What's the Frequency, Phoenix?

Morning jocks fight for gains after Howard's end

Howard Stern's departure from free radio was a monthlong advertisement for satellite radio, and so it's no surprise that subscribers flocked to satellite radio, or that stock in Sirius soared.

Nor is it especially surprising that some Best Buys and Circuit Cities locally ran out of Sirius' S-50, a $300 portable device that functions something like a TiVo for satellite radio.

But for all the speculation about the end of terrestrial radio as we know it, it's worth noting that the biggest business opportunity, at this point, is not in the fraction of the market that's departed to satellite, or even the others who may follow.

In Phoenix, the real opportunity is for Stern's rivals.

In the past two years, according to Arbitron, anywhere from 6 to 10 percent of everyone in Greater Phoenix listening to radio each morning were listening to Howard Stern. That percentage is more or less true nationally.

With Stern gone, those listeners -- in particular, the estimated nine million fans who have not signed up for Sirius -- are looking for a new home.

"It's a once-in-a-generation chance to grab new listeners," says Joe Puglise, the market manager for Clear Channel Phoenix's eight stations. "Sure, there's a core group that will follow him, but the majority won't. And that creates a jump ball."

Some stations have made concerted efforts.

KUPD-FM 97.9 has taken to running ads on bus stops. "Don't make a Sirius mistake," they urge. "[KUPD morning show host John] Holmberg is free."

Clear Channel has ads out hyping Bruce Jacobs, the morning talker on KFYI-AM 550. Jacobs is one of the only morning guys in Phoenix to beat Stern consistently before his departure for satellite, according to Arbitron.

"Why pay for edgy morning radio?" the ad asks, next to a picture of Jacobs.

KZON-FM 101.5, Stern's old home, began running on-air ads for Stern's replacement, Los Angeles-based Adam Carolla, while Stern was still on air.

Mark Steinmetz, vice president of Infinity Phoenix, says he expects Carolla to hold three-fourths of Stern's old audience. After all, Carolla was a semi-frequent guest on the Howard Stern Show. He's also well-known on his own, thanks to his stints on radio's Loveline, and The Man Show on TV.

Steinmetz thinks Carolla has Stern's chief appeal: "He's very self-deprecating, and nothing if not honest."

But it's too soon to say if Steinmetz is right, mainly because radio ratings remain a maddeningly inexact science.

Satellite services like Sirius won't release any information about how many people listen to its programs. And it doesn't release local numbers, such as how many subscribers it has in the Valley.

Meanwhile, Arbitron, the gold standard of terrestrial radio ratings, relies on a hand-picked group to keep listening diaries and record what they tune in to each day -- which, as anyone who likes to flip around will admit, is a shockingly unscientific method.

Also, since the ratings are done quarterly, they won't even show where Arbitron's Stern fans have gone for months.

Thanks to a company called Mobiltrak, however, faster information about listening habits is available in the Valley than almost anywhere else.

Mobiltrak, which is based in Chandler and Washington, D.C., doesn't rely on people's recollections. Instead, it monitors the airwaves around their cars -- and calculates what terrestrial stations people are actually listening to. (It doesn't measure satellite.)

In most cities, the equipment is only used on a spot basis: Stores hire Mobiltrak to determine what people in the parking lot are tuned to, and that makes for extremely targeted advertising.

But because the company started here, the Valley is one of three regions where Mobiltrak measures ratings across the metropolitan area, says Mike Degan, the company's chief technology officer.

Mobiltrak used to record gonzo ratings for Stern on KZON, Degan says. But the data from Stern's first week on satellite and Adam Carolla's first two weeks as his replacement show that things have clearly shifted.

Carolla did decent numbers, Dean says, but nothing like Stern used to record.

Instead, listeners dispersed. No one station seemed to show a huge bump; instead, a number of stations showed gains.

Because Mobiltrak sells its data to customers like car dealers and retail stores, Degan wouldn't discuss too many specifics. But he notes that stations that traditionally competed with Stern, likely giants like KFYI and KTAR, have shown modest gains.

So, too, have some of the little guys. KAJM, a Scottsdale-based R&B station that broadcasts on 99.3 and 104.3 FM, suddenly saw its market share increase almost 2 percent.

It's clearly bad news for KZON; Degan says that some of Mobiltrak's clients, particularly car dealerships, have already negotiated lower ad rates with the station after seeing the numbers.

But unlike Washington, D.C., where one new shock talker seems to be clearly leading the pack, Phoenix is still a free-for-all.

"People seem to be searching to find a new home," Degan says. "Right now, there's dispersal throughout the dial."

One longtime Phoenix shock jock doesn't think Stern's popularity will ever be replicated here.

Dave Pratt, the longtime KUPD morning host who today broadcasts for country's KMLE, was, with Stern, one of the original "shock jocks." He was the originator of the "Red Radio" concept that KUPD still uses; he was famous for getting women to toss red underwear at him.

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