The decision to move syndicated superstar Rush Limbaugh off KOA, his home on the Denver dial for more than a quarter-century, in order to make room for Broncos and CU Buffs sports legend Alfred Williams represented the biggest Mile High City radio gamble in years. And the bet hasn't immediately paid off for the longtime flagship outlet of iHeartRadio's local operation.
It's far too early to deem the move a disaster, particularly in light of the many complicated factors at play. But the overall ratings for KOA, at 94.1 FM and 850 AM, have been cut almost in half over the past three months, while those of two-headed sister station Freedom 93.7 (and 760 AM), the new Limbaugh headquarters, have nearly tripled.
The machinations behind this shift were nearly a year in the making. The man known as Big Al made his radio bones on 104.3 The Fan, where he teamed with Darren "D-Mac" McKee on The Drive for well over a decade of weekday-afternoon ratings gold. Then, in late February, Williams revealed that he would be leaving the outlet and moving to KOA once a six-month no-compete clause in his contract expired.
Williams's leap produced a slew of ripple effects at several stations even before he debuted on KOA in early September. After he joined up, iHeart killed Orange & Blue 760 ("All Broncos, All the Time"), combining it with a newly acquired FM to create Freedom 93.7. Meanwhile, over at the Fan, a long audition process for Williams's replacement seemingly ended in April with the pairing of D-Mac and Broncos Ring of Famer Tom Nalen. But in early September, news broke that Nalen would soon be moving to Massachusetts for family reasons, necessitating the creation of yet another new lineup. The triumvirate of D-Mac and two former Broncos, Tyler Polumbus and Nick Ferguson, launched in early October.
Within KOA, more movement took place. Lewis & Logan, starring Rick Lewis, Dave Logan and Kathy Lee, the previous afternoon-drive program, was placed in the 9 a.m. slot to free up space for Williams and his new partner, iHeart executive JoJo Turnbeaugh. Add in Broncos Country Tonight with Ryan Edwards and Benjamin Allbright, airing from 7 to 11 p.m., and the result was the most sports-heavy lineup in KOA history.
How has Denver responded? Quietly, according to figures for August, September and October published by Talkers. The magazine/website's latest digits pertain to "AQH Share for Persons 6-plus" — industry-speak for the average number of people age six or above who tune in to a station for at least five minutes during a fifteen-minute period from 6 a.m. to midnight. The shares, meanwhile, translate to individuals out of 100 who are listening at the time.
In August, KOA had a 4.0 share. That total slid to 3.0 in September, when the Williams-Turnbeaugh tandem bowed, and tumbled to 2.4 in October — much lower than at 104.3 The Fan, where the ratings actually went up month by month (3.4 in August, 3.5 in September, 3.7 in October), despite the personnel turnover. Meanwhile, Freedom 93.7 scored a 0.8 share in August, a 1.1 in September and a 2.1 in October.
KOA management declined to comment about the ratings on the record. But there are some caveats to these results, which are the only ratings regularly published. The majority of ratings data is proprietary and treated as a closely guarded secret. Because radio executives tend to target specific demographics (for instance, men between the ages of 25 and 54), they typically show little interest in 6-plus. Moreover, this aggregate doesn't tell us how many people are hearing a given program — though the lion's share of listening takes place during the morning and afternoon commutes.
There's also a technical issue involving what's known as PPM encoding. Many stations today use a code that allows the Nielsen ratings service to combine listenership from terrestrial broadcasts (recorded by folks who agree to wear a measurement device called a Portable People Meter) and ones from audio streams heard on laptops, cell phones and the like. However, neither KOA nor Freedom 93.7 encode their signals, because they often air different commercials on digital in an attempt to monetize the streaming operation. Hence, the aforementioned ratings for the two stations don't include streamers, while those of 104.3 The Fan do.
Additionally, radio is a medium largely governed by habit, and because Williams has only been on KOA for a little over two months, a lot of people may simply not know where to find him yet. Under a best-case scenario, audience share would be expected to grow through the end of the year and into 2020, even though the Broncos' season to date has been downright disastrous. Given a big promotional outlay that includes billboards of Williams all over town, we're told that iHeart sources are optimistic this will happen.
As for those tempted to argue that improved ratings at Freedom 93.7 balance out lower ones at KOA, that's not quite right. KOA's AM signal is a 50,000-watt blowtorch, while the Freedom AM license requires it to reduce its power to a mere 1,000 watts at night — and KOA's FM arm tends to get better reception across Denver than does 93.7, previously a little-heard translator.
Likewise, Freedom 93.7's completely syndicated programming makes it much cheaper to run than KOA, which boasts an expensive news operation and a similarly pricey sports crew that delivers live games by the Broncos, Buffs and Colorado Rockies, whose lousy 2019 didn't help KOA's late summer and early fall ratings, either. Add in the salary that lured Williams to leave 104.3 The Fan (the unconfirmed sum we've heard is jaw-slackening), and the result is pressure aplenty to make KOA a bigger-than-before success.
It appears that achieving this goal is quite a ways off. But there's one piece of good news. More people tune in to KOA during inclement weather to hear live traffic reports — and at this writing, it's snowing.
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