Behind the scenes at radio's #1 morning show
January 29, 1999 - Tampa Bay Business Journal

Fester scrambles to pass a sound effects tape to the disc jockey, M.J. Kelli, who sits across a table in the studio booth along with on-air sidekick B.J. Harris. Earlier that morning, Fester, a producer at WFLZ-FM 93.3 radio, stripped naked at the site of a proposed nudist colony in St. Petersburg.

Fully clothed now, he's back across Tampa Bay in the studio of WFLZ-FM in Tampa, in a room full of engineers and producers helping put the popular M.J. and B.J. morning radio show on the air.

A giant bag of potato chips lies open on a table in the room, caloric fuel for the comic fire. But this radio show is more serious than an onlooker might believe -- a multimillion-dollar business, part of the Jacor media empire. Although often crude, and out of bounds by some standards, M.J. and B.J.'s wacky morning radio program is ranked No. 1 for listeners aged 12 to 54 in the important 6-10 a.m. slot.

The duo's broadcast antics brought WFLZ $3.8 million of the station's $10 million in total revenues last year, accounting for about 3.4 percent of Tampa Bay's overall radio market, Kelli said.

From a business point of view, M.J. and B.J.'s No. 1 rating is significant because it allows WFLZ to charge more money for advertising, said Dave Reinhart, vice president and market manager of Jacor's Florida Gulf Coast broadcast area.

To help maintain the show's top rating, the station has invested in marketing the duo on billboards and during high-profile television programs. For example, Jacor bought ads during the final episodes of Seinfeld and Cheers to promote the program.

In addition, because Jacor management believes that part of the show's popularity has been its handle on current events, the station has invested heavily in computers, Internet access, televisions, newspapers, wire services and magazines, Reinhart said.

Even competitors agree that being topical is a key to the show's popularity.

The program has "a solid grip on the big issues of the day," said Tom Rivers, general manager of country music broadcaster WQYK-FM 99.5 in Tampa, an affiliate of CBS/Infinity Broadcasting.

"Unlike what used to be, we are in an information age," Harris observed. "People seek information. And if your show can deliver the right information, you've got a hit."

Another reason the M.J. and B.J. program is popular is because it has broad appeal. While current events coverage attracts adults, being silly on the air reels in youth listeners.

"One of the advantages they have over WQYK is that, where WQYK is a more mature, adult radio station, M.J. and B.J. can afford to be more naughty," Rivers said.

"That extends even into marketing," he added, recalling a recent billboard campaign that incorporated a picture of Monica Lewinsky and a risqué play on Harris' initials.

Still, M.J. and B.J.'s popularity may have more to do with a lack of competition for youth listeners than with talent, Rivers suggested. "Until WLLD-FM 98.7 went on the air in this market last May, there really wasn't a lot of competition for the youth market," he commented. "And that's probably more a product of the business of radio than anything else. Most advertisers aren't terribly concerned with anyone under the age of 18 or 25, wherever you want to draw the line."

Mark Gullett, director of marketing and promotions for WLLD, said his station is going after M.J. and B.J.'s morning drive audience. "We moved Flyin' Brian, who was No. 1 in all demographics at night, to morning drive, and feel he can be a formidable competitor with M.J. and B.J." (Like WQYK, WLLD is owned by CBS/Infinity Broadcasting.)

It may be a challenge, however. Having been on the air at WFLZ since Feb. 7, 1994, the program has continually increased its market share. For the 25-54 age group -- the most important for advertisers -- market share went from 6.3 percent in fall 1995 to 11.9 percent in fall 1998. For the 12 years-plus range, market share increased from 7 percent in fall 1995 to 10.1 percent in fall 1998, Arbitron reported.

Market share is a percentage of the number of people in an area who listen to a radio station, factoring in the time they spend tuned in.

The show's continued high ratings translate into big bucks for Jacor. "This is a business, a very serious business, and a lot of revenues are at stake," Harris said. "But at the same time, the entertainment value is to get on the air and have fun. But it is a serious business. These companies pay millions of dollars for these radio stations, and they have to turn profits."