IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: What Happened To WPLJ?

30

Our story about former New York City powerhouse WPLJ struck a nerve with readers Tuesday. Many of you took time to comment on the story here and send notes to the experts we quoted. We’re sharing the story again because we thought you’d be interested in reading the comments from your colleagues. And, thanks to BIA, we’ve added WPLJ’s estimated revenue from 2010 to 2017.

2010: $27,100,000
2011: $19,100,000
2012: $17,700,000
2013: $18,600,000
2014: $12,900,000
2015: $ 8,975,000
2016: $10,275,000
2017: $10,475,000
Source: BIA

And here’s our story from yesterday. Take a look at the comments that follow the story.

When Educational Media Foundation takes over WPLJ-FM in New York, once the deal to purchase the station from Cumulus closes around May or June, the new format will be EMF’s K-LOVE brand. There are no plans for an LMA before that and Cumulus is planning a special tribute as the station approaches its final days on-air. That will bring to an end a long and, at one time, very successful New York City radio brands. WPLJ launched back in 1971 and enjoyed decades of success. What went wrong?

To answer that question, we turned to three smart programming minds: AC Radio Programming Consultant Gary Berkowitz, former WABC Program Director and current Salem Media Spoken Word VP Phil Boyce, and www.wowfactorradio.com CEO, John Sebastian, who spent a portion of his long career at WPLJ. We asked all three how a station so successful can fall so hard?

Berkowitz says it was a slow and steady decline for the station. “Slow (but steady) slippage is what worries me most with radio stations. The PLJ fall happened over a long period of time. It really took a turn for the worse when they lost Scott Shannon (to CBS-FM). Losing him both on and off the air affected them negatively. Their morning numbers did not hold up nor did they rebound. I used to frequently hear (about PLJ) that despite the ratings, they had great billing. Well, that can only last just so long and its usually never a good sign for the longevity of the station, its brand or its ratings.”

Phil Boyce

Boyce agrees with Berkowitz that the nail WPLJ’s coffin was the departure with Scott Shannon who retired from WPLJ in 2014 after a 23-year run at the station. “Did they really think WPLJ could withstand the loss of Scott Shannon and survive, or WABC withstand the lost of both Rush and Sean and survive? I didn’t. It took a few years but look what happened. Listeners have a vote in these things. They voted, and the stations lost because at the end of the day, the personalities are bigger than the station, not the other way around.” Shannon was working across the street at WCBS-FM, hosting mornings, one month later.

John Sebastian

Sebastian consulted the station in the 80’s. “The sale of WPLJ and imminent change of format is a microcosm of what’s so very wrong with the radio biz. Through various format changes over the years and neglect of basic station needs for success, this heritage radio station with legendary call letters will be no more. It’s a shame, on so many levels. WPLJ has meant so much to many New Yorkers for decades. PLJ has a full competitive signal covering the market, yet, in recent times it’s been one of the worst performing FM stations in the NY radio market. In many ways, WPLJ’s demise is a tragedy to me personally not to mention to hundreds of thousands of listeners, for many, during their entire lifespan.”

Boyce tells Radio Ink this is what happens when you don’t really understand what makes a station tick. “What has happened to both WPLJ and WABC is sad and was quite avoidable. But it’s not just these two stations. Lot’s of formerly great stations have lost their way, and the stations are not willing or able to make the moves that would fix it. In most of these cases they started to tinker with success, and accidentally pulled the legs out from under the station.”

According to Berkowitz, when Capital Cities/ABC owned PLJ, they took a decided turn to go full speed ahead CHR, against Z100. “At that time, not only were the ratings good, but they had a solid position in NY. As time went on and they decided to “go more adult” that’s where, in my opinion, the trouble started. Z100 was the CHR leader and WLTW was the AC leader. PLJ got stuck in between those two, not to mention what happened when we put Fresh 102.7 on. There’s an expression. “When you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing” and that is what caused the PLJ downturn.”

So how do you prevent this from happening at your station? Berkowitz says by insisting your station have a strong and definitive position. “Hybrid formats are always a problem, especially when you’re in a market like NY where you have many, clearly defined radio stations. Again, the problems really get exaggerated when the ratings are slipping but the billing is good and upper management is ok with that. It puts programmers in “safe mode” where there is a whole different kind of pressure on them.”

30 COMMENTS

  1. I am so sad. I have listened to this station for 35+ years. It is devastating to me. I am going to miss them all.

  2. From here:
    “God needs money! And He Loves you!” – George Carlin.
    It’s the best scam running – and it has legs.
    Radio, as it turns out, is a fantastic tool for the enterprise.
    Anybody who ties into that one can be taught to believe, ummm…anything!
    Hence…..

  3. I’m going to miss PLJ. It has been my go to station for many years during my ride to/from work. There is no way I want to listen to christian music on the way to work. Very sad.

