THE RISE AND FALL OF WLTF:
TEN LESSONS ON HOW TO WIN AND LOSE THE BATTLE
by Dave Popovich
(Vice President AC/Oldies, McVay Media)
WLTF in Cleveland is now WMVX, Mix 106.5. The station has changed
its format and changed its name. The jury is still out on Mix
106.5 FM. Jacor is a good company. I wouldn't be surprised if
106.5 does very well 25- 44. Regardless, WLTF/LIte Rock
106 1/2 is dead, but the memory of how the station became one
of America's most innovative and imitated Adult Contemporary radio
stations is still alive. The logo, which is still the style for
many "lite" stations around the country, was created
at WLTF. "Coats for Kids" was created at WLTF. The Jim
Brickman "Lovelite" jingles were originally created
for the station in 1987. WLTF/Lite Rock 106 1/2 was Cleveland's
#1 radio station through the late 80s and early 90s. In fact,
in the fall of 1990, the station had double digits with a 10.7
share, thanks to a winning season of the Browns which the station
carried for a year. In 1991, Billboard magazine named WLTF the
"Adult Contemporary Station of the Year." Then the dynasty
began to crumble. Increased competition and increased pressure
to improve the bottom line contributed to the demise.
I was the Operations Manager of WLTF for ten and a half years.
I always considered myself the orchestra leader with a great group
of musicians. The success of the station was a cooperative effort
between sales and programming. We were aggressive. We had the
"eye of the tiger." We
wanted to be the number one station and we achieved our goal.
We did a great job of executing some basic programming concepts.
The purpose of this article is to share the experience so you
can avoid the mistakes.
While the industry is different today versus the 80s and early
90s, there are still lessons that can be learned from the WLTF
experience that can help your radio station win...today and tomorrow.
THE BEGINNING: As the Program Director of WMJI in March
1984, I watched WZZP make the transformation to WLTF/Lite Rock
106 1/2. WZZP was Cleveland's first Adult Contemporary FM radio
station which had experienced great success. . .until WMJI debuted
in 1982 with a gold-based AC format. WMJI, under the direction
of Mike Mcvay as PD and ultimately GM, took the AC position
away from WZZP in one book. WMJI promoted "Favorites of Yesterday
and Today" and played lots of 60s oldies while WZZP continued
with a Soft AC approach. While the ratings of WZZP
were declining, the station was still a solid revenue producer.
When WZZP flipped to WLTF, the music stayed about the same, but
what was to follow was a massive television campaign that positioned
WLTF as the "Contemporary Lite Rock" station in Cleveland.
During the fall of 1984, WLTF was running as high as 1100 GRP's
per Week on television! They were aggressively trying to create
awareness of the product and increase sampling of the station.
The result: WLTF debuted with solid cume numbers and a 5.1 share
while WMJI slipped from a 5.6 to a 5.3. WMJI was still the AC
leader, but WLTF had made an impact. This effect was confirmed
in a research study. WMJI ownership was not happy and I was relieved
of my duties. In September of 1984, 1 became the Program Director
Lesson #1: Never underestimate your competitor. WMJI never
took the WLTF attack seriously at the beginning. The management
egos did not let them believe that WLTF could execute and commit
to a strategy and game plan. Nor did they believe that WLTF had
the financial support to sustain their marketing efforts.
Lesson #2: Dominate a medium.
WLTF's television buy in the fall of 1984 was overwhelming! You
couldn't watch TV without seeing one of their commercials. The
impact was so great that listeners were still talking about the
spot five years later. If you're going to launch a new product,
you have to make a commitment to dominate the best medium to reach
your target audience.
Lesson #3: Never fire your PD after a research presentation.
I walked across the street with the market information that was
supposed to make WMJI a stronger radio station. It helped to launch
an attack against them.
