The changing landscape of FM radio

Posted on February 25, 2011

The changing media landscape has not left the local FM radio industry unaffected.

With the advent of the Internet and portable digital players making it easy to listen to favorite songs on demand, the need to twiddle the radio knob seems less compelling than before.

Faced with the challenge of an audience that thrives on individual control, radio stations are left with no choice but to assess their situations, and rethink their strategies to retain -- or expand -- their market share of the listening public.


Longtime FM radio icon NU 107 was just the latest in the growing list of radio stations that succumbed to a declining listeners’ base and falling revenues amid the continued onslaught of the Internet.

Last November, NU 107 -- popular among hordes of teenagers and yuppies since 1987 for its rock-oriented programming -- finally closed down.

Banker Atom Henares does not hide the fact that NU 107 suffered financial difficulties, admitting that he was forced to close down the station to cut back on his losses.

He would have wanted the new owners to continue NU 107’s rock programming which is viewed as catering to more upscale listeners, but with no other choice in sight, Mr. Henares sold it to Progressive Broadcasting Corp., which had other things planned.

During its peak, NU 107 was the vanguard of Pinoy rock music, with budding rock stars getting airtime to launch their debut singles. By 1994, NU 107 emerged as the top station in the AB market among commercial radio stations in Metro Manila with a 32% audience share according to the Radio Research Council, Inc.

But as more listeners tuned in to mass-based radio stations, major advertisers soon jumped ship. Shortly before NU 107 closed, the station was languishing at the bottom of the ratings with a 0.30 audience share, ranking 16th out of 21 radio stations in Mega Manila (Metro Manila and suburbs), as surveyed by AC Nielsen.

NU 107 had to nurse its financial wounds through a host of marketing strategies and tie-ups -- including the staging of the annual NU 107 Rock Awards (an event that attracted fans and advertisers) -- just to stay afloat.

"Short on time, short on budget but big in heart, and I think that sums up NU 107: it’s our having the mission and passion to see it through. It’s our love for the station," Mr. Henares told reporters.

On the station’s final day as NU 107 on Nov. 7, speakers were set up outside the studio in the Ortigas Center, Pasig where a large crowd of supporters and musicians had gathered, carrying candles as a sign of support.

On air, DJs openly wept as they thanked supporters during the station’s final hour. Station manager Cris Hermosisima was the last person on the microphone and said the final words: "This has been NU 107, the Philippines’ one and only Home of NU Rock. This is NU 107, we are signing off." The Eraserheads’ "Ang Huling El Bimbo" was the final song played. The crowd outside joined in singing the song.

NU 107 signed off on Nov. 8, 12:05 a.m, with the usual sign-off notice and the playing of the Philippine national anthem.

For several hours, 107.5 was an empty frequency on FM radio. On Nov. 9, Progressive Broadcasting launched Win Radio 107.5, said to mimic the format of mass-based radio station 91.5 Energy FM. With DJs like Matt Tsubibbo, Dante Machete (who is also Roberto Pistolero of 102.7 Star FM), Sisa Usisa (Glen Garci from AM radio station dzRH), and Sexy Bernie (from 93.9 iFM), the revamped programming offers modern rock and original Filipino music (OPM) catering to the mass market.

The new programming is said to be drawing in more ad money as compared to the upscale NU 107.

The reformatting, however, has been the subject of attacks by NU 107 fans and supporters, who took to the Internet to air their outrage. Facebook accounts like "107.5 Win Radio Sucks!" and "We want NU 107, not Win Radio," and online petitions calling for the return of NU 107 have flooded the Internet.


Similar outrage was last seen when listed GMA Network Inc. decided to reformat its flagship FM radio station, dwLS-FM, in February 2007. Originally known as "Campus Radio" with English-speaking disc jockeys, LS-FM renamed itself "Barangay LS," with Filipino-speaking on-air talents dominating the airwaves.

This despite Campus Radio’s definite success in its niche.

"DWLS-FM was No.1 in its niche with the Campus Radio brand. The complete shift in 2008 to Barangay LS was brought about by the vision of expanding the station’s coverage in terms of demographics. As it was, DWLS-FM catered to a specific segment of the market comprised mostly of students and young professionals," the station said in a statement furnished BusinessWorld.

According to a Nielsen Media Research study in 2006, 45% of LS-FM’s radio listeners were 20-29 in age, the highest percentage for that age group among all FM stations.

GMA Network’s Metro Manila radio operations manager Fred Cortez told BusinessWorld that LS hoped to appeal to a wider audience with the change. "GMA’s Radio Group has re-branded its flagship FM station which is now known as Barangay LS... And one can’t get any more mass or broad than by being barangay," he said.

