The morning personalities at Hot 96.9 don’t reveal much when you ask them about their success. They allow themselves some small smiles. Maybe one or two smirks.
Pebbles, the most diplomatic of the radio crew, will admit that the ratings look good, but she’s quick to add that numbers won’t change how she’ll do her job.
“I’m not sure you ever say, ‘I’m comfortable,’ ” she said.
It’s been more than four years since a major Boston radio shakeup pushed some of the city’s biggest on-air personalities — Pebbles, Ramiro, and Melissa — from Jam’n 94.5 to Hot 96.9. Their future wasn’t certain: 96.9 had changed format (from talk to music) and was essentially a brand-new station. And it’s no easy feat to get listeners to move around the dial. But their fans have followed, keeping them ahead of their old employer in the ratings.
“Boston is such a loyal market, a prideful market. They love their local personalities,” said Melissa, who, like her co-workers, only uses her radio nickname.
The morning crew and their bosses will also tell you that those ratings still matter. In the age of Spotify and podcasts, radio and its coveted drive-time hours are still bringing more than hundreds of thousands of daily listeners in Boston to the FM dial.
For more than 15 years, Pebbles was the staple of the morning show on Jam’n 94.5, what’s classified in the industry as “rhythmic contemporary,” a mix of pop, hip-hop, and R&B. She first cohosted with Balthazar, and then Ramiro Torres, starting in 2001. Melissa had been a producer, and joined as an on-air personality in the late 1990s. For many listeners, that morning show was an institution, but at the end of 2012, station owner iHeartRadio did not renew Pebbles’s or Melissa’s contracts. Ramiro was paired with a new cohost, Ashlee Feldman.
Pebbles and Melissa weren’t without jobs for long; Greater Media (now Beasley Media Group Inc.), which owned talk station 96.9, was already moving forward with plans to replace the format with music. Management needed big personalities to anchor the effort, so the timing of Pebbles and Melissa’s departure was perfect.
In January 2013, Greater Media announced that Pebbles had been hired. She was the first voice on the new radio station, and spent her early weeks at 96.9 communicating with every fan who messaged her, encouraging them to follow her in her new gig up the dial.
“It was a lot of talking to people online,” she said, “In the very beginning, it was a lot of social media.”
Ramiro, meanwhile, who was still at 94.5, remembers getting hate mail from listeners who were unhappy about having to choose between their favorite morning hosts.
“They thought that I did it,” he said, of Pebbles’s departure.
“He got a lot of unfair criticism for it,” Pebbles remembered, shaking her head.
Soon after the early 2013 launch of the music format on 96.9, it was clear that the morning audience was split. That February, Jam’n was still beating 96.9 with adults age 25 to 54, according to Nielsen ratings. By May, though, it had flipped, with 96.9 on top in that demo.
By August 2014, Pebbles’s lineup was set — from 6 to 10 a.m., she’d be sharing the show with Melissa and Wiggy, also known as former Patriots player Jermaine Wiggins. The trio offered takes on pop culture, personal stories, current events, and sports. Within a year, the team started to beat 94.5 in the coveted 18-to-34 demo.
The final touch was the addition of Ramiro. He declined to renew his contract with Jam’n and in early 2016 joined the 96.9 crew. Taking his place on 94.5 was “The Jam’n Morning Show with Frankie & Ashlee,” which only lasted six months.
After that, 94.5 went for something bigger to win back ratings. The station signed up to air “The Breakfast Club,” featuring Power 105.1’s syndicated morning team out of New York. The show boasts national personalities DJ Envy, Angela Yee, and Charlamagne Tha God, who interview big hip-hop and pop culture celebrities — from Kanye West to Lena Dunham — and allows Boston listeners to be part of a national conversation.
It’s tough competition — but that’s why there are smiles at 96.9.
The January 2017 ratings show that in the 18-to-34 demo, 96.9 was No. 1 in the market in the morning while Jam’n was No. 10. Even with a national show as competition, the local personalities have been holding their own for months.
Jack McCartney, Beasley’s director of programming in Boston and better known in the radio world as Cadillac Jack, is loyal to both morning shows because he put “The Breakfast Club” together at Power 105.1 when he worked in New York. He said he’s not surprised that his 96.9 crew wins the ratings in Boston, even though “The Breakfast Club,” which has more than 70 weekday affiliates, features interviews with A-listers.
“I created that show for an urban hip-hop station,” he said of “The Breakfast Club,” explaining that Jam’n is more pop than Power 105.1.
Dylan Sprague, vice president of programming at iHeartMedia in Boston, didn’t comment about the personnel changes over the years at 94.5, but did say that “The Breakfast Club” should grow in Boston.
“The Breakfast Club is the epicenter of hip-hop music and culture. Charlamagne, Angela and Envy all have deep connections with Boston and Jam’n 94.5. Plus they happen to be pop culture celebrities who touch the audience across multiple media platforms. So, we win with instant familiarity and local awareness on day one. That’s powered the success we’ve had with the show early on,” he said, via e-mail.
Sprague said he doesn’t consider 96.9 to be 94.5’s real competition; he’d rather compete with fellow iHeartMedia’s station Kiss 108’s “Matty in the Morning,” which he considers the staple morning show in town.
The 96.9 team, amid their smiles, also won’t say that 94.5 or even Kiss 108, for that matter, are their rivals. Ramiro said the team is most concerned about losing loyal listeners to podcasts and streaming music stations. He’s concerned about listeners not turning on the radio at all.
“Really,” he said, “our biggest competition is somebody’s cellphone.”Meredith Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.