Sunday, August 30, 2009

Q100 Faces the Music

I don’t have to tell you that Atlanta’s CHR landscape leans toward the unusual. In early 2005, the market had an Adult CHR, Star 94 (WSTR), and a straight-ahead CHR, Q100 (WWWQ). Star 94 had been the adult station for years and, even after having younger listeners taken by 95-5 The Beat and then Q100, Star enjoyed respectable ratings. Most important, Star’s billings stayed somewhere up in the stratosphere, far above where you would have expected based on the station’s ratings.

Star had been ahead in the coveted 25-54 demo while Q100 and The Beat fought over the 18-34 audience. All three stations were considered successful though Star far out-billed its direct foes.

Things started to change in April, 2005 when Susquehanna, a private company whose owners retired, sold its prized collection of stations to Cumulus Media Partners, partly owned and totally run by Cumulus Media. Susquehanna was a broadcaster; Cumulus is a company that makes its living owning stations, if you get my drift. Up until then, Cumulus’ footprint consisted almost entirely of medium and small markets.

Cumulus started putting its stamp on Q100, first evolving the station to a much-more-music sound except in mornings, probably a good thing since Arbitron’s PPM was already visible in the rear-view mirror. Speaking of mirrors, the music clock was reset to mimic virtually every other Cumulus CHR in the U.S., safe, adult and heavily tilted toward recurrents. Nights were the exception, with some rhythmic product creeping in after 7PM.

If Star 94 had not for some reason lost its mind at the end of 2005, it could have had Q100 on the ropes. Star’s first major programming decision that year was not to renew Steve & Vikki, which was a legitimate move given the audience had aged out of Star’s demo. Then, in an amazing sequence of events, Star 94 brought in a youthful morning show and seemingly changed the station’s target audience to 18-34, including major changes in music and imaging. Yet the station kept the adult-oriented Cindy & Ray in afternoon drive with what was almost a talk show.

Star 94’s missteps gave Cumulus the urge to move in for the kill; that and the obvious end of 99X as a viable property motivated the company to move Q100 to 99.7, giving Q a signal as big as Star’s from the best FM transmitter location in the Atlanta market. Initially, the frequency shift and Star’s terrible decisions helped Q100 to skip ahead of Star 94 for the first time despite Q100’s music.

Q100’s reign was temporary as GM Rick Mack and PD JR Ammons were hired to right Star 94. Restoring Star to its heritage Adult CHR position took just several months and quickly knocked back Q100 to an also-ran. Although Star 94 has added formatic brilliance since then, just restoring the overall sound was enough to expose Q100’s music.

While Cindy & Ray have taken Star 94 back to a competitive position in the morning, Q100’s Bert Show still clobbers them and will continue to do so. That notwithstanding, C&R is the right morning show for Star. Star has been winning in the other dayparts and especially on weekends.

Q100’s music has caused an interesting thing to happen. The station has been a Hot AC in CHR clothing. It still beats Star 94 in 25-54 but loses 18-34. Is Star 94 an 18-34 station? Well, yes to a degree. But Star’s Adult CHR playlist and adult morning show would tend to skew 25-54 if up against a true CHR, which should be winning in 18-34. Star’s clock, completely devoid of rhythmic, is so much more current than Q100’s, and Star has been winning the younger demos almost by default.

Perception and ego mean a lot, and even though Q100 should be happy to be winning 25-54, Star 94 is #1 in the 6+ beauty contest. Finally, Q100 has started tweaking its music to be more current, and now has 3 powers spinning more than 85 times per week; a few sub-powers in the 50-spin range, and a few power recurrents playing fairly frequently. The station now comes out of its late-in-the-hour stopset, which concludes with the top-of-the-hour jingle, with a power current more often than previously.

Q100’s 90’s gold has diminished significantly, even in midday, which is recurrent-heavy on both stations. Most of the annoying Rob Thomas and Goo Goo Dolls material has vanished (except for Her Diamonds, of course).

Q100 is still leaning too much on recurrents for my taste. With PPM numbers being released monthly, my guess is Q100 will keep an eye on what effect, if any, the adjustments made so far have before going further. Cumulus CHR Senior VP, Programming Jan Jeffries probably wants to keep the station as safe as possible. And winning in 25-54 is a good thing. Cumulus/Atlanta Operations Manager Rob Roberts is certainly well-versed in CHR programming. He served a lengthy stint as captain of Miami’s Y100 although the station got middle-of-the-pack ratings during his tenure.

