local media insider

How WCHL radio station achieved 25% of new revenues from digital sales

A community-based site, Chapelboro.com, and a separate sales team made all the difference.

Alisa Cromer

Station: WCHL.com, a 60-year old locally owned and operated standalone station
Key executive: Owner,Barry Leffler
Initiative: Chapelboro.com, a digital "townsquare"

Challenge: When Barry Leffler bought into WCHL, the station had a strong hyper-local following in Chapel Hill, NC  Programming consisted of news, talk and sports. Morning programming is news and fun, progressive talk runs during the day the day (82% of listeners are registered Democrat or Independent, making WCHL one of two progressive talk station in the state),  local news runs during the evening drive,  and later evenings were reserved for sports, especially coverage of flagship University of North Carolina  teams.

"It was a great station with a great heritage and great staff...but the web site, not so much." The site was "a bunch of regurgitated headlines"  with no search or navigation strategy and a ten year old platform. 

Leffler, who started in radio as the play-by-play voice of the University of Miami football  and baseball teams, and then spent 25 years in television (most recently as the General Manager at the NBC station in Raleigh) decided to add digital properties as a way to grow the business.


The unique concept Leffler came up was to create a community site, rather than a site that reflects the station.  

"We asked 'Does the world really need another typical radio station website?'"  He wanted a web site that would "capture the spirit of the community in different ways" and have  enough original content for advertisers to see the site as an effective place to market on its own. 

"The WCHL brand is the gold standard, but if you are interested the local food scene you're not thinkng about going to a radio web site....and the same goes for gardening or science."

His team called the new site Chapelboro.com, a combination of Chapel Hill and Carrboro,  designed as a digital townsquare on a platform created by  Intertechmedia.com with features that incorporate as many people as possible, via blogs and photos in addition to local news. 

Business side strategy also changed: 

1.The new site is set up as a separate company within the company, with a separate sales department. Three digital sellers, which include a selling manager,  do not sell radio or vice versa.  Content is also considered separate.  

"Each platform stands on its own and derives its own value. So we don't get into the game of giving it away for free or far less value."

2. The site is sold on an SOV basis, not via CPM.  Each section has limited positions, and a limited number of packages sold.  

"This  helps us overcome the issue of  "I never see my ad" since the ad appears in every three refreshes.. "Before,  someone... might hit refresh 25 times before ad popped up."

Home page ads for example, now rotate through five positions, with only 15 packages sold, and, the rate card claims, "making your ad seen on average every three refreshes."  

Four 300x250 ads rotate on inside pages rotate through inside pages - also about 1/3 SOV for that section.  But there are also five 300x100 ads on all inside pages, and a video ad runs on all pages.  CPM is never mentioned. 

The team also sells ads on Birthday and Event calendar emails. Please find a copy of the rate card at the end of this article. 

The site's logo and nav-bar reflect its broader content and orientation: 

Here's a breakdown of how they built the site and some unique community-friendly elements:

A. Radio content and streaming

 The original elements of the site, including live streaming - is under the right hand  1360 WCHL tab and News and Sports is on the left. 

In addition to 'what we air' the news and sports includes longer interviews and background reports, such a full report on a recent scandal at the university. 

b. Local buzz

The Local Buzz column consists of blogs contributed by 15 to 25 local people who write every week or two, on a variety of topics, such as food,  science. local issues. sports, community, parenting, fitness, and even  comic books. 

The blogs are unpaid. Leffler said the station envisioned starting with six people they had found, but within a few months had people asking about the site. 

"People have a passion about something....a lot of them now find us."  The group is able to sustain 1 to 4 new post per day. "It's a great way to have lions of new, interesting comment." 

c. "Scene around town" photo  galleries

Originally the station hired a group of independent freelancers  to take photos at events arond town; today they have a full time photographer on duty to capture events.

"People love seeing pictures of themselves online."   Shot lists include events created by  nonprofits, festivals, town meetings, little league presentations and so on.  Every picture is also able to be shared to Twitter, Facebook and email.

d. Events calendar

One gap in the market left by a newspaper that only publishes twice a week is an events calendar. "There was no one place to go... you have to go to a bunch of sources to find a calendar." So events listings became an important part of the site. 

e. The Chapelboro Top 100

The last 100 people to be mentioned anywhere on the web site are listed on the home page in its own column.

"So if you've been written about or mentioned in a blog,or news story, or we've taken your picture, or you've been on the air,  your name appears on this list. It's not like a cloud tag, where the Mayor is big and I'm always  small. Here, everyone is equal.

"People want to read and hear about themselves and people they know. its a social component to the site."  The blue names are people who have been listed in the 24 hours, so people who visit the site every day can see who is newly added.

e. Daily deal

No surprises here, just a straight email capture with a local deal.  A separate deal seller reports to corporate, but is supervised by the local sales manager.

f. On-going "Best of" Contests to reward local merchants. Instead of one big "Best of Awards," votes for a variety of categories take place on a schedule throughout the  year, involving different business sectors, without swamping the sales team. 


- Traffic has nearly doubled from 25,000 uniques per month to 45,000 per month. 

- Advertisers have grown from 25 to more than 60 during the launch drive, with 90% renewing in the first big round of renewals.

- From zero digital dollars in April of 2011, digital revenues now account for 25% of the station's total revenues. 

- Most revenues still come from banners ads on the web site, "this is where our focus has been."

- As a business the digital company is profitable.  "In about four months, we started booking than we're spending and margins will only get better" since staff costs are constant. 

- The station has just started selling Facebook contests on Second Street media platform.

-  Traffic drivers have shifted from search towards direct. Originally 70% of traffic was search-driven, while 10% was direct.  As of July, 2012,  direct traffic accounted for  35 to 40% of the total, and search was just 25% and referral was 25%. "Viral is a big part of (direct traffic because of) people sharing our content." 

Lessons learned

- Separated the sales team was not easy.

"It was a  big deal for our radio sellers to get their arms around the fact that they are not selling the digital products...but now we are passing deals back and forth and doing much better with the set up." 

"It's not a perfect world... to a certain extent they are in competition with each other. But if we weren't going to create a hyper-local website, someonelse would. As Steve Jobs said, 'If we  we are going to be cannablized let's cannibalize ourselves.' But the ammoun of cannibalization has been practically nothing."

Resources:  Intertechmedia.com 

Many thanks to Barry Leffler, owner, WCHL for sharing the community site concept at RadioInk Convergence and with members of LocalMediaInsider.