WJBR rebrands with new talent and local focus

On-air talent Jessie Micchelli and Michael Waite at the WJBR Wilmington-based studio. The duo makes up the new morning team, part of WJBR’s rebrand strategy to grow their audience and offer a Delaware-centric focus.
On-air talent Jessie Micchelli and Michael Waite at the WJBR Wilmington-based studio. The duo makes up the new morning team, part of WJBR’s rebrand strategy to grow their audience and offer a Delaware-centric focus.

By KIM HOEY
Special to Delaware Business Times

What do Mix 99.5 WJBR, a New Castle County-based FM radio station and Spanx, an American underwear company, have in common?

They both purposely have an x in their names.

“There’s science behind it,” said A.J. Lurie, vice president and general manager of the station. “Words with Ks and Xs stand out more.”

That is how much detail has gone into WJBR’s recent programming change and station rebranding, right down to the letter.

The station announced its change in format on Dec. 26, but it was no snap decision. It involved months of planning. Colors, personalities, timing of music, even some “scummy” moments, and a lot of money went into the changing of plain old WJBR into Mix 99.5 WJBR.

“We needed to freshen things up if we wanted to grow our audience,” said Lurie. That was the result of polls from three separate companies. They surveyed thousands of listeners throughout the Delaware Valley. The results overwhelmingly said that the station was doing well, but as Lurie put it, “We were running out of water.” Their audience was staying the same but growing older. To stay relevant, the station needed to attract a younger audience.

In the polling the description people continuously used for WJBR, was that it was, “Your grandparents’ station,” said Lurie.

So, they listened to the results of the surveys. People wanted more music and a better mix of new songs and songs that make people feel good. They also wanted a radio station that was part of the community.

“We needed to grow our audience of 35 and older, while not alienating the audience we already had,” said Lurie. “Our focus is Delaware.”

The new format includes announcements of birthdays, the pet of the week, hometown happenings and plenty of guest spots around the community, like helping Girl Scouts sell cookies at the Christiana Mall.

While listeners think the change happened with the big on-air announcement on Dec. 26, the changes were subtly made throughout the eight months before that. Slowly, the station started adding more recently produced songs. They didn’t get rid of the older songs they played, but didn’t play them as often, opting instead to mix in the newer music. To show their Delaware centrism, they made a more noticeable change in November 2017 when the station let go its longtime morning hosts, Charlie Maxx and John Hanson.

That was one of the most difficult parts of the change, said Lurie, who knew weeks before what was going
to happen, but couldn’t tell anyone.

“It was a scummy feeling,” he said. Listeners weren’t happy. They posted notes on the station’s social media platforms saying they had lost family members and questioning whether the station cared about them or its Delaware focus.

It’s part of the business, said Rich DeSisto, program director and afternoon show personality at WJBR, who has been on the receiving end of the station change pink slip before. In this change, DeSisto was tasked with building the “game plan” for how the change would launch. The new mix simply needed household names
for its morning show, he said.

WJBR Vice President and General Manger A.J. Lurie said changes to the brand and format at the station were months in the making and include the addition of “Mix 99.5” to the name.

“You can’t get more Delaware than Michael Waite. We call him the mayor of Delaware,” said DeSisto,
of the morning show personality who had just retired from the Blood Bank of Delaware. Waite’s name polled as one of the most known in the Delaware radio and he hadn’t been on the air for seven years, said Lurie.

They added Jessie Micchelli as the 20-something female to counter Waite.

“The reaction from listeners has been great,” said Jason Chase, executive vice president of programming for Beasley Media Group, the company that owns WJBR. In the first quarter of the new year, WJBR has ranked second in the Wilmington market of more than 500,000 listeners by the Nielsen ratings company. According to Lurie, they are now tied for first. While there were plenty of negative posts on the station’s social media pages, especially after Maxx and Hanson posted a video online announcing their firing, listener numbers have not fallen. Even people who criticized the station continue to be engaged, said Lurie.

He’s not taking ratings for granted. They could drop at any moment, he said. That is the part of the change that literally keeps him up at night, second- and third-guessing himself, he said. It takes a while for people’s habits to turn around, he said. It’s a matter of sticking through it.

Especially after the amount of money that has gone into the re-branding efforts. With the polling, developing new logos, advertising and severance packages for exiting talent the bill is $150,000 and growing.

“Remarketing. We’ve put a lot of money behind it,” said Lurie. “It’s amazing the number of places your logo
is out there. It’s still evolving.”

So far, though, the one thing has not changed at the station is the advertisers.

Since the changeover, the station has not lost a single advertiser, said Lurie. Turns out all the station advertisers were also looking for ways to attract a younger group of people.

“They were all in the same boat,” said Lurie. He and representatives of the station had long conversations with each advertiser. Once they heard the station and realized it wasn’t going through a drastic change, they were all on board.

In addition, the station hasn’t raised its rates in hopes that it will increase profits by growing the number of advertisers.

“Financially, it’s a hit,” said Lurie. “It’s extremely stressful, but so rewarding.”

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