Revamped radio stations aim to rock your world

07/03/2012 12:00 AM

07/02/2012 9:35 PM

In an age of iTunes, Internet radio and songs on demand, what is a rock radio station on FM supposed to sound like? Kirk Litton thinks he knows.

“We’re just going to go deeper than jukebox radio,” said Litton of Hometown Columbia, which bought two radio stations in Columbia. “You’re not going to hear the same two songs from artists. We want to give Columbia something they haven’t heard before.”

Litton partnered with Hootie & the Blowfish guitarist Mark Bryan to purchase WWNU-FM Carolina 92.1 and WWNQ-FM Country Legends 94.3. Both stations were formerly owned by Double O Radio. The deal is a joint venture of Hometown Columbia, Davis Media and Triple M Broadcasting.

WWNU flipped from Carolina 92.1’s easy listening to a rock-based format last week. The station has been rebranded as The Palm, a nod to South Carolina’s nickname as the Palmetto State and to how the station will be programmed: The music will be hand-picked.

Mike Allen, formerly of Charleston rock station WCOO-FM The Bridge 105.5, will take over as WWNU’s music director and morning host. Litton is looking to hire hosts for the midday and afternoon drive slots. Live DJs will begin broadcasting July 9.

Litton, who was regional sales director for Radio One in Washington before purchasing the stations, said Bryan will be a regular at the station. “He’s very excited about bringing something to Columbia that it hasn’t had before,” added Litton, Hometown Columbia’s owner and president.

The Palm is also the new local affiliate of the Carolina Panthers Radio Network, and it will broadcast the NFL team’s games when the season starts. In another sports-related move for Hometown Columbia, The Palm’s sister station, WWNQ, will broadcast NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series beginning July 15.

The programming changes at WWNQ, rebranded as Carolina Country, will be slight. There still won’t be any bubblegum country, but songs from the ’80s and ’90s will be played. “We’re upping the music decade a little, but we’ll still feature the hall of fame legends,” Litton said.

In April, “Good Morning Columbia,” hosted by Doug Enlow, Bill Benton and Charlie Benton, began broadcasting on Carolina 92.1 after more than a decade on WISW-AM 1320. That show will begin airing on Carolina Country at 6 a.m. Thursday.

Double O Radio, the former owner of WWNU and WWNQ, struggled to gain significant traction in the market.

Launched on Christmas Day 2004, the stations were supposed to flank country king WCOS-FM 97.5, and cut into the latter’s market dominance. Double O tried to make a dent from the very beginning. In 2005, WWNU hired Jeff Roper, the popular former morning host on WCOS. And in late 2009, Charlie James, who also hosted a morning show on WCOS, was brought in to replace “Tyler & Ken,” co-hosts who were fired because of on-air remarks.

Typically, only bigger markets like Charlotte, New York and Philadelphia can sustain three stations with similar formats. The formats at WWNU and WWNQ flipped like an Olympic gymnast.

In 2010, Tim Miller, a radio veteran and former morning co-anchor on WACH-57, was hired as general manager to lead a turnaround. (Miller was the last in a carousel of general managers to head Double O in Columbia, and arguably the most successful.) In July of 2010, WWNU changed from country to Carolina 92.1 and WWNQ from Flashback 94.3, a satellite station, to 94.3 The River, a classic hits playlist. WWNQ went back to its country origins over the Fourth of July weekend last year.

In an email, Miller, who stayed through the transition but was not retained by new ownership, said the stations started to see positive changes in revenue last quarter and they began to make money for the first time. “I knew it would not be long until they decided to sell the stations,” Miller wrote.

Columbia was the last radio market for Double O, which sold its Panama City, Fla., cluster to Powell Broadcasting earlier this year.

“There was a big hole that we’re going to fill,” Litton said. “I feel there was just something in the middle that’s been missing.”

At least as far as the 92.1 and 94.3 frequencies are concerned, radio listeners might suggest that it’s stability that’s been lacking.

“I don’t have any plans on going anywhere,” said Litton, who moved with his wife and three children to Lake Carolina. “I don’t think this station, this format, this group is going anywhere.”

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