Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Star 94: A Station in Conflict

Replacing long-running morning show Steve & Vikki did not have to inflict significant damage on Star 94 (WSTR-FM). But it did by virtue of a couple of ill-calculated decisions.

Some observers feel Star 94 should have kept Steve & Vikki and moved just a bit from its CHR-but-almost-Hot AC position to Hot AC. This is reasonable and might have worked. I feel, however, that Star was correct to cancel S&V but should have retained its heritage music position, for a few reasons.

First, the station had its lowest-ever 12+ share in Fall, 2006 at 2.5%. Cindy & Ray's afternoon drive numbers trumped those of Steve & Vikki. The morning show probably had run its course. Second, adjusting its music to Hot AC would have put Star closer to Cox's B98.5, which has owned the AC position forever. Third, the playlist of Cumulus Media Partners' CHR Q100 (WWWQ-FM) had become heavily recurrent. While some would argue Q100's conservative music mix opened the door for Star 94 to go younger, Star was the heritage Adult CHR station. Even after Star 94 modified its format to go after a younger audience, Star continued to skew older than Q100, a testament to Star's well-solidified market position.

Five or so years ago, after seeing slow ratings erosion at the hands of Q100 and 95-5 The Beat (WBTS-FM), Star 94 management decided to replace talented afternoon personality Craig Hunt with Cindy & Ray, a show as heavy on talk as on music. The move was a bit unconventional for CHR, where mornings are typically heavy on talk while the other dayparts are music intensive and fast-paced.

At the time, I thought the move was a mistake; it interrupted the CHR flow of the station, which stopped in afternoon drive and resumed at night. Nevertheless, the addition of Cindy & Ray worked. Star 94's afternoon ratings became the station's best. Moreover, the talkish Cindy & Ray sound allowed Star to add commercial units as well as features that increased revenue.

Over the next several years, overall ratings were decent but not remarkably different from where they had been. Although Q100 and The Beat had come close in 12+, Star 94 remained strong in its target audience of women 25-44. And the station continued to be the darling of media buyers, billing way above what its ratings suggested.

Cindy & Ray continued to rack up the station's highest ratings. Whether the show chased CHR listeners away from Star in all dayparts is open to debate. But Cindy & Ray were rewarded with new contracts.

The end of Steve & Vikki's morning reign prompted a major decision. In my opinion, the obvious solution would have been to move Cindy & Ray to mornings. Observers say that any show replacing a legendary act is doomed to failure. But there are definitely exceptions in the annals of radio.

As we have witnessed this year in Atlanta, finding a successful morning show is one of the toughest accomplishments in radio. With Cindy & Ray, Star 94 had a successful and popular show that probably would have worked in AM drive.

Why did Star choose to go elsewhere? Some say the station feared messing up 2 dayparts by making the move. Or perhaps Star management wanted to hit a home run that would lift the station out of its stagnated ratings. Star's original strategy in hiring Cindy & Ray was to provide a compelling reason to listen in afternoon drive. My idea was to put Cindy & Ray in mornings and Steve McCoy in the afternoon. McCoy, while out of the Star demo, could give people a compelling reason to listen, and the station could go back to the flow of a CHR.

We all know the rest of the story. Star 94 hired The Morning Mess, a show displaced by a format change in the Indianapolis market. I've heard it all said: It's a medium market show; the station (Emmis' 93.1 Now) wasn't successful; the show's Arbitron share was less than the station as a whole; the show is just plain bad. Let me say that none of that is really true.

In hiring The Morning Mess, however, Star 94 went to a very young show in mornings. So the station became 18-34 in the morning and 25-54 in afternoons with Cindy & Ray. For years, top-40/CHR stations have gotten away with an older, more adult show in morning drive and a younger, hotter sound the remainder of the day. I've never heard a CHR station with a morning and afternoon dichotomy like Star 94's.

Another factor somehow missed by Star in its decision was that Q100's Bert Show had a very large and loyal audience of persons 18-34. The Bert Show is one of the country's best in terms of content, and its listeners were not apt to move. Yet Star decided to target Bert Show listeners with a product that, while not bad, is certainly nowhere as special.

Steve & Vikki's audience was aging, but the arrival of the drastically-different Morning Mess drove more than just the older end away, yet did not replace them with younger demos.

I've alluded to the music. Star 94 owned the Adult CHR position; why discard it? It of course was not consistent with The Morning Mess' youthful appeal. And perhaps Q100's shift to a heavily-recurrent music mix led Star to believe it had an opening at the younger end. Star also installed new, more youthful imaging, which actually sounds very good. Former station voice Brian James imaged Star for years, and it probably was time for something new. Star's new loud processing is another story. (Is that consistent with the Cindy & Ray audience?)

In any case, Star's Multiple Personality Disorder has to be cured. Arbitron's Portable People Meter has been kind to CHR stations because they attract a high cume. But to retake Atlanta's CHR crown, which it long held, Star 94 cannot continue being an 18-34 station in morning drive, banging its head against The Bert Show, and a 25-54 station in the afternoon.

Hopefully new PD J.R. Ammons is the therapist that the station needs.

Roddy Freeman