  4. I don’t listen to commercial radio anymore. Contstant format changes and dumbing down annoy listeners.I listen to NPR or college stations for music. My music tastes vary. There used to be different genres of music on FM. There are some listenable stations in small markets. I stream stations from the internet. A lot of young people are turning to YouTube and other services for music. I remember listening to WNCN the night they flipped. It was a surprise. I enjoy classical and rock. At the time there was 2 fulltime classical stations. Now WQXR is all that is left. Their signal goes as far as Brooklyn then it gets lost. Q104.3 has dumbed down. It is impossible to find good tuners. FM radio is obsolete.

  5. Todd’s new format after Scott “retired” (pushed out) sucked. It was like Dr. Laura. I was so happy to find Scott, Patty Steele and Joe Nolan on CBS FM a few months later.

  6. Go get a copy of the book, How The Mighty Fall by Jim Collins. Five Stages of Decline is a concept developed in the book How the Mighty Fall. Every institution is vulnerable to decline, no matter how great. Collins found that great companies often fall in five stages:

    1) Hubris Born of Success
    2) Undisciplined Pursuit of More
    3) Denial of Risk and Peril
    4) Grasping for Salvatio
    5) Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death.

    Institutions can be sick on the inside and yet still look strong on the outside; decline can sneak up on you, and then—seemingly all of a sudden—you’re in big trouble.

    Get the book, read it for your own brand’s salvation.

  7. EMF always has money to buy more stations, because they ask their listeners to send in a monthly pledge to keep the programming on the air. Very disingenuous on their part, since they use the elimination of the main studio rule — and routinely got waivers of it before the rule was canned — to lower their operating costs to the electric bill at the transmitters.

    But of course, they don’t mention that when their hands are reaching out to their audience’s wallets:
    http://www.klove.com/give/what-is-pledge-drive/

    Because the listeners are coerced into “donating” EMF always has a huge pile of cash around and can make offers for stations that no commercial broadcaster can match.

    Why God needs all these transmitters, I don’t know. I always thought He could speak directly to anyone that He wanted to.

    EMF doesn’t care one whit about the people were actually listening to these stations, and I find it sadly laughable when some of those listeners find their way to message boards and post their dissatisfaction as if it would make any difference.

    All EMF cares about is having more good signals in major markets so they can coerce their “followers” to make regular donations by positioning themselves as being on the verge of going off the air otherwise. (It’s practically a religious version of “The Sting” with God in the role of Henry Gandorf.) Adding these stations will undoubtedly increase their intake of donations (and I wonder how many can actually afford their monthly tithe) so they can overpay for the next big signal, ensuring that no commercial broadcaster can outbid them.

    I keep hoping for some scandal to take them down and/or some future post-Pai FCC to rein them in. I have a few ideas that could be written into the Rules that, coupled with a sunset to the grandfathering of their existing stations, would cut them down to size. And I wouldn’t hire Mary Berner to sweep the floors at the transmitter shack after this.

  8. Todd lost ownership and creative control after Scott left. The replacements Jade – Annie – Monk are the worst or the worst to be part of a ANY radio show. Collectively, they were annoying, childish, mean, and Todd became nothing more than a babysitter. If station had replaced Jade, Annie and Monk with real talent, I believe the station would have survived.

    • Except for Annie, my thoughts exactly. Monk is the most condescending, rudest person on the radio and this year they do 95 mins of music starting at 8:30am so basically they’re only on the air from 6am-8:30am. Sad but NOT surprised. Maybe we’ll hear Todd backbwith scott. THAT WOULD BE NICE

  9. The 80’s were so hot for WPLJ. I remember going in to the station with Willie B. Goode from 10pm-2am. The station was electric. The 3 years he was there, they were #1. Then he went to Z100 and they became #1 again. The entire PLJ staff was red hot and really knew how to be a personality without annoying the listening audience. Why doesn’t someone try doing that today – oh wait, it’s all tracks and automated sweepers. Who the hell can relate to that?

  10. I am so sad to hear of the sale. WPLJ has been a mainstay for me since I was a kid. I thought that when they got rid of that blowhard Shannon it was on its way back to number one. The morning crew is what got me through many many mornings of a long commute and left a smile on my face.

    RIP WPLJ. You will be sorely missed.

  11. “When you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing”. Those words from Gary Berkowitz resonate completely!! Radio is full of people who are now forced to multi-task, and therefore run the risk of losing focus. The folks running the better NFL Football teams have it right. Get the right number of people, the right KIND of people and let ’em do their job. There can only be one head coach-and ya need a good quarterback. Show me a successful one that’s not following this formula. I make it appear simple and it’s not. Because of the difficulty in focusing, more stations than ever are drifting in a sea of mediocrity.

  12. I feel bad for the people who work at WPLJ. The “Good Christians” at EMF will promptly fire everybody and set up a rack of equipment at the transmitter site containing a satellite receiver (or some other means of piping in their canned programming from California…the WPLJ transmitter is on the Empire State Building, so it may be difficult to install a satellite dish), audio processing unit, EAS box, and a Web-linked remote control unit, thereby turning WPLJ into a glorified translator with absolutely no local programming. And the soon to be former employees of WPLJ will be the beneficiaries of all that Christian love from K-LOVE as they stand on the unemployment line.

