Commercial radio stations spend all sorts of money on focus groups, surveys, branding specialists, PR firms, promotions and consultants to find ways to connect with audiences, target demographics and maximize their ratings (and, hence, advertising revenue).
But as CFQR* general manager Mark Dickie tells it, The Beat owes much of its new brand's success to random thoughts from Program Director Leo Da Estrela.
"We were in a budget meeting in early May, and Leo was doodling," Dickie told me by phone today. Da Estrela wrote down "nine two five" spelled out. It wasn't brainstorming or planning, just doodling. But the station's management quickly realized it was brilliant.
CFQR, which was popular under the light rock format under Q92 brand and since April 2009 has been called "The Q", has always been sort of a default at-work station. It's energetic, but not dance music. I don't want to call it background music, because it's not quite that, but it's the kind of thing that can be put on in a workplace or a store and not be too distracting.
So nine-two-five was a cute little way of tying the station's frequency to its vocation, a 9-to-5 work station.
The new name - The Beat - was also Da Estrela's idea, Dickie said. "We searched across the globe, and we picked names. We came up with 30 names, like blue, heart, kiss. We shortlisted it to 10, and at the last minute Leo said let's throw in The Beat. And it scored phenomenally well (in surveys)." Dickie said women in particular are responding well to the new name.
I asked Dickie if Da Estrela is getting a bonus for all this. He pointed out that Da Estrela just celebrated his 40th birthday, "so his birthday present is a new radio station!"
I'm not sure if they accept that at as payment at Loblaws.
The Beat is, of course, a very generic name. Just as "The Q" was. How generic? Here's a clue: It's not the only station calling itself "92.5 the Beat". WQYZ in Biloxi, Miss., also has that name and frequency.
So why the change in the first place? "The Q brand is a legacy brand," Dickie said, like CHOM and CJAD. "The Q has been a very popular station in the city for two decades or more, but we've been finding in today's landscape that the Q was at its mature (stage) in its product life cycle, and perceptions of the Q and Q92 brand are basically a lot of people in their 30s felt that it was their mothers' radio station. And when you're running a business that's purchased by ad agencies on a 25-54 demo, you need to be appealing to that 35-year-old. We were just finding ourselves aging too much."
So there were changes in the music to appeal to a younger - but not too young - demographic. Out the door were the Michael Bolton-style songs, and in was the "more music variety" tag line. "But it still wasn't resonating," Dickie said. "We're a strong number 2, but we felt it wasn't going to put us back in first place. So we said let's be bold."
"Research showed that there's a hole for women, there's a lot of women who are disenchanted by the product offering."
When CJFM changed from being Mix 96 to Virgin Radio in 2009, they started going younger in the style of music and their audience. Less of the classic hits, more of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. That should have naturally led the 30 and 40-year-olds to CFQR, which was still targetting the older demo that is becoming larger as the population ages. But surveys showed that women in this 35-54 age group considered Q92 and The Q to be their mothers' music station.
Just changing the music - and even updating the brand from Q92 to The Q - wasn't enough to alter the perception, so they went all out and created what Dickie says is a "complete new station." It still has the same frequency,
the same rarely-referred-to callsign, the same offices and much of the same staff, but it's a whole new brand. Whether that will work is up to the listener.
From a layman's perspective, Dickie said the music will be more current, with less stuff from the 70s, but still a lot from the 90s. Whether they're willing to admit it or not, The Beat's target demo are fans of the Backstreet Boys.
I have to admit, the announcement kind of disappointed me. I'd heard a similar thing when The Q launched, and when Virgin Radio launched. It just kind of sounded generic, like out of some rebranding-a-radio-station playbook. The full-page ads in the newspaper (though, as a Gazette employee, I'm grateful for the surge in ad spending), the faux secrecy, even the applause and cheering in the studio just after the announcement.
Audio of the 4pm magic has been posted online. You can hear a somewhat vague description of what the station is trying to become (the word "variety" comes up), and some women talk about how they want a station that "will get me through my work day" and plays "music I want to hear" - statements that could be recycled for just about any rebranding of a station targetted to women.
Cat Spencer - who was the first live voice after the announcement at 4pm Tuesday, began his stint on the morning show on Wednesday. You can listen to a couple of clips of Spencer's morning debut at CFQR here (MP3, about 3 minutes).
The station caused a bit of a ruckus among listeners because Tuesday's morning show was automated. No DJs, no news, no traffic. That was particularly annoying to some who expressed themselves via Facebook, because Tuesday was billed as the biggest traffic day of the year.
"It was a calculated risk," Dickie said. "We knew people would be upset." But the decision was made to end the Q branding on Friday, and that meant nothing but music, (fewer) commercials and promos for the launch.
Besides, Dickie said, this may have contributed to the buzz. And he'll take the good or the bad if it means people are talking about it and spreading the word. (Dickie seemed to take particular delight in some of the misinformation that was spreading on forums like Radio in Montreal, like how The Beat would be trying to copy Virgin and going super-young. "Keep it coming," he said with a somewhat-evil-genius laugh.)
