicated shows and some personalities who had come and gone before realizing that he had the right players on his roster — Johnny Molson and Andy Lee, who are also 3-6 p.m. talk hosts on Mid-West’s WMAY (970 AM). They made their debut as morning-show hosts on Alice this week. Molson says the pair hasn’t undergone any personality transplant for the morning gig; it will be just like the afternoon show. “One thing you notice on morning radio is a tendency for the hosts to talk over this thumpy music bed, like, ‘We’re not really having fun, but we can make like it sound like we’re having fun.’ They have zany characters and kooky sound effects. We’re not going to do any of that,” Molson says. “That stuff has all been done, well-done, overdone, and doesn’t need to be done.”
The changes at Springfield’s four Clear Channel stations — sports-radio WFMB (1405 AM), country WFMB (104.5 FM), classic-rock WCVS (96.7 FM), and Top 40 WXAJ (99.7 FM) — may not be perceptible to the average listener. Neuhoff, contacted at his Jupiter, Fla.-based Neuhoff Communications office, plans to keep longtime general manager Kevin O’Dea in place. Neuhoff sold his Springfield stations in 1997, when the Federal Communications Commission relaxed regulations on the number of outlets any franchise could own. “The broadcasting industry had been kind of a mom-and-pop business,” says Neuhoff, whose company is purely family-owned. “When the rules changed, I knew broadcasting was about to become much more corporate. I feared for our ability to compete. If [a corporate entity] didn’t buy me, they’d buy my competitor and put me out of business.”
He sold to a company that became Clear Channel, which is sometimes referred to in the radio industry as the “evil empire” because of the company’s enormous holdings. Neuhoff calls his company “a gnat” in comparison to the “this gigantic behemoth” that is Clear Channel. But when Clear Channel announced in August its intention to sell most stations not in the top 100 markets, Neuhoff says, he immediately called O’Dea: “I said, ‘I want to buy Springfield back.’ He said, ‘I was hoping you might do this.’ ”
Neuhoff soon found himself in a bidding war.
“The negotiation got extended for a ridiculously long time,” he says. “Lots of other people wanted Springfield. I was probably the smallest company bidding on it.” The license transfer has to be approved by the FCC; Neuhoff anticipates that he will resume official ownership sometime in July. The fact that so little has changed at his stations signals, to Neuhoff, that his investment will pay off. “I don’t think we overpaid. We’re lucky in that we haven’t had format changes. It’s just a solid thing,” he says. “That’s another thing you think of when you’re buying stations — I’ve always looked for a good opportunity. This one is too good to pass up, and it’s not that often you can say that in this business.”
At Mid-West Family, there have been a few changes not predicted by the Coleman survey. Jack Davis, who had been afternoon co-host on WMAY with Dave Kelm, resigned a few weeks ago during a dispute about the journalistic integrity of morning-show host Pamela Furr. Davis — picking up on an observation raised in a State Journal-Register column — questioned Furr’s ability to objectively cover the Springfield City Council as a reporter while simultaneously voicing her opinions on her talk show. Kavanaugh and news director Jim Leach summoned Davis to a meeting to discuss the situation, but Davis told the SJ-R that he chose to “go fishing” instead.
“There was never any intention of firing Jack whatsoever,” Leach says. “Jack just decided he’d rather not have that conversation, which is his prerogative. I’ve got a lot of respect for his long career and what he did during his time at the radio station.”
Leach, who has been filling the 9 a.m.-noon slot on WNNS in addition to his morning drive-time duties on WMAY, will soon relinquish that duty to Nelson and Major. There’s one other change taking place at Mid-West Family, and Kavanaugh is so stressed about it that he took a stack of papers home with him Tuesday, when he was sick with the flu.  “This is the most enormous stack of applications I’ve ever waded through in my life,” he says. “We’re hiring a new receptionist. I can’t believe how many people think they want to answer my phone.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at
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