- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

Few radio stations would turn away advertisers during a recession, not to mention raising ad rates or selling "corporate naming rights" for a morning music show.

Arlington pop music station WWZZ-FM has done all this and more in a bid to boost ratings.

"There is a method to our madness," says Mark C. O'Brien, the station's vice president and general manager.

In October, Z104, as the station calls itself, tweaked its playlist and cut the number of commercials it airs from 12 to six minutes an hour. Since then, the station has had to turn away some advertisers because it doesn't have room for them on its airwaves.

The reaction of those businesses? "Mostly shock. Clearly we're going through a rough economy, but we have made a big investment in this [experiment]," Mr. O'Brien says.

Z104 made the change after research showed its audience was frustrated with the frequent and lengthy commercial breaks that are common on radio.

To offset lost advertising revenue, the station raised ad rates by 40 percent. A typical sponsor pays roughly $400 for a 60-second spot that airs on the station during the daytime, Mr. O'Brien says.

He won't disclose the station's revenue, but says he expects it to be profitable by the end of 2002.

Z104 also signed McDonald's as the main sponsor of the station's morning show.

The station renamed the show the "McDonald's Morning Drive," reviving an old broadcasting tradition of putting sponsors' names in show titles. "Kraft Music Hall," for example, aired on radio in the 1930s, and "Texaco Star Theater" was popular on TV in the 1950s.

McDonald's agreed to the two-year deal because its customer base matches Z104's new target audience: people between 18 and 49.

The fast-food chain does not control the content of the show. "We trust them to put on a good show," says Tara McLaren, a McDonald's spokeswoman.

By tweaking its playlist, Z104 which previously targeted a teen-age audience is now chasing older listeners with more spending power. The station has dropped performers such as Britney Spears and N'Sync from its lineup, replacing them with artists such as Lenny Kravitz and Dave Matthews.

So far, the move has cost Z104 in the ratings. It ranked No. 17 among Washington's 34 commercial stations between mid-October and mid-November, according to numbers released last week by the Arbitron Inc. ratings service.

In fall 2000, Z104 tied with three other stations for 10th place.

The ratings drop doesn't worry Mr. O'Brien. He says it will take at least six months for listeners to discover Z104.

The station has a patient parent on its side. Bonneville International, which owns Z104, has given the station three years to see if its new mantra "Fewer Commercials. More Music. Guaranteed." works.

Bonneville, one of the nation's largest radio chains, can afford the experiment because it is a private company, analysts say.

"There are no shareholders to answer to, so they can afford to take a few risks," says Tom Taylor, editor of M Street Daily, a radio industry newsletter.

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