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WZLX Becomes Boston's No. 1 Radio Station

It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.

But 100.7 WZLX pulled it off.

Boston’s classic rock station achieved something in the final months of 2013 that it never accomplished before, in its 28-year history: It had the largest audience of any radio station in the entire Boston market, in the 25-to-54 demographic.

Arbitron figures placed WZLX in ninth place in the fourth quarter of 2012, with at least 4.8 percent of the listening market. But by the last three months of 2013, WZLX had moved up to first place, with a 7.9 percent market share. (Kiss 108 and 98.5 The Sports Hub were close behind in the No. 2 and 3 spots.)

So how did the CBS Radio-owned rock station pull this off?

The stage was set for WZLX’s success, in part, when the plug was pulled on two other rock stations in Boston. CBS Radio famously — or infamously, depending on your perspective — dropped WBCN at 98.5 FM in 2009 and replaced it with the now-wildly successful “Sports Hub.” And then WFNX closed in 2012, en route to its sister publication Boston Phoenix’s closure the following year.



Those stations’ playlists didn’t typically overlap much with WZLX’s lineup, which was more focused on the rock music of the 1970s. But that’s changed a bit in the last few months.

Mike Thomas, the station's program director, tells me WZLX conducted what he calls a “pretty extensive research project” in August to gauge the audience response to adding songs from some of the most popular rock bands of the 1990s — such as Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. These bands, normally the province of “alternative rock” radio, were added to the mix in September.

Thomas says the change wasn’t dramatic: About 10 percent of the songs played on the station now came out after 1990, while 90 percent of the programming is the same old classic rock WZLX listeners know and love. A quick review of the station’s playlist over a four-hour period today shows just two songs from the 1990s or 2000s were played in that time period: Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” and, coincidentally, Nirvana’s “Come as You Are.”

Still, Thomas believes it’s enough to capture some of the people who used to listen to WBCN or WFNX. “Some of the music we added was being played a lot in Boston seven years ago,” he tells me. “There was an opportunity to pick up some of those artists because they’re not being played as much as they used to be.”

But they are still being played, though. Rivals WAAF and WBOS regularly play alternative rock songs from the 1990s. They were ranked 11th and 15th, respectively, in the fourth quarter ratings.

The response to WZLX's shift has largely been a positive one — Thomas says the change is a big reason why the station went from fifth place last spring to first place by the end of the year. But Thomas concedes that he’s also heard some complaints from regulars who say the younger bands shouldn’t be considered classic rock.

There’s another factor working in WZLX’s favor: the success of The Sports Hub. Because CBS Radio’s sports station now broadcasts Celtics and Bruins games, WZLX gets the “conflict games” when two teams are playing at the same time. Thomas says this usually means that the Celtics game airs on WZLX. This change started in October, and Thomas believes this helped with the ratings as well, in part by encouraging sports fans to make the switch for a game who might then leave their radio on out of habit or be intrigued to return after hearing some of the music.

Thomas also says that the hosts of WZLX’s programs played a big role in the station’s success, as well as the traditional loyalty of classic rock fans.

Now, the big challenge for WZLX will be to continue to grow its audience in the new year. There are a couple of strong stations, including sister station 98.5, that could unseat WZLX from its throne. Thomas knows that getting to the top is tough — just ask the boys in AC/DC — but staying on top is even tougher.

Read the whole story at Boston Business Journal »

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