The Tampa Bay area just got its first talk radio station on the FM dial.
Cox Radio on Wednesday announced plans to drop the classic rock music format on WHTP-FM (102.5 The Bone), converting to an all-talk format in the mold of its biggest stars, morning shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem and afternoon talker Mike "Cowhead" Calta.
The change is scheduled for April 23, introducing a new tagline for the station: Real. Raw. Radio.
But it's also a bit of a leap back to the future, recalling the days more than a decade ago when the Tampa radio scene hosted some of the area's best talk hosts, including Glenn Beck, Lionel and Bob Lassiter.
"For years, we told ourselves we were a classic rock station with some 'hot talk' personalities," said Keith Lawless, Tampa market manager for Cox Radio, noting that ratings for Calta's show kept going up as they reduced the number of songs he plays.
"We've been trying to be two things to our audience," he said. "It made sense to give the audience more of what they've been showing us they want."
Clem and Calta will keep their positions, with a new show hosted by comic Nick DePaulo and Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange scheduled from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Lawless wouldn't say who else might appear on the channel, beyond saying they will be local and live. One reason they announced the format change in advance, Lawless said, was to see who might come forward as a possible host.
The local talk radio scene on commercial stations was systematically dismantled as nationally syndicated shows from Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity took space once held by local personalities.
A new radio ratings system, which more closely tracks how people listen to stations, also made matters worse, showing better results for music formats on FM.
But that dynamic works differently on WHPT, where Clem has been the area's highest rated personality among male listeners and adults, while Calta has placed first with men, according to Lawless.
Given the stagnation of AM talk radio and the destabilization of ratings caused by the new system, industry experts have long expected that one big company would convert an FM music station to all talk.
"The Bubba the Love Sponge experience has been pretty profitable for Cox," said Gabe Hobbs, an industry consultant who once served as a senior vice president in charge of talk programming for rival Clear Channel Radio. "They wouldn't be doing it if those two shows (Clem and Calta) weren't making more money than their music shows."
That this move would come from Cox Radio — the last big radio chain in town to take chances the way old school programmers used to — also makes sense. Cox Radio had success in both damaging Clear Channel morning star Todd "MJ" Schnitt and keeping the mercurial Clem in their fold. Now they've made a move that could turn the local radio industry on its head.
"We're excited to take risks," Lawless said. "That's what this company is about."