Why Corus dumped hits for country

Radio listeners are a fickle bunch. If they like the songs, they'll keep listening. If there are too many ads or not enough music, they switch stations. But what happens when the station switches on the listeners?
On Aug. 12, Hamilton's EnergyFM 95.3 switched formats from contemporary hit radio (CHR) to country. That's right, country.

Radio listeners are a fickle bunch. If they like the songs, they’ll keep listening. If there are too many ads or not enough music, they switch stations. But what happens when the station switches on the listeners?

On Aug. 12, Hamilton’s EnergyFM 95.3 switched formats from contemporary hit radio (CHR) to country. That’s right, country.

‘Overall, the station’s performance was disappointing in terms of ratings,’ says Suzanne Carpenter, GM of the Corus-owned station. ‘Music is cyclical, and country is back on the upswing again.’

Carpenter says that the original format, which featured Top 40 hits and popular dance music from the likes of Santana and Chris Sheppard, was aimed squarely at the 12-34s, skewed slightly female. But over the last nine or 10 months before the switch, listenership began to decline.

Part of the reason the CHR format wasn’t working was that stars such as the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears weren’t selling as well as they once did. The hit music charts were swinging back towards rock, with bands like Creed and The Strokes stealing away a fair share.

Besides, Corus already has a strong female and country portfolio, including CMT (Country Music Television) and the W Network, which would offer unique cross-promotional and co-marketing prospects for a new country station. Did that tantalizing opportunity influence the decision?

‘Yes it did,’ Carpenter confirms. ‘Right now, we’re only two weeks in, but yes, cross-promotion with our national television stations and our local radio is something we will investigate.’

Once Corus realized that the contemporary hits format wasn’t working, it set to the task of finding out if country was the answer. This was done with a survey of 600 country fans in the Greater Toronto Area, to find out how passionate they are about that style of music. The results were very encouraging, and the sweet spot was determined to be females in the 33-42 age bracket.

‘We found that the 37-year-old woman with a couple of kids and a van was the best person to focus on,’ Carpenter says. She adds that when those surveyed were asked what country means to them, they answered with phrases like ‘romantic,’ ‘sing along,’ ‘sincere,’ ‘good times,’ and ‘family-oriented.’

With the new audience target in sight, Energy 95.3 became Country 95.3, leaving many of its Southern Ontario listeners in its wake. Carpenter says that the new station would love to keep its old teenaged listeners, but because the format and the target demo are so drastically different, Corus can’t expect the teen listeners to stick with the station through the change.

Instead, the new station has launched itself into full new listener grab mode. Later this month (and again in October), it’s embarking on a direct mail campaign targeting over 480,000 households. The DM pieces include materials such as a postcard promoting the ‘Song of the day’ contest with cash prizes up for grabs. Full page, four-colour ads are also running in the entertainment sections of the Toronto Star and the Hamilton Spectator.

The heaviest part of the awareness campaign hit during the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, held during the last two weeks of August, where Country 95.3 went for ‘station domination.’ Upon arrival at the Exhibition station by GO train, visitors were greeted by a barrage of ads featuring country artists like Shania Twain and the tagline ‘New in country. New in town.’ About 90% of all GO Transit buses were also decaled with the station’s ads, and samplers were out in full force at The Ex, passing out CDs, tote bags and stickers.

As the station moves into its first month of operation as a country channel, expectations are high. Carpenter says the new format opens up new categories for ads from marketers such as Ikea, General Motors and Ford, and she knows there’s ‘way more potential’ for marketers interested in reaching such a specific demographic – the female 25-55 bracket – which is ‘very exciting.’

This past spring, under the CHR format, 95.3 received 0.5 market share according to BBM. Carpenter says that next spring the station hopes to garner a 3-point share.

‘When Kiss 92 (now Power 92) launched as a new country station in 1992, they got a 7.2 share right off the bat, and even though country music was the big thing then, we still think a 3-point share is very realistic,’ she adds. ‘We’re not coming out with guns blazing. We’d rather show solid, steady growth.’ Other changes on the radio dial
The Beat 94.5 FM
Market: Vancouver and B.C.’s Lower Mainland, plus the Sunshine Coast and Washington state.
Market share (adults 12+): 3.2 (BBM Spring 2002)
Format: Mainstream urban music, including hip-hop, rap, R&B, reggae and old school.
Background: Launched by Focus Entertainment Group as Vancouver’s first and only urban music station on March 17, 2002. ‘There was no urban music in Western Canada on the radio – that’s a huge, unmet need,’ explains Jennifer Smith, The Beat’s VP and general sales manager.
Target audience: Adults 18-49 and teens 12-24. ‘The average listener is female, 18 to 34, with a Gen X or Y mind, disposable income and a sharp dresser,’ says Smith.
Marketing efforts: ‘We’ve been at over 80 events – concerts, basketball courts, everywhere,’ says Smith. Slogans like ‘Feel the Beat,’ and ‘The Beat: Turn it Up’ have festooned bus shelters, skytrains and billboards across Vancouver. Television ads have run on specialty TV stations, and one-to-one street teams in Expedition SUVs have toured the city and surrounding neighbourhoods.
99.1 Smooth FM (tentative name)
Market: Winnipeg
Format: Smooth jazz and easy listening, artists such as George Benson and Diana Krall, plus classics like Coltrane and Nat King Cole.
Background: The new jazz station expects to launch by the first quarter of 2003, according to Gerry Noble, president of Global Television Network, the station’s parent company.
Target audience: Adults 25+, a little more affluent and those who might be considered in the upper social circle. ‘Winnipeg is full of jazz lovers; it’s a very art-focused community,’ Noble says.
Marketing efforts: Currently running a naming contest. The media buy consists of outdoor ads, local newspaper spots and a heavy television component, Noble says. He adds that the station would ‘sponsor any upcoming jazz show.’
91.9 Rythme FM
Market: Quebec City
Format: Popular adult contemporary music, mainly consisting of hits from the ’70s through today.
Background: Owned by Cogeco Radio-Television, no official launch date has been released.
Target audience: Upper middle class adults, 35+.
CKY-AM (new name TBD)
Market: Winnipeg, Man.
Background: CKY-AM has just been awarded permission to change over to an FM frequency, with classic rock aspirations. ‘We were just awarded the flip, but we haven’t been given the frequency yet,’ says Ron Kizney, VP and GM Winnipeg operations, Rogers Communications. ‘It takes a lengthy period of time before we can get going. If the CRTC moved quickly we could launch in September, but that’s a little far-fetched. It could take as long as into 2004 until we’re on the air – the format hasn’t even been defined yet.’