What Does Cumulus' Sale of WPLJ & WNSH Mean for New York City Radio?

New York City
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New York City.

In a matter of hours on Wednesday, New York City’s radio landscape changed significantly as Cumulus Media Inc. dealt adult top 40 or "hot adult contemporary"-formatted WPLJ, and country WNSH (Nash 94.7), to Educational Media Foundation (EMF) and Entercom Communications Corp., respectively.

The greatest impact of those deals may be felt by listeners of WPLJ, a contemporary music mainstay in the New York market for over 50 years even before switching its call letters from the album rock-formatted WABC-FM in 1971.

Since 1983, PLJ has been either top 40 or hot AC, but that comes to an end this summer when its spot at 95.5 FM becomes home to another station in EMF's 500-strong K-LOVE contemporary Christian network. That suggests anything but a smooth transition: According to this past week’s Nielsen BDS airplay charts, only one song, Lauren Daigle’s crossover hit "You Say," was common to both stations' playlists.

WPLJ’s most successful era came during the 1970s and 1980s, first as a contemporary album rocker and then a mainstream top 40 outlet. For many who grew up in signal range, that first version of WPLJ -- the call letters of which came from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention's cover of a 1950s rhythm-and-blues song “W-P-L-J,” an acronym for "White Port and Lemon Juice" -- represented the move away from top 40 stations on the AM band (such as co-owned WABC) and the discovery of album-based rock acts such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Much of PLJ’s ratings success during that era can be attributed to DJs Jim Kerr, Carol Miller and Jimmy Fink, all of whom are still heard in the market today.

During PLJ’s mainstream top 40 years, ratings occasionally topped those of its toughest competitor in the format, the still-alive-and-well WHTZ (Z100). For much of that era, hosts Kerr and Pat St. John continued their on-air duties from PLJ's album rock days without missing a beat.

Since its move to hot AC in 1991, WPLJ’s ratings have stayed mainly in the two-to-three-share range while pitted against similarly-programmed competitors such as Entercom’s WNEW (New 102.7) and iHeartRadio’s WKTU, in addition to iHeart’s nearly-consistent ratings champ in the market, adult contemporary WLTW (Lite FM). Keeping PLJ strong during most of this era was its morning show co-hosted by former Z100 programmer and “Morning Zoo" host Scott Shannon (now morning host at Entercom’s New York classic hits station WCBS-FM).

With such a large part of New York’s radio history about to disappear, what does this mean for the hot AC and contemporary Christian formats in the number one radio market, and beyond?

For hot AC, which Nielsen ranked as the fifth most popular radio format of 2018 among listeners age 25-54, probably not all that much. In the New York market, WPLJ shares much of its current music - including acts like Maroon 5, Halsey and Panic! At The Disco -- with at least five other stations: New 102.7, KTU, Z100, Lite FM and Entercom’s alternative-formatted WNYL (ALT 92.3). Then again, there is the possibility that PLJ’s listeners -- especially those on the younger end of that 25-54 demographic -- could leave terrestrial radio for similarly-formatted channels on SiriusXM, Pandora, Apple Music or, really, anywhere else online.

As for contemporary Christian, K-LOVE’s takeover of WPLJ plus five other stations just purchased from Cumulus will certainly widen its already-large radio footprint, with K-LOVE outlets in 38 of the top 50 U.S. radio markets. As it is, K-LOVE is already heard in New York on Port Chester’s WKLV, and the format also reaches the market from Zarephath, N.J.’s WAWZ (Star 99.1). K-LOVE offers three satellite feeds based on audience and genre -- K-LOVE (Contemporary Christian hits),  Air 1 (Contemporary Christian worship) and K-Love Classics (Christian Classic Hits from the 1980s-early 2000s) -- and it's unclear which one will end up on 95.5.

While it may not be among Nielsen’s top ten formats, contemporary Christian has one thing in its favor few others can claim: nearly all its music and artists -- such as Micah Tyler and Casting Crowns -- can’t be heard anywhere else on the dial.

Then there’s Nash 94.7, the flagship of Cumulus' country station chain, soon to be in the hands of Entercom. While country is also among Nielsen’s top five formats among 25-54 listeners, it has never been a ratings winner on FM in New York. Will Entercom see the value in keeping a country station in the top market, or might the company use the frequency to either launch another format or simulcast one of their successful AM stations, such as all-news WINS?

Looking at the larger picture, Wednesday’s station sales and swaps were mostly about Cumulus addressing its over $2 billion of debt. Might this suggest more fire sales and further radio disruption, not only by Cumulus but the debt-ridden iHeartMedia? 

As they still say in this business, stay tuned.