Is Baltimore too conservative for SHOCK JOCKS? Howard Stern's debut on local radio dial renews debate about listeners' taste

December 15, 1991|By Eric Siegel

If a notorious radio personality came on the air in Baltimore and virtually no one tuned in to his show, might he still have an impact on the market?

It's a question local radio executives have been asking about New York shock jock Howard Stern, whose morning show began being simulcast here Oct. 1 on WJFK-AM (1300 KHz), formerly WLIF-AM and before that WFBR.

It's also a question that begets a couple of others -- namely, what kind of radio market is Baltimore? Or to be more precise, is it too conservative for cutting-edge personalities?

And, ultimately, it's a question that has almost as many gradations of answer as there are formats on the dial.

Mr. Stern's is the top-rated morning show in New York, where it originates on WXRK-FM. It is also on the rise in Los Angeles, where its simulcast began in July, and has been a major factor in Philadelphia and Washington, where it has been simulcast for years.

But in Baltimore, Mr. Stern's station did not even show up among the 36 listed in the recently released September to November Arbitron ratings for the 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. drive-time period.

Many observers believe those ratings -- which include one month when Mr. Stern was not even on the air and the station had a minuscule audience with its light pop vocal format -- are sure to change, if not in the fall numbers due out next month, then somewhere not far down the road. But just how many Baltimore listeners will eventually tune in to Mr. Stern -- who has been dubbed the Sultan of Sleaze but whose mix of commentary and comedy makes him more akin to the late Lenny Bruce -- is a matter of conjecture and debate.

"This is a most unusual market when it comes to people who want to be on the cutting edge," says Johnny Dark, who held forth on WCAO-AM (600 KHz) for 30 years before getting the boot when the station changed to a gospel format last month. "They just don't have mass appeal. People here don't like to be offended."

Tom Taylor, managing editor of Inside Radio, a New Jersey-based industry newsletter, has heard such comments before. "Every time Howard comes into a new market, people

say, 'He's never going to work here. This city is too . . . fill in the blank,' " Mr. Taylor says. "But he's so out of the box, so unusual, he breaks the mold. People are intrigued with Howard."

Many local radio executives -- whose analysis may be clouded by a desire to protect their market shares from an interloper -- insist, however, that whatever inroads he may make here will be small. Among the reasons they give are the lack of promotion; the fact that WJFK-AM is a total simulcast of its Washington FM sister station, down to newsbreaks and ads; and what they say is the increasingly conservative nature of the Baltimore radio market.

"It has so many things going against it that I'd be real surprised if it makes any kind of impact," says Jim Fox, longtime general manager of Top 40 WSBB-FM (B-104), echoing a common refrain.

Making inroads?

But Ken Stevens, general manager of WJFK, Philadelphia's WYSP and WLIF-FM (Lite 102) here -- all of which are owned, like WXRK, by New York-based Infinity Broadcasting -- says Mr. Stern's influence is already being felt in calls to the station and other informal samplings; he expects the show to appear in coming ratings books.

In fact, Mr. Stevens contends that it may be easier for Mr. Stern to gain audience share in Baltimore because of the lack of competition for his brand of radio. When the so-called "shock jock" came into Washington, for example, he was up against the Greaseman on WWDC-FM (101.1 MHz), who shares Mr. Stern's penchant for soft porn but has little of his biting social edge, and Mike O'Meara and Don Geronimo on WAVA-FM (105.1 MHz), who have since switched to afternoons on WJFK. Last summer, despite signal problems on WJFK, Mr. Stern had a 3.4 share of the Washington audience, good for 13th place.

And Mr. Stevens, who programmed classic rock WGRX-FM (100.7 MHz) here in the early 1980s, brushes off the suggestion that what goes over in larger markets will not necessarily catch on here. "Baltimore is not more conservative," he insists.

Mr. Stern himself refuses to believe he won't attract an audience. "We have to be getting some ratings in Baltimore," he said on his show last week. "Nothing's going on [in radio] in Baltimore."

History offers mixed clues as to what local listeners respond to. For most of the 13 years he was on the air from the mid-1970s through the late 1980s, Johnny Walker was the area's most popular radio personality, with an iconoclastic approach that may seem quaint by today's standards but was brash at the time. Then in the mid- to late 1980s, Brian Wilson and Don O'Brien ruled the morning ratings roost with a show composed of caustic comments, shrill invective and Top 40 music.

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