    Lousy management under Citadel and Cumulus killed WPLJ. The EMF people are the maggots who are feeding on its rotting corpse.

    • Completely agree. It is so pathetic that “good Christian$” are now polluting the airwaves, and occupying the signals of once-legendary stations, all to prey on gullible victims that they suck every dollar they can from, all in the name of Je$u$. Disgusting, low life maggots who are worse than drug dealers.

    • The EMF don’t broadcast from California. They broadcast from like Pennsylvania or Ohio. Our classic rock station in LA was taken over my EMF 2 years ago. We were in shock. Everyone lost their jobs. Everyone. And they don’t pay taxes (EMF) because they are a “foundation !!”

      • EMF broadcasts from Rocklin, California which is near Sacramento. And don’t blame EMF for the lost jobs; blame CBS and Entercom for those in LA. And to top it off, commercial stations make far more $$$ than non-coms.

  13. WPLJ died when Scott Shannon GOT there, not when he left. Actually it died when it changed the calls to WWPR. People still wrote WPLJ, they never got credit, and by the time they changed it back, it was too late.

    Then came Shannon… and in 23 years we got MOJO Radio and at least a half dozen variations of Hot AC.
    Ratings never justified the revenue and it eventually caught up. The station had an identity crisis and was living on a brand that the average listener could not identify. Even the station’s positioning statements were broad and generic, which didn’t help.

    There were so many missed opportunities… the biggest was not flipping to Classic Hits in 2005 when CBS FM went Jack. But now it’s too late.

  14. Conversely, the other station sold to EMF is WRQX. They also dropped a morning host, Jack Diamond, for a short period, but then brought him back. So retaining heritage talent isn’t necessarily a guarantee of anything either.

    I don’t view this sale as having anything to do with programming. It has to do with money. Willing buyer, willing seller. You get the same situation with any other station, and it will happen, regardless of programming. It will be interesting to see what happens to the Cox stations when they sell.

    • EXACTLY this. Everybody is quick to have their expert opinion about what happened, but yes look at WRQX. Different situation entirely, same result. Everybody always thinks they can do it better. Truly obnoxious. Maybe the sales staff from the older days was GREAT and lately, not so much?

  15. RIP WPLJ. I remember WPLJ’s launch as a rock station. They had commercial-free summer, which was pretty mind-blowing at the time. I also remember hearing a commercial for a Yes concert at Madison Square Garden. I was 15 at the time, so I convinced a friend’s mom to drive us to the mall to buy tickets (the power of radio advertising). My parents drove us to the show. Years later, I won lawn tickets from WPLJ to see The Police at Shea Stadium. Many years later I started working in radio. Sad to hear WPLJ lost their way. They had some terrific jocks and turned me and my younger brother onto so many great musicians.

    • “NY’s Apple” 103.5 WAPP-FM had a commercial free summer when it signed on. I don’t remember WPLJ ever having a commercial free summer.

    • “RIP WPLJ. I remember WPLJ’s launch as a rock station.”
      They were actually free-form rock in the pre-WPLJ days. The call letters were WABC-FM and they played the progressive and album cuts that you would never hear on AM radio. Like all free-form rockers, WABC-FM sounded a little like a college station with commercials, although it simulcast the AM station during some dayparts. It was also automated during some off-peak dayparts, using a Gates automation system. In 1971, ABC launched the “Rock In Stereo” format on all of its owned FM stations and changed the call letters of each station, so WABC-FM became WPLJ, KABC-FM became KLOS, WLS-FM became WDAI, etc. The radio columnist at the New York Daily News surmised that the call letters WPLJ came from the song by that name, originally recorded by the Four Deuces in the 1950s and covered by Frank Zappa around 1970. The WPLJ of the song was “white port lemon juice”, concocted from a cheap white wine and lemon juice.
      “Rock In Stereo” was rather tightly playlisted, but still played stuff that was never heard on AM. The song “WPLJ” was sometimes heard on station WPLJ, while WABC and other AM stations would not touch Zappa by remote control from a concrete bunker in Brazil! WPLJ was also heavily processed…the needle on the baseband modulation meter in the transmitter room barely wiggled away from 100%. It had an entire rack of processing equipment. The room was shared with WABC-TV and the TV people had to take the FM readings every half hour. I was one of those TV people over forty years ago.

  16. It’s dangerous when you tie a station’s identity to a jock — or the station’s brand becomes centered around that one jock. What happens when they leave? Or what happens when they’ve been there so long that they’re no longer relevant. KIIS/L.A. was strategic in passing the baton from Rick Dees to Ryan Seacrest, but for PLJ to pin its entire identity on Scott Shannon was a short-term gain/long-term loss situation.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here