Mr. Cortez said they decided to reformat since research showed that listening and advertising trends favored a happier and funnier sound for FM stations. "The listener is boss," he told BusinessWorld.

Just last Sunday, Barangay LS launched on-air programming with a new catch phrase -- "TugStugan Na!"

Program Director Glenn Allona said Barangay LS bears the distinction of having successfully established the "crazy fun" sound in the market through very popular programs like Talk To Papa and Wanted Sweetheart, among others.

"With ‘TugStugan Na!’ we aim to bring back the focus on the staple of FM programming which is music. We need to balance, if not underscore, the vibrance of comedy-talk programming with a pleasant and highly entertaining all-hits music format," Mr. Allona said in a statement.

Barangay LS, he says, offers "the perfect entertainment medium through clean fun and free on-air music. It can also play cupid or love broker, [serve as] a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, an instant friend with a ready line-up of only the most popular songs in the land."

"At present, we have a decent share of AB and C1 listeners, but the success story lies in the tremendous growth of C2 and DE listeners coming to our fold and staying. Our all-people (across eco-class, gender and age) performance is very good. We are well within the ‘top three’ among FM stations in Mega Manila," he said.


Based on various radio listener surveys, Elizalde-led 90.7 Love Radio continues to be the leading FM radio station in Metro Manila. Closely following are ABS-CBN Corp.’s FM station Tambayan 101.9, 101.1 Yes FM (another Elizalde-owned station), and Barangay LS.

Interestingly, these top radio stations have something in common. They have the same format -- Filipino-speaking on-air talents dishing out jokes in between playing OPM songs.

Listed radio broadcaster Manila Broadcasting Co., which is owned by the Elizaldes, is said to be the pioneer in the use of Filipino-speaking disc jockeys on FM radio.

In 1995, MBC launched dwST Showbiz Tsismis (Showbiz Gossip), the precursor of Yes FM.

Back then dwST went against the norm by having Filipino-speaking showbiz reporters broadcasting the latest news and gossip about local celebrities, while playing the latest hits.

MBC Sales Director for FM Radio Santiago Elizalde said that the Filipino format, which was something unheard of in FM radio during the 1980s, is what the audience wanted. "We are just providing something that the audience wants," Mr. Elizalde told BusinessWorld.

Soon, MBC’s Love Radio followed suit. From being a radio station playing all-time favorite love songs, Love Radio created a buzz when it reformatted, using the catchy slogan "Kailangan pa bang i-memorize ‘yan?" (Do we still have to memorize that?)

As listeners starting tuning in to these Filipino FM radio stations, advertisers started to take notice. Based on a report submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission for the nine months ending September 2010, MBC radio stations (including its flagship AM station, dzRH) achieved aggregate revenues of P585 million, driven mostly by advertising sales.

This is a great feat, considering there are more than 1,000 AM and FM radio broadcasting companies nationwide competing for radio advertising revenues which estimated to be about P10 billion, based on a Nielsen Media Research study.

"Day or night, 90.7 Love Radio has consistently beaten all other AM and FM stations on the Monday-Sunday, 12 midnight-12 midnight daily run. Surveys show that the station has, in effect, created three prime time slots for radio broadcasting, with listeners peaking at the 6-11 a.m. programs... rising again in the 3-6 p.m. slot..., and once more... during the 9 p.m. to 12 midnight slot," MBC said in its sales website.

No wonder other FM radio stations followed the Filipino format.

There is Energy-FM 91.5, I-FM 93.9, and Star-FM 102.7 -- all trying to appeal to the masses by using the Filipino language.

ABS-CBN’s Tambayan 101.9 has been enjoying popularity by catering to the mass market, following its re-launch in November 2009. The station was known as dwRR Radio Romance from 1989 to 1996, with an all-female DJ line-up playing easy listening love songs.

Eli Capuyan, Tambayan 101.9 station manager said the reformat was part of their efforts to remain relevant to the market.

"The innovations address the needs of today’s listeners. Radio, in order to reach a new generation of listeners, must be willing to play by the rules of the game. Radio stations like us must figure out how to balance personalization, radio interactivity, and incorporate advertisements along the way," Mr. Capuyan told BusinessWorld.


While the change to more mass-based programming could be seen as a good business strategy for 107.5 Win Radio and Barangay LS, it is not without its critics. An on-line petition against the format of Barangay LS read: "I truly believe that FM stations, aside from late night news, should be at the forefront of inculcating English proficiency in young adults... now, LS-FM joins GMA-TV News as a media for shallow Tagalog, Taglish (a mix of Tagalog and English) and Pinoy street colloquialism in mainstream broadcasting. .. really sad, that’s how I feel..."