THE REPOSITIONING: It was a landmark case
in the 8Os. WLTF changed its image by changing its name, not its
music. Focus groups were done prior to the change and the respondents
referred to the music as "Lite Rock." "Lite Rock
106 1/2" was born. WLTF was to become the contemporary adult
music station against WMJI, which was the oldies- based adult
music station. We took one of WMJI's strengths - oldies - and
made it a point of differentiation. And we explained it in terms
that the average person could understand based on their perceptions
of the stations. The following positioning promo highlighted the
There's a lot of radio stations to listen to in Cleveland.
For hard rock, WMMS is one of the best in the country. To hear
the top forty songs played over and over, there's G98. And for
a trip down memory lane, there's Magic. But when you want today's
Lite Rock with less talk, there's Lite Rock 106 1/2.
There were some who were amazed that we would use other stations'
call letters in a positioning promo for AC radio. But we never
put down the competition. We simply used the audience's perception
of each station to describe them. It was the reality of the
perception that made the competition cringe. They knew we
were highlighting their vulnerabilities. The battle was on!
Lesson #4: The best ideas for promos come from the listeners.
There has been a movement away from focus groups. If you need
to recharge your station positioning promos, focus groups will
Lesson #5: Attach your station name to the big events you create.
We were partly to blame for the generic status that one campaign
achieved. We should have enforced the rule that the station name
be included in all publicity. But the concept grew so big and
so fast, it was impossible. The bottom line...a wonderful campaign
was created by WLTF and the station never fully got credit for
Example: Coats for Kids - An article appeared
in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1981 that said school
attendance was down in the city schools in the winter because
kids did not have warm coats to wear. The "Coats for Kids"
campaign was born! The station was collecting upwards of 20,000
usable coats per season and more than $200,000 each year in cash
to buy new coats. The campaign became so big that the station
was no longer getting credit for it. Coats for Kids had become
another generic Cleveland charity like the Easter Seals, March
of Dimes, and Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
Example: Lovelite Jingles - In 1987 a local
commercial writer/producer/musician named Jim Brickman presented
a jingle package that he had produced. The package wasn't right
for WLTF. But one cut named "Turn on the Night" sounded
like it could be a jingle for our love song show called "Lovelite."
Jim rewrote the jingle to say, "Turn on the Lovelite,"
and it became one of the most popular love song jingles in AC
Lesson #6: Production and jingles add to your stationality.
Our love song show was good, but the jingle package helped
to crystallize the concept and made the show memorable.
THE MARKETING MACHINE - For
years I watched WMMS totally dominate the Cleveland market with
newspaper ads, outdoor, bumper stickers, tee shirts, and television
ads. The average person in Cleveland could not travel through
their normal, everyday life without seeing WMMS. It was a marketing
machine. It was no surprise that the station was number one for
so long! We decided at WLTF that if we wanted to be the #1 station
in the market, we had to step up our marketing effort. This resolution
began our marketing assault on Cleveland.
We decided to follow a good marketing rule by dominating a medium.
We chose outdoor. We decided to buy the best outdoor location
on every inbound route into Cleveland. We signed a 12-month contract
so we could get a better rate. Additionally, we bought a 100 showing,
year long with the local bus company. You could not drive into
Cleveland from any area of the metro without seeing a WLTF billboard
or bus side.
Our competitor WMJI was doing a full-market, direct-mail campaign
with the Prize Catalogue. This campaign was a strong part of their
marketing that had netted them some great ratings. We decided
to neutralize their campaign with our own direct mail piece. "The
Free Money" direct mail campaigns became a standard part
of the marketing mix at WLTF.
The third area of marketing domination was event marketing, We
allocated money in the budget for concert tickets to own the big
image events. We bought our way into the big "Home and Garden
Show" in the winter by giving away a house in the first quarter.
We were the sponsor of the "Parade of Lights" at the
city's Riverfest celebration in the summer. Through the late 8Os,
WLTF became more visible than WMMS and was the most visible radio
station in the market.
