Monday, March 9, 2009

Can Star 94 Clean Up Its Mess?

The shoe finally dropped on Friday when Star 94 (WSTR-FM) fired The Morning Mess.

I can only guess the reasoning in keeping the show this long and then letting it go. The Morning Mess’ contracts reportedly ran through December of this year. Star performed acceptably in the first 2 months of Arbitron’s PPM. Perhaps management hoped to save money by allowing The Mess to stay through their contracts. The disastrous January PPM numbers might have forced management’s hand.

Unlike almost everyone else, I feel The Morning Mess has some talent and could do well on certain CHR stations. Star 94 was just the wrong station for this very youthful show. Its contrast from the long-running Steve & Vikki was just too drastic and drove away multitudes of listeners.

The story has been well chronicled in this blog (on December 30). Star 94 incredibly allowed the cancellation of a morning show to heavily damage the station. This has happened before in the business but not usually as the result of concurrent programming changes. For example, when Howard Stern jumped to satellite, many of his broadcast affiliates were harmed inordinately. When Rick & Bubba changed stations in Birmingham, their former home base died and flipped formats. But as talented and respected as Steve McCoy and Vikki Locke are, they are not Howard Stern or Rick & Bubba, and their departure should not have caused that kind of harm to Star 94. Star just made some bad decisions.

Star 94 held the Adult CHR position in this market for years, yet management decided to ditch that and go straight-ahead CHR. The station hired a young morning show with a hot sound but kept a duo appealing to older listeners in afternoon drive. For years, top-40 stations have had an adult show in morning drive but have gotten hotter as the day progressed. Star 94 became the polar opposite of that.

Coinciding with these changes, former Program Director Dan Bowen started adjusting the station’s processing, which can be done from the studio by remote control. According to sources, Bowen kept changing his mind but ultimately attempted to make the station louder than Q100. One employee told me that eventually Bowen turned up the sound as loud as the processor would allow, ruining what had been good processing. The employee reminded Bowen that Star’s target audience was women, not men.

We all know that bringing in a successful morning show is one of the most difficult achievements in radio. But Star 94’s most-listened-to show was in afternoon drive, the talk-heavy Cindy & Ray. Moving C&R to mornings might not have taken the station to new heights, but it would have kept things stable.

Star 94’s thinking apparently was that moving Cindy & Ray to mornings could have ruined two dayparts. However, not doing so ruined the station. Cindy & Ray were hired to bring something different and compelling to afternoon drive; to stem the erosion to newcomers including Q100 and 95-5 The Beat. That was valid rationale for keeping Cindy & Ray in afternoons, but PM drive would have been a far easier problem to overcome than mornings. Star could have given afternoons to Steve McCoy or even Nudge.

Cindy & Ray became successful, but overall station ratings erosion did not abate. I have always wondered whether, while afternoon drive flourished, CHR listeners wanting music abandoned Star 94 for Q100 and did not come back when C&R signed off at 7.

So Star 94 now finds itself in the same situation, with the morning slot to fill and Cindy & Ray still in the afternoon. On Friday, reported that Program Director J.R. Ammons is looking for a morning show. Is recent history about to repeat itself? Probably not completely since the station will not bring in a 12-34 product this time.

Star 94 has a golden opportunity to make a comeback. That’s because Q100’s music clock is unbelievably conservative. It’s very heavy on recurrents; Q plays Kanye West, Flo Rida and Kardinal Offishall but only at night. Flo Rida’s “Right Round” is in Q100’s published top 10 but is never played during the day. Two factors have been propelling Q100 to the trouncing it’s been handing Star 94, the Bert Show versus The Morning Mess, and the heavy talk on Star 94 in afternoon drive.

Musically, Star 94 is now the far more current of the two stations. Star does play more recurrents in midday than a typical CHR station.

I predict that if Star keeps Cindy & Ray in afternoons, the station will not challenge Q100 for the CHR crown. And yes, Star did win when Q100 was on 100.5 and prior to Star’s programming changes. But now, Q100 is the established #1 CHR. Beating the Bert Show in mornings may not be a realistic goal for Star no matter what the morning show turns out to be. Yet, Star with Cindy & Ray could come close in the morning and win overall with its almost real CHR playlist. But beating the now-entrenched Q100 on its 100,000-watt signal is going to take music and a compelling personality in afternoon drive.

Consider this: New Program Director J.R. Ammons has made a significant adjustment to Star’s music. Powers have been turning over much more frequently than before, at 1:40 to 2 hours between spins, even in middays. The apparent thinking here is that Star now offers a higher likelihood that a hit will be playing, which is what CHR listeners want. But if J.R.’s thinking is that listeners want to hear a hit, how does he reconcile that with the likelihood that afternoon listeners are more likely to hear chatter than music?

Arbitron’s PPM has pushed many stations to program dead segues, including Star 94. But why play dead segues in Cindy & Ray when the show is so heavily talk? A final point is that C&R would give Star the slightly older-skewing morning show that it needs.

Other changes instituted by J.R. are that during Darik’s evening show, powers are played super-close together (though rhythmic is still left out), jingles have been virtually eliminated from the station; the filtered sound of the imaging was removed; and the sweepers have been rewritten.

So as we close, Star has an opening to right things again. Will the station seize the moment and move Cindy & Ray to mornings?

Thanks to young radio wiz Jonathan Hirsh of Savannah for his contributions to this week’s column.

Roddy Freeman

You can email me at Thanks for reading.

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