Rawlco Radio EdmontonGary Lamphier business reporter for the Edmonton Journal posted this article on September 10 to the Puget Sound Radio forum: “In a world of multimedia corporate giants, family-owned Rawlco Radio is a relative pipsqueak. The Saskatoon-based firm operates just 15 radio stations, including 12 in Saskatchewan and three in Alberta. Although it doesn’t disclose its results, it’s a safe bet Rawlco’s annual revenues pale next to rivals like Rogers ($12.2 billion), Astral ($1 billion), Corus ($836 million) or even Newcap ($117 million). But here in the uber-competitive Edmonton market, where roughly two dozen stations compete 24/7 for the ears of fickle listeners, Rawlco is a mouse that roars. Its two FM stations — Now! 102.3 and Up! 99.3 — boast a combined share of 17.0, according to the latest PPM radio ratings from the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement.

Now! — whose chatty young hosts mix lots of online interaction with a blend of modern pop/rock — has zoomed to second spot after just 18 months on the air, with an impressive 9.7 share. That trails only AM 630 CHED, Corus’s perennial news and talk radio powerhouse, which sports a 10.5 share. (A share reflects the number of listeners and how often they tune into a station.) In third spot is CISN 103.9 FM, the country music star in Corus’s four-station local cluster, with an 8.8 share.

Over at Up! — the former Magic 99 smooth jazz station Rawlco rebranded last fall as an upbeat pop/rock adult hits outlet — they’re humming along at a 7.3 share. That’s just behind Newcap’s classic rock station 96.3 Capital FM, at 7.5, and it ties Up! for fifth spot with Rogers’ Sonic 102.9 FM, which plays modern rock. It also puts Now! 102.3 and Up! 99.3 well ahead of longtime local hard rock faves like Astral’s The Bear 100.3 FM (at 6.7) and Newcap’s classic rock K-97, at 5.7. That leaves the city’s trio of top-40 stations — including Rogers’ The Bounce 91.7 FM, Astral’s Virgin 104.9 FM, and local indie station Hot 107 FM, run by John Yerxa — knocking heads for a piece of what’s left.

As clusters go, Rawlco’s two stations trail only Corus — whose four stations hold a commanding 25.2 share — and Newfoundland-based Newcap, whose three stations hold a 17.8 share. Not bad considering Rawlco was mired at the bottom of the pack just 18 months ago, with a share of less than 1.0 and a station (Magic 99) that was going nowhere. So how did Rawlco pull this little miracle off? With creativity, spunk, good old-fashioned marketing, and of course, a wee bit of luck.

Astral’s puzzling move in February to flip its EZ Rock 104.9 FM station over to Virgin Radio’s top-40 format has been flop, and it opened the door for Up! 99 to swipe a big chunk of EZ Rock’s former audience.

Rawlco prefers to emphasize other factors, however. “I think the key is that both our Edmonton stations are based on unique formats,” says Jamie Wall, Rawlco’s senior vice-president.

Traditionally you have top-40, rock, country, talk and news. But with Now! we wanted to create a highly interactive experience, built around great music but also great conversation,” he says.

As for the thinking behind the relaunch of Up! 99.3, Rawlco opted to base the concept on creating a mood or feeling — i.e., upbeat music that gives people a lift — rather than a musical genre or era, such as the 1970s. While Now! targets the 25-to-45 year-old demographic, the Up! audience is skewed to a slightly older crowd, from 35 to 60.

On a typical day, Now! receives more than 5,000 texts from listeners, about everything from traffic issues to relationships to favourite songs or TV shows. Many are read aloud by the station’s hosts, triggering even more feedback.

“It’s about stuff like, ‘Should you tip the waitress whether she serves you well or not?’ or, ‘Do you think The Bachelor is as good a show as Survivor?’ It’s the things that form the fabric of peoples’ daily lives, the stuff neighbours talk about over the fence,” says Kurt Leavins, general manager of Rawlco’s two local stations.

While most media claim to be interactive, Wall says Now! takes it to a higher level. “We don’t believe other stations are doing this to the same degree. We have almost 50,000 people ‘liking’ the station on our Facebook page. That’s probably be the highest in Canada,” he says.

It’s like the community talking to the hosts, but also talking to each other. So every text or phone call or comment on Facebook is more conversation. It’s a dialogue rather than a monologue,” says Wall.

Veteran local radio exec Marty Forbes, who now works as an industry consultant and writes a column for the Edmonton Sun, gives Rawlco full marks for making Now! 102.3 the market’s No. 2 station.

“Rawlco’s strategy was to come in here and buy up every billboard and transit bench they possibly could, and flood the market which was very smart,” he says.

The other thing that really benefited Now! was a change in the music world. Radio stations have been playing really slim playlists for the last couple of years. They came in with a really broad playlist. So if you didn’t like what you were hearing on one station, you’d go to them as your second choice,” he says.

“Listeners found it fresh, it was young, it was interactive and fairly unique. So they’ve done a really good job of capturing a spirited kind of radio station, and I give them full credit.”

from Gary Lamphier reporter for the Edmonton Journal on pugetsoundradio.com.

See the Summer 2011 radio station rankings report from BBM Canada on which the numbers in this article are based.