Why is this year different from all other years? I have no idea. But, in 2010 I will be paying close attention to four stations that I envision having a question mark on their back.
Our first question is a station that once dominated but has seen its wheels come off over the past two years. Of course, I’m talking about Star 94 (WSTR-FM), probably this blog’s most written-about station in 2009. At the end of 2009, the longtime Adult CHR quietly transitioned its music to Hot AC, which apparently will be its direction.
A little history: Star 94 came out of the womb in 1989 as an up-tempo AC. Tony Novia, one of Star’s early PD’s, convinced GM Mark Kanov to move to Adult CHR. It worked and by 1998, Star was challenging for the market’s #1 spot and in fact captured the top position in an Arbitrend. In the late 90’s, young females had no place else to turn.
Things changed in Fall, 1999 when the 95.5 frequency moved into the market to accommodate 95-5 The Beat. The new choice for the young signed on with a rhythmic-leaning CHR format.
The Beat put Star 94 in a box. Should Star defend its CHR territory by shifting younger? After all, its signal was ions better than The Beat’s. If it had made that move, Star would have jeopardized its very lucrative older end. So Star stayed on course, looking helpless as its ratings eroded. Nevertheless, Star kept its older core as well as its huge billings. I thought Program Director Dan Bowen did a great job in his first 9 years.
In 2001, concurrent with Q100’s sign-on, 95-5 The Beat went all-out Rhythmic CHR. That left Q100, a straight-ahead CHR, as Star 94’s most direct competitor.
Fast forward to the end of 2007, when Star 94 made a series of bad decisions. After the contracts of Steve & Vikki were not renewed, the station brought in a youth-oriented morning team, The Morning Mess. The station veered away from Adult CHR closer to Mainstream CHR to be consistent with its new morning show. Yet Star kept an adult-oriented, almost-talk show, Cindy & Ray, in afternoon drive. I do not know who made these decisions, but some sources say Lincoln Financial Media National PD John Dimick was behind the removal of Steve & Vikki. In any case, the loss of Steve & Vikki did not have to damage the station like it did.
Some observers feel Star 94 should have held on to the still-lucrative Steve & Vikki and segued to Hot AC. Personally, I believe Star should have stuck with Adult CHR and immediately moved Cindy & Ray into morning drive. That would have restored the station’s music-intensive pace in afternoons and given morning drive a proven ratings grabber.
The 7 months of Atlanta radio without Steve & Vikki gave their fans, who fled The Morning Mess en masse, plenty of time to find a new show. The big winner was The Bert Show on Q100, which had just moved to the powerful 99.7 signal.
Star regained its composure in Spring, 2009 when new PD JR Ammons quickly restored the station to its heritage Adult CHR position. Ammons demonstrated a keen understanding of Arbitron’s People Meter and did all the right things formatically. Star 94 became more current than Q100 while keeping its distance from hip-hop-leaning rhythmic product. Cindy & Ray were finally moved to mornings.
For a while, Star 94’s moves paid off. The heavily-recurrent and musically-conservative Q100 still won handily in mornings, but Star caught up in afternoon drive and took the lead in evenings and on weekends; plus Star won the 6+ race for a few months.
Q100 reacted by adjusting its music to bring it more current. That combined with its blockbuster morning show was all it took for Q100 to jump back on top, eventually knocking Star below a 3% share in 6+. Star 94’s initial morning gains were pushed back, making it obvious Cindy & Ray were not about to put a ding in The Bert Show or Steve & Vikki, now on B98.5. And frankly, 2 Adult CHR’s in one market was so unusual that it felt like something had to give before long.
Atlanta had two format holes, a perceptual one and a real one. Its conservative daytime music clock notwithstanding, Q100 is perceived as the hip, youthful CHR. That perception left a big perceived hole between Q100 and AC B98.5.
In reality, there’s a big hole between Q100 and The Beat, and a sliver between Q100 and B98.5.
Star 94’s problem is mornings, but finding an Adult CHR show that could steal from Bert and Steve & Vikki would be neither easy nor inexpensive. Moreover, another morning show this soon could shake up things dangerously inside and outside the station.
Star 94 moving into the real hole between Q100 and The Beat, becoming a Mainstream CHR, would cause major upheaval and be expensive. The Star 94 brand would have to be scrapped given its series of confusing moves over the past 2 years. Though young CHR fans would quickly realize Q100 was not the young, cool station, WSTR would be starting almost from scratch.
Star wisely chose to fill the perceptual hole. The station can retain its heritage, its subtle shift notwithstanding. Its current air staff is compatible with Hot AC. Even the syndicated Ryan Seacrest should work; it's inexpensive programming that has held its own in ratings. And while Darik at Night plays to a young audience, his adult-friendly sound wins the approval of their parents.
The key for Star 94 will be successfully separating itself musically from Q100. As mentioned, the real musical hole is very small, and Q100 plays a lot of recurrents, one of Hot AC’s major components.
Hot AC is first the current songs minus the rhythmic product. It’s Kelly Clarkson, Lifehouse, Rob Thomas, Taylor Swift and Nickelback. Second, it’s recurrents, like ”I’ve Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas, “Paralyzer” by Finger Eleven and “You Found Me” by the Fray. Third, it’s modern-leaning songs by bands such as Theory of a Deadman and Muse. Fourth, it’s fairly recent older product, such as “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s, “Your Body is a Wonderland” by John Mayer and “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol. Fifth, it’s still older songs like “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne and “Kryptonite” by 3 Doors Down.
Some Hot AC stations distinguish themselves by seasoning the music with special old school artists such as U2, INXS and Squeeze.
As of now, Star 94 is still using its Hit Music positioning. Hot AC stations want to appear current and use a variety of monikers. WPLJ-FM in New York is a Hot AC that utilizes Hit Music positioning though most Hot AC’s do not. Positioning such as “Today’s Best Music” and “The Best Mix of the 80’s, 90’s & Today” are typical. Star 94 of course has equity in Hit Music positioning. But would staying with Hit Music sweepers make it harder to separate itself from Q100?
How should Q100 react to Star 94’s music adjustments? In my opinion, Q100 should not change a thing. Remember Q100’s young, hip perception. Young Caucasian listeners have nowhere to turn unless they want The Beat’s totally-rhythmic playlist. As long as Q100 owns the minds and ears of the market’s youth, why not try to capture the older end as well?
Will Star 94 be able to shine musically, separate itself from Q100 and show a ratings increase? The new year should prove an interesting one for Star 94.
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