Rush Limbaugh and Maryland's severest winter weather on record helped push WBAL-AM (1090) into first place in the winter radio ratings.
Although his January debut in the 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. weekday slot rankled some WBAL listeners, the nationally syndicated conservative talk show host boosted the station's ratings during those hours, especially among male listeners.
The related movement of previous afternoon host Ron Smith to a nighttime slot, from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., also gave WBAL its best evening ratings in almost a decade.
And, ice storms, snowstorms and a succession of school closings and other weather-related news produced strong ratings for the station's morning news and information programming.
"One of our best winter books in a long time, and I attribute it to our program changes," says WBAL general manager Jeff Beauchamp.
The latest Arbitron ratings cover January through March. Country music station WPOC-FM (93.1), which had been in first place three of the previous four quarters, slipped to second place.
"I don't think it [WBAL's first ranking] is something that's come at our expense," says Jennifer Grimm, general manager of WPOC, noting "an awful lot of things were affecting the market."
Some of these were the weather news as well as format changes which flowed from shifts in ownership, such as, for example, the conversion of a variety format to one of soft music as WVRT-FM (104.3) became WSSF-FM when bought by Capitol Broadcasting last summer. The company already had a variety format station in WWMX-FM (106.5), WVRT's chief rival.
WWMX ranked fourth in the winter ratings and WSSF ranked 10th. Together, the Capitol Broadcasting outlets boasted a 10.2 "share" among all listeners 12 and older. (A share represents about 3,600 listeners in an average quarter-hour.)
Meanwhile, talk radio WCBM-AM (680), which previously carried "The Rush Limbaugh Show," dropped out of the top 10, from eighth to 12th position, in large part because of Limbaugh listeners turning to WBAL.
"We expected to fall off probably about a full share," says Sean Casey, program director at WCBM, who also notes the rough winter helped produce good numbers for WBAL. WCBM had a 3.0 rating in the winter quarter, compared to a 4.4 rating in the fall, when it still carried Mr. Limbaugh's program.
And getting Mr. Limbaugh's program back doesn't seem likely as WCBM has lost a $1 million lawsuit it filed earlier this year.
U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz on Monday dismissed the suit filed against Mr. Limbaugh's syndicate, EFM Media, Inc., and Hearst Broadcasting, owner of WBAL, which argued that WCBM had exclusive rights to the show through May 1994.
Judge Motz's decision, however, said that EFM's contract with WCBM allowed either party to cancel the agreement with 90-days' notice. His ruling said the syndicator had complied with that provision, as he granted WBAL's motion for summary dismissal of the case.
WCBM referred calls for comment to the station's attorney, Joseph LaVerghetta, who could not be reached.
On WBAL this winter, Mr. Limbaugh's program actually ranked second overall among listeners 18 and older in its 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. time slot, with an 8.5 share -- behind the 9.2 share for easy listening WLIF-FM (101.9). But the WBAL "cume" rating, which measures total listeners in the period, was first in the time slot, Mr. Beauchamp notes, with 172,800 listeners sampling the show at some point during its run against 165,600 listening to WLIF.
Mr. Limbaugh also ranked first among male listeners 18 years and older, and was especially high among men ages 35 to 64, with an 11.1 share.
By contrast, the program ranked fifth among women 18 and older, with a 6.3 share, and dropped to seventh among women 25 to 54, with a 3.3 share.
"It's very difficult to be all things to all people," says Mr. Beauchamp, noting that most news/sports/talk stations across the nation "skew toward male listeners."
For weeks following the January debut of Mr. Limbaugh, callers to the programs of Mr. Smith and morning talk host Allan Prell complained about the move, and Mr. Beauchamp acknowledged receiving calls and letters of objection.
But the station manager says the winter ratings vindicate the decision. "I think the marketplace dictates what was a good decision. . . . It works."
In particular, he notes the evening ratings for Mr. Smith, which were almost double the numbers posted a year earlier. For the hours of 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., "The Ron Smith Show" ranked first among all listeners 18 and older, with a 9.9 share.
"That's the best we have seen at night since we had 'The Alan Christian Show' almost a decade ago," says Mr. Beauchamp.
In contrast to Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Smith's program also rates well with women listeners, ranking in second place in its time period among women 18 and older, with a 9.5 share.