Dickie said he didn't want to upset too many people by denying them their usual morning info, but he maintains that "it was the right thing to do."
A revamped lineup
You can see the complete schedule here.
The biggest news in staffing is the addition of Spencer to the morning team. He left CJFM when Aaron Rand announced he was leaving CFQR back in February, and Astral told him to sit out his contract at home while they established their new morning show with Freeway Frank. As Spencer told The Suburban's Mike Cohen, the break was a chance for him to play Mr. Mom to his kids - perfect training for a station aimed at young parents.
(Spencer also echoed Dickie's comments about the demo targets of CFQR and CJFM, telling Cohen he was being pushed to go younger and talk about things that didn't interest him - making the switch even better in terms of timing. A video interview between Cohen and Spencer is also online)
The rest of the morning team stays the same. Sarah Bartok, who was Rand's unofficial co-host and has been keeping the seat warm since he left, gets a much-deserved top billing. Natasha Hall stays on traffic and Murray Sherriffs (who worked with Spencer at CJFM and was sacked when it became Virgin, later joining CFQR) continues the newscasts.
As I learned from Dickie, it's not actually the morning show that has the biggest audience in this format. That honour goes to daytime, and Donna Saker has that shift from 9 to 4.
"Donna made a connection with the at-work crowd," Dickie said. "You should see the emails she gets. She's resonating, people love her."
That connection led to the decision to have her on throughout the work day instead of starting after noon and going through the drive-time hours. AJ Reynolds does a show during Saker's lunch break from 12-1, and then takes over at 4pm with Claudia Marques doing traffic (you might recognize her as a former weather presenter for MétéoMédia and TVA, and a personality at VOX).
Ken Connors, Saker's former drive-time co-host, is moving to weekends. But it's hardly a demotion, Dickie said.
"We decided our weekends on this radio station are going to be local and important to us. A full-fledged breakfast show. Nine songs an hour, not 13. We approached Ken, told him 'we're not sending you to Siberia, we want a breakfast show.' He thought about it, came back and said 'love it, I'm on board.'"
Connors will be paired with a newscaster to be announced later who will act as an unofficial co-host.
The other big change is Paul Hayes, a Brit who was working in Dubai and has been hired to do a weeknight show from 8-11pm focusing on love songs (he'll be doing it from the U.K. at first, until he gets his work visa in a few weeks). This replaces the John Tesh syndicated show, which is a victory for locally-produced radio, but has upset some fans.
And 24-year-old Adam Greenberg of Dollard des Ormeaux, aka "TB1", hosts a Friday and Saturday night party-music show called Beatmix.
Nat Lauzon, who left Virgin Radio recently, starts doing a weekend 12-5 shift on Oct. 15. She can't work until then for contractual reasons. Like with Spencer, Dickie said the acquisition of Lauzon was a blessing of perfect timing.
"She had just signed her renewal contract with Virgin," Dickie said. Da Estrela met with her anyway. As Dickie tells it, Lauzon said she was looking for a lifestyle change and wanted to do weekends, which shocked Da Estrela. When he told Dickie, Dickie jumped at it. Not only could he get the biggest name at the No. 1 station (like with CFQR, daytime is the biggest draw at CJFM), but he can slot her in weekends and not have to blow up the schedule like CJAD did when it brought in Aaron Rand.
Dickie said he's spending a lot more on Lauzon than he had planned to spend for weekend afternoons, but it's more than worth it.
With Connors, Withenshaw and Lauzon, Dickie thinks he has a pretty killer weekend lineup, and hopes that translates into strong weekend ratings.
Dressed to the silvers
I asked Dickie about the photos of the personalities and why they're all wearing silver/grey (at least, all the ones they could take new photos of). That was a decision of their art people, he said. The photos were taken in July and August, before the staff were told that the station would be rebranding. Dickie said a lot of them were confused about why they were taking photos in a style and colours that didn't seem to fit the Q brand.
Don't worry, they won't have to be so stylish when they're in the studio. If there aren't any cameras or listeners present, they can do the shows in sweatpants if they want, Dickie said.
UPDATE: Photos from the launch party - where purple, their other big colour, is very present.
Changes being what they are, the Facebook page for The Q is "no longer active", and a new one has been started in its place. They're also on Twitter, and YouTube, and of course they have a new website too. The station is running commercial-free until Thursday.
* UPDATE (Sept. 8): According to Industry Canada's broadcast station database, The Beat has even gone so far as to change the station's callsign, from CFQR-FM (which has been in use for decades) to CKBE-FM ("BEat"). I tag my broadcast stations by callsign because they tend to be more constant than brand names. Now that's dated. But I won't retag previous posts because I don't want to break links. So I'll tag this post with both callsigns.
The decision to go through the trouble is curious because the station hasn't really used its callsign for brand purposes in ages, and doesn't appear to be ready to start now.