Wednesday, October 22, 2008

KUPL, Portland, Just Passed “The Brand Test” (I Hope You Never Have To Take)

During the winter of 2008, KUPL was ranked #3 12+ and was the market’s top country station by a 4.5-3.5 margin. Then, in the spring book, KUPL slipped to #5 overall with a 4.7 share and in the just-released Summer ARB survey, KUPL dipped again to #7 overall, with a 4.3 share.

What happened?

Part of the story, of course, is that GM Dave McDonald, PD John Paul and his scrappy and talented CBS Radio/Portland team face an equally competitive Entercom team at 99.5 KWJJ, The Wolf. The two stations have been in one another’s faces for many years in a very healthy battle for leadership. Thus, I don’t want to take anything away from GM Jack Hutchison, PD Mike Moore and their crew who put points on the board during the last two ARB surveys, picking up the share points KUPL lost.

But, here’s the rest of the story.

CBS/Portland stations have been building a new taller tower right next to their current array and the construction started in May. As a result, KUPL has had to broadcast at half power from May (the last five weeks of the spring ARB survey period) until September (the first few weeks of fall).

Immediately, listeners in several of the hottest country counties in a Portland metro started calling KUPL to report that they could no longer receive the station, and it was small comfort to KUPL people to have to tell the callers that sometime in early 2009 the station’s signal would be much improved, better than ever before, and their inability to receive it now was the price of that long term gain.

Paul reports, “Our streaming numbers have been HUGE the last few months! That means listeners have chosen to listen online and not totally leave us for The Wolf. They like what we are doing.”

Now, there’s a new way to grow your streaming audience. Take any other source of your station away from them and hope they find you online. Actually, it wasn’t quite that bad, since KUPL was still fairly listenable in car in most metro locations, but still weaker than KWJJ. Inside buildings in about half he metro, the only FM choice was KWJJ and their growth demonstrates that, as they ranked #1 in the summer survey after a 3.5-5.5-5.7 three-book trend.

KUPL’s PD actually breathed a sign of relief at their shares and rank, which remains in the top ten (slipping from #3 to #5 in the spring and #7 now with shares slipping only fractionally during the three survey periods): “While it’s ugly, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be given the signal deficit we experienced for more than four months. We actually beat the Wolf in September. Not bad for being at ½ power. I really think people like what KUPL is doing right now.”

Finally, KUPL is back to full power, though not yet on the taller tower, so the battle is back, at least, to the way it was before the construction started, pretty much equal, and signal-to-signal.

The next test of the brand power of KUPL will be how long it takes listeners to return to pre-construction-project levels, or will they?

One hopeful sign is the fact that obviously some KUPL partisans in the parts of the metro area where they simply were unable to receive 98.7 FM during May, June, June, August and September chose to write the station down in their diaries anyway.

The next few monthly trends in Portland will be fascinating to watch, to see if that KUPL residual brand depth translates into an immediate return to pre-construction share levels at the top of the rankers or if 99.5 The Wolf has had enough time to convert those months of "no other choice trial" into loyalty.

I’m betting that it won’t take long for KUPL and KWJJ to be back locked into a fight as tight as in the past now that KUPL’s signal strength is what it was prior to the middle of the spring ARB.

If I’m right, that will be proof that KUPL’s entire staff can brag that their brand has been tested and proven very strong indeed, something they can all be very proud of.

PS: ARB reports that Portland’s PPM panel is 79% completed at this moment, on track to be in use “Pre-currency” in exactly one year from now, the first Pre-currency report to be delivered in December 2009, with the final Portland ARB diary survey to be released in summer 2009.

Of this you can be sure: the PPM trends will not be so kind to heritage brands, when it’s all about usage, weekly trends and monthly surveys.

If you have any plans to “test” your brand strength by reducing your coverage area, I’d recommend – based on KUPL’s experience in the spring and Summer 2008 ARB surveys – doing it while diaries, not meters, are rating you.

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