Barangay LS takes the criticism with a grain of salt. "Mainstream or masa FM stations are performing very well in terms of ratings and audience share compared to niche stations. The comedy-talk format is alive and people these days congregate to this kind of programming," the radio station said.

"The popularity of our ‘crazy fun’ programs is balanced, if not underscored, with a strong line-up of very familiar songs. We are highlighting our ‘all hits’ music format. We are a bunch of happy people playing everyone’s favorite songs."

The effort to appeal to a more mainstream market for FM radio took a different spin when Pangilinan-led TV5 late last year launched an FM radio station with news and commentary programming similar to what is heard on AM radio.

92.3 News FM, more popularly known as "Radyo 5" took over a frequency known for niche programming -- it was from Joey @ Rhythms 92.3 in 1998 to 2005, XFM on 2007-2008, and U92 in 2009 to 2010.

The move towards a more mass-based programming is also seen by industry watchers as an effort to rake in more money.

Luchi Cruz-Valdes, head of News 5, said the decision to come up with AM radio programming for their FM station is part of TV5’s efforts to provide an alternative to what is already available in the market.

"We’re not down-marketing FM radio in the sense that free TV news has always had CDE as its market. What we were doing was reaching out to that same market base through FM. Is it a strategic move? Yes, in the sense that we’re the first news and commentary station on FM, but no, in the sense that we were really set on addressing our same TV market base, whichever way we could," Ms. Cruz-Valdes said in an e-mail to BusinessWorld.

She said they have received many favorable responses from listeners who welcome hearing the news on FM radio, especially using their mobile phones. "We’re accessible on any cellphone with a radio. And because most of the cheaper android phones now from China come with an FM radio, we’re reaching our target market, the CDE. And they can listen to us unnoticed," she said.


Asked to comment on claims that taking out a radio station like U92, which played Top 40 music, affects the music industry since there is one less radio station on the FM band that plays music, Ms. Cruz-Valdes said: "Frankly I don’t think it’s missed. There are still a great number of music stations for the industry to showcase their wares."

"TV is eating up everybody. That’s a fact. And with cable channels mushrooming, we could be eating up even ourselves, if we’re not careful. So yes, radio listenership has waned, both for commentary and music. But we have pleasantly discovered that the cellphone users are a market that we’ve tapped into, and it’s novel and that’s exciting. We have a feeling we’ll have a pretty good run before it wanes, if at all," she said.

While the long-standing dichotomy of AM radio stations using Filipino and FM radio stations exclusively using English is being challenged, popular FM radio DJ Mo Twister said there is no need to be alarmed.

Mo Twister (real name Mohan Gumatay), who has a radio show on dwTM Magic 89.9, said English-language FM radio stations will continue to exist even if there are more and more mass-based stations using Filipino.

"It is like music. Just because a Filipino singer like Jovit Baldivino is popular, [that does not mean] all singers will be like him. Of course rock will exists, there will still be bands. There is Korean-Pop. We all thrive on variety, and radio is just like that," Mo Twister told BusinessWorld.

"If the trend now is to use Tagalog on FM, definitely not all radio stations would do the same since each radio station has its own niche and its own fan base. We cannot say that one format is better than the other. In the end, it would be whatever would entertain the listener."

Still, with the death of NU 107, fans are worried about what will happen to the music industry in general.

Grace Foronda, ad and promotion manager of MCA Music Philippines admits they have been affected by the closure of NU 107, since the radio station supported newcomers and college rock bands hoping to make it big in the scene like Tanya Markova and Franco -- incidentally two of the biggest winners in the very last NU 107 Rock Awards.

"Now that NU 107 is gone, where are we going to promote their music?," Ms, Foronda told BusinessWorld.

Narciso Chan, Sony Music Philippines sales and marketing director, said that the popularity of masa radio stations makes it more compelling for recording companies to come up with appropriate music for their listeners.

"Definitely, we will have to produce artists that will appeal to the mass market if we want to be played on these popular radio stations. If that means we need to produce Filipino love songs, then we will do it," Mr. Chan said.

He said Sony Music has just released new Filipino songs by novelty artists like Bayani Agbayani, as well as radio DJ Mr. Fu, that are expected to be hits among mass market listeners.

Conversely, he admits this means that record companies will likely gamble less on alternative acts that have slim chances of appealing to the masa audience of these radio stations.

"Recording companies like us will be more cautious in producing an album for new rock artists, for example, because of the limited exposure that they will likely have on FM radio."