Lesson #7: If you want to be number one, do what the number
one stations do. Like in any good battle, you have to block,
attack, and neutralize the competition. We still play a top-of-mind
game with Arbitron. Marketing and promoting help to achieve these
THE COMPETITION - Through the late 8Os and into
the 90s, WLTF was the dominant adult radio station in Cleveland.
WLTF owned all of the AC images. So it was no surprise to see
Easy Listening stations WQAL and WDOK adjust their formats to
become more competitive with WLTF. WQAL had become Hot AC. WDOK
had become Soft AC. WMJI had become a full-time Oldies station.
And the Country format got hot, making WGAR one of the leading
stations almost overnight. With all of these changes in the market,
we decided to "stay the course." We had a big morning
show with Trapper Jack and The Wake Up Club. We had marketing
dominance. We believed that the new competitors would have little
impact because we were so strong in so many areas. And the station
was the number one biller in the market, so the general feeling
was, "You're number one. Don't mess with success!"
Lesson #8: If it ain't broke, break it! We knew that we
needed to protect either our hot or soft flank, but no one wanted
to make the changes. We thought we would be messing with the winning
formula. it sometimes takes courage in the battle to use your
gut and apply good programming common sense and marketing logic.
We let emotion, cash flow, and greed guide us through one of the
most critical points of the WLTF evolution. We were under attack!
THE ACQUISITION - Even with the increased competition,
WLTF was riding high into the 90s. We had won two Billboard Station
of the Year Awards, and we were the first #1 station in Cleveland
going into the 90s. And in 1991, we purchased WWWE, 3WE . . .
the flagship station of the Indians, Browns, and Cavs. This acquisition
gave WLTF a new opportunity for growth. We strengthened our information
elements on WLTF by using the resources of the 3WE news department.
We utilized the power of the News/Talk station to bring guests
to the WLTF morning show. We became the FM home of the Cleveland
Browns and aligned ourselves with the hottest team in town. The
result in the fall of 1991, WLTF was #1 with a 10.7 share. It
was the first time the station had been in double digits. Through
all of the joy and exultation, the end was near. The foundation
was beginning to crumble from tremors that came from inside our
own organization, as well as from the competition. This crumbling
was the beginning of the end of the WLTF dynasty.
Lesson #9: Share with your sister station. One of the advantages
of multiopoly is to be stronger than your multiopoly competitor
in one or many areas. For example, if you buy a station that has
a strong meteorologist, why not make him the weather service for
all of the stations? If there is that much duplication of audience
with your sister, you probably should be in another format. Don't
be afraid to share!
THE QUEST TO BE A PLAYER - The business was changing
in the early 90s. Deregulation and multiple ownership were becoming
reality. And Wall Street was becoming enamored with the broadcasting
industry because of the new environment. The investors saw the
potential. Broadcasters saw Wall Street as a new source of money
to buy and the move was on by many companies to go public. The
Booth American Company, the owner of WLTF, was one of them. The
company wanted to be a player and the IPO (initial public offering)
was a goal to raise funds. While the original plan was to increase
revenues to make the bottom line attractive to investors, it became
necessary to cut expenses to hit the numbers. For WLTF, it meant
cuts that accelerated the implosion. There were three key areas
where money was eliminated.
I. The marketing budget was cut. This came at a time when
the competition was getting more aggressive.
2. Programming decisions were dictated by the budget. We
didn't match an offer made to the morning sidekick and he left.
We didn't research our music. We didn't even renew the license
for the Lovelite jingles, all in order to save money!
3. We fired the consultant. We were a Mcvay Media client
for four years. The input from Mike Mcvay was an important dimension
to our programming effort. McVay Media was soon to become the
consultant for WDOK. It wasn't long before WDOK began to consistently
After a year of trying to go public, the company decided the best
move for the future was to merge. In June of 1994, the Booth American-Company
became Secret Communications.
Lesson #10: Don't forget about what made you famous. This
scenario is even more applicable in the age of multiopoly. When
you make cuts that affect the sound of the station or the attitude
of a winning staff, you leave yourself open to attack or failure!