Curtis Media Group's two-month experiment with commercial bluegrass radio ended this week when WFNL, 102.3-FM, went off the air. But it turns out that bluegrass never was going to be that station's long-term format.
Early this year, Curtis entered into an agreement to sell 102.3-FM to Triangle Marketing Associates for $1.5 million, and has been waiting for FCC approval to transfer ownership. After that came through and the deal closed, TMA pulled the plug on bluegrass to prepare for a new, still-undeclared format.
"I don't have much to say about it yet," said TMA president Rick Heilmann. "We'll be operating as more of a local station for Johnston County. It will launch within 30 days or so, but we're not announcing a format yet."
So bluegrass wound up serving as just a temporary placeholder for the station until its sale went through. But even though Curtis certainly treated WFNL-FM that way - no deejays or ads, narrow playlist - spokesman Trip Savery insisted that the company was genuinely interested in seeing if bluegrass would work as a commercial format in the Triangle.
"It wasn't some whim," Savery said. "We wanted to see what the appetite was for it. My viewpoint is, I'm encouraged. When we sold the station to Rick, he could have kept it bluegrass, and I'm quite frankly surprised he didn't."
Savery cited a "cume rating" for WFNL-FM of about 20,000, a figure that represents how many people tune in over the course of a week for at least five minutes. But according to Heilmann, that represents a fraction of the audience needed to survive, which he estimated at about 50,000.
"I could never adjust to the idea that bluegrass would be economically feasible for me," said Heilmann. "To make the business work, I'll need more mass-appeal programming."
With the exception of specialty programs like country station WQDR-FM's Sunday night PineCone Bluegrass Radio Show, that leaves bluegrass back in the realm of public and college radio. Even with the World of Bluegrass festival in Raleigh, bluegrass remains a longshot for commercial radio.
"Bluegrass just seems like a niche, like jazz or classical, that will more naturally find its way on non-commercial radio or online," said Tom Taylor of the New Jersey-based Tom Taylor Now radio newsletter. "It's a boutique format that people love and will seek out, but is there enough of an audience to pay bills for a commercial operator? Probably not."