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ON AM RADIO, THE CHANGES ARE ALL ABOUT THE MONEY

The recent radio format switch between WBEN AM 930 and WGR AM 550 may have surprised listeners, but it was no shock to industry insiders.

What drove the change to switch WGR to an all-sports format and WBEN to a news and talk format can be summed up in two words: money and demographics.

WBEN has been attracting an older audience in recent years and WGR's sports format has been geared for younger male sports fans. Switching formats was a way for the new owners, Entercom Communications Corp. of Philadelphia, to specifically target those audiences.

And, while WBEN should get a ratings boost, especially in the morning, by going to news and talk, it is WGR that should capture the advertising dollars that come with the younger sports fan demographic, which may be more important to the station than ratings.

Greg Ried, general manager and vice president for Entercom's AM stations, knows that fiddling with two long-time listener companions is risky.

"I'm from the Buffalo area and I grew up with WGR," Ried said. "We're aware of the station's heritage. What we're trying to do is give listeners two stations with separate identities."

In radio talk, that's called "branding."

"We're trying to build loyalty and consistency," said Ried, who was station manager at WBEN in the mid '90s. "Between these two stations we have a huge resource of sports personalities, news personalities and talk personalities. It doesn't make sense to keep mixing them up."

Larry Levite, former owner of WBEN, understands the business logic.

"I would equate it to a restaurant," Levite said. "If you own two restaurants on the same block, you don't want to serve the same menu at both.

"Entercom bought three AM stations and it wants to make each one special. That means they have to be different."

The other AM station, WWKB, known as WKBW during its glory days of the '50s through the '80s, is currently simulcasting teen-oriented pop and rock music from its FM station, WKSE 98.5.

"That's only for the time being, we're trying to some way we can inject a local flavor to KB," Ried said. "We're looking at all our options."

And at WBEN, Ried said, "we're going to do a better job of covering news. The staff is bigger; we've got more time for stories and there will be more reporters out on the streets. If a big story breaks, we can send two or three reporters, instead of just one from each station."

People can turn to cable TV, the Internet and other sources for 24-hour news. But for breaking local news, and capturing an audience of people driving to and from work, radio remains a dominant force.

"I love the idea that they're going to have a big news staff at WBEN," Levite said. "I think of the three AMs, you're going to see that WBEN will be the dominant AM in Buffalo."

In the most recent Arbitron ratings, WBEN came in fourth place with a 7.0 average quarterly hour share for an audience 12 and over. WGR came in 11th with a 4.2 share. In the morning, though, both stations are ranked much higher because they provided news and information.

WBEN was ranked first in overall audience for morning weekday drive by Arbitron, with an 11.5 share. WGR came in fifth with a 6.5 share.

"The radio business has changed and it may change again," Ried said. "We have to keep up with the changes."

Much of that change is due to federal deregulation, which allowed companies to own more than one station in each market.

Today, three companies run every major commercial station in Buffalo. They do not want to compete against themselves. Radio news, an expensive and time consuming commodity, has all but vanished from commercial stations.

During the recent stock market boom, radio stations were bought and sold for huge profits. WGR and WBEN have each been sold four times in the past eight years.

The first big move Entercom made was eliminating news from WGR, where almost half the news staff was cut and the remaining three full-time reporters were sent to WBEN, now the lone commercial news station in town.

"The big thing is cutting expenses, you don't have to pay two news staffs," said David Cahn, former local radio advertising manager and now host of a National Public Radio show in Rochester. "It's also easier to identify and package each station: sports at WGR, news at WBEN."

Formats aren't the only thing that has changed in Buffalo broadcasting.

"Radio as we knew it died a long time ago," Cahn said. "What we're talking about now is like doing an autopsy 20 years too late."

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