Has Radio One Hit a Wall?
New Radio One/Atlanta Operations Manager Hurricane Dave Smith blew into town last week and started tweaking formatics even before finding the men’s room. Hot 107-9 is no longer the “Digital Hip-Hop Station” but is now “Atlanta’s Hottest Hip-Hop.” In fact, the station had already made a number of on-air changes ever since Regional Manager Bruce Demps decided he preferred Hot’s ratings be closer to V-103’s, starting with the dismissal of longtime PD Jerry Smokin B. Yet Hot’s Persons 6+ shares over the past 3 months have been 4.4, 4.1 and 3.9. Are formatics going to get it to the next level?

Early this year, Radio One introduced an Urban AC format under the Majic moniker and created a simulcast on 107.5 and 97.5. Praise, which had lived at 97.5, moved to the company’s weakest signal, 102.5. Cox Urban AC Kiss 104.1 had been racking up some mighty impressive PPM numbers, and Radio One wanted a bigger piece of the action.

Majic obtained what it considered the perfect weapon for countering Kiss’ Tom Joyner in mornings, the Steve Harvey Show. Ironically, Radio One owns the Tom Joyner Morning Show through its 2005 purchase of Reach Media. Harvey beats Joyner in a lot of markets, especially in the young demos. In what must have been an embarrassment to the Joyner folks, WGCI-FM in Joyner’s hometown of Chicago recently dropped the show in favor of a local host. Joyner did get picked up by Soul 106.3, a rimshot with a weak signal over much of the market.

Radio One corporate programming guru Jay Stevens spent significant time in Atlanta to get Majic off the ground and moving in the right direction. Plus, the Majic launch and Harvey in mornings were promoted heavily by billboards on what seemed like every corner.

Kiss has been able to well withstand the Majic frontal assault thus far. In fact, over the past 3 months, the 6+ PPM shares are Kiss: 7.0, 7.0, 7.2 and Majic 5.1, 4.7, 4.5. Now that Hurricane Dave Smith is about to start his work with Majic, we wonder whether the Kiss levees will hold.

So back to the question: Has Radio One hit a wall?

Hot 107-9 is performing close to its potential in my opinion. Going against V-103 will never be easy. V-103 has a huge signal while Hot is a move-in with a decent signal. V-103 has the heritage, and each host is an all-star and unique in his or her rite. That’s not to say Hot 107-9 doesn’t have some stellar personalities; Maria Moore, Emperor Searcy and the Dirty Boyz all fit that description.

Hot 107-9 is also younger in appeal than V-103, which has managed to dominate until the age of 49. One thing that Hot could do something about if not for budgets is the morning show. We question Ricky Smiley’s appeal to Hot’s young listeners. Smiley’s BET show, his claim to fame, ended years ago.

As far as Majic 107.5/97.5 versus Kiss 104.1, it’s difficult to figure out which has the signal advantage. The Radio One combo is comprised of a good signal (107.5) from the north complemented by a fair signal (97.5) from the south. Kiss has a huge signal but transmits from south of Atlanta in Newnan.

The formats are not really identical though both could best be categorized as Urban AC. Majic for the most part skews younger and features old school on Thursday. Majic broadcasts the syndicated Michael Baisden in afternoons while Kiss emphasizes its hourly music sweeps outside of morning drive.

In my opinion, Kiss is a better-programmed station during its music hours. I would describe Kiss midday host Cynthia Young as functional but effective. She executes the format to a tee. Art Terrell and his booming voice in afternoon drive combine with the formatics to make the station sound great. Meanwhile, is Majic afternoon host Michael Baisden too talkative for the PPM’s liking?

In evenings, I have to give the edge to Majic and Silas “SiMan” Alexander. Former Kiss Slow Jams host Stacy Dee got caught in a budget crunch last year, and Program Director Jay Dixon, who tries hard to whisper, is not the voice for that show.

Kiss 104.1 in my opinion has the advantage in programming and possibly in signal, covering the market in seamless fashion on one frequency.

The Praise move from 97.5 to the 3,000-watt 102.5 signal has worked out well since a lot of the station’s older audience lives within close range. Yet Radio One has significant obstacles to overcome if Hot 107-9 and Majic 107.5/97.5 are going to pose serious competition to V-103 and Kiss 104.1, respectively.

If you had any doubt that radio stations are slaves to their budgets, consider this. Early this year, when Hot 107-9 replaced The A Team with the syndicated Ricky Smiley in mornings, midday personality Maria Moore was simultaneously released. A Team member Rashan Ali was still under contract so she was placed in middays. But, Rashan Ali apparently was earning more bucks than Maria Moore. So as soon as Ali’s contract ended, she was let go, and Maria Moore was rehired.

Roddy Freeman

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