The Beat Goes on Without Stern

Infinity adopts new talk format but leaves Austin hip-hop property alone

The Beat Goes on Without Stern
Illustration By Doug Potter

Last week Infinity Broadcasting unveiled its grand strategy for life after Howard Stern, including, among other elements, the novel idea of giving David Lee Roth a live microphone early in the morning. Adam Carolla and Penn Jillette will also get new shows as Infinity launches a new talk format in cities around the country, dubbed Free FM, a thinly veiled shot at Stern's new employer, Sirius, the pay satellite service.

Noticeably absent from Infinity's announcement was any mention of Stern's Austin home, KXBT (The Beat, 104.3FM). When Stern signs off on Dec. 16, the local station won't be using Roth, Carolla, or any of the new shows, as it looks to focus on its rapidly escalating head-to-head competition for hip-hop supremacy with Emmis Broadcasting's KDHT-FM (Hot 93.3). Instead of Infinity's lineup, the Beat is bringing in the new radio gunslingers of the hip-hop world, Star and Buc Wild, a top-rated morning duo in New York, based at WWPR-FM. The Star & Buc Wild show is also producing formidable ratings among lovers of Kanye West and Shakira in cities like Philadelphia and Miami.

If nothing else, the Star & Buc Wild show will give the Beat – for the first time since the format returned to the station in January – a morning show that fits into the R&B, Top 40 format, talking the talk of its target 18- to 34-year-old audience. "Howard has done very well for us, but with the Beat it's been like having two different radio stations," said John Hiatt, Infinity's market manager in Austin. "It was like a whole different station after 10am."

Infinity says it's trying to launch the "next generation" of talk radio with Free FM, but Hiatt has already dropped the Beat once for a talk format. and he's not eager to do it again. Despite strong ratings, in July of 2004, Infinity jettisoned the Beat format to make a home for Stern in Austin. The station was rechristened "The Coyote," with an all-comedy format.

Six weeks later, Stern announced his plan to move to the Sirius satellite service. In January, Infinity dropped Coyote and announced the return of the Beat, creating the strange anomaly of the Twisted Sister-loving Stern opening for an R&B and rap station.

Although he's the self-proclaimed King of All Media, Stern has never managed to get much more than chuckles out of Austin listeners. He failed to beat local shows like Dudley & Bob in earlier stints with other stations, before returning to the local airwaves in 2004. Ironically, his ratings have been steadily increasing in Austin since announcing his departure, although the ratings released last week for the summer quarter show Stern's show with a 3.0 share among listeners 24-54, 12th in the market. "There were a lot of people who would not advertise on [Stern's] show," Hiatt said. "This show [Star and Buc Wild] will be a little more mainstream."

Stern's departure is seen as an opportunity for several stations, including Emmis' KLBJ-FM and KROX-FM. "We don't think [the Beat] will keep much of Howard Stern's audience," said Scott Gillmore, Emmis' market manager.

"We think that audience is available."

But Star & Buc Wild will also renew the Beat's direct battle with Emmis' Hot 93.3, giving the Beat a heavy hitter with the target audience. "There are not that many successful morning shows in this format," Hiatt said. "I think it's going to be tough to do a local show in this format that can compete."

Gillmore isn't buying it. "If you look traditionally at Austin, syndicated shows don't really do that well," he said.

In this day and age it's unusual for stations to engage in such direct, face-to-face smackdown competition. The playlists for the Beat and Hot 93.3 are remarkably similar. In the recently released ratings for the summer, the two were in a virtual dead heat among listeners 18-34.

A month ago, Hot 93.3 said sayonara to morning show co-host Ty Bentli, keeping sidekick Mimi and moving afternoon deejay Boogie into the hot seat. Now it will be Boogie vs. Star, one on one for Austin audiences. "I feel like in this market local will trump syndicated every time," said Gillmore, "and Boogie and Mimi have the talent to win."

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