Monday, June 28, 2010

It's the Post-Seacrest Era at Star 94

Star 94 (WSTR-FM) is the station that launched Ryan Seacrest's career.

In the early 1990's while attending Dunwoody High, Seacrest asked Star 94's then-evening personality, Tom Sullivan, if he could visit during Tom's shift.  Sullivan took a liking to Seacrest, and the visits became frequent.  One evening, Sullivan wanted to run out for a while and asked Seacrest to take over the show.  Program Director Tony Novia was listening and was none too pleased.  But, Novia later relented and hired Seacrest as a part-timer.  Ryan Seacrest became Star 94's weekend teen sensation.

Seacrest left for bigger things and eventually landed at L.A.'s Star 98.7 (KYSR-FM) handling afternoons.  While still at KYSR, he took home the big prize, American Idol host, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In light of Seacrest's background in Atlanta and at Star 94, it's not surprising that Lincoln Financial Media's management thought On Air with Ryan Seacrest would be a winner in this market and in fact lead Star 94 back to ratings glory.  That combined with saving money on a salary seemed too good to be true.  It was.

At the time, Seacrest had already been picked up by CHR stations across the country, most of them owned by Clear Channel.  The company's strategy, similar to Star 94's, was to save dollars on salaries while the lure of the Seacrest name kept ratings up.  Clear Channel designed the show for middays, and many of its stations, including the most-listened-to CHR in the country, New York's Z100, were able to rely on their momentum to get through On Air without a ratings loss.

Star 94, however, was even more wide-eyed.  The show started on Star during January, 2009 in middays.  But rumors flew from the start that On Air would shift to afternoon drive once The Morning Mess was axed and Cindy & Ray moved into mornings.  That of course all proved to be true.

Star 94 was in a different position than many of the stations carrying Seacrest.  It had ceded the Atlanta CHR crown to Q100.  Unlike the dominant CHR's that hoped to breeze through the show without an audience hiccup, Star was depending on On Air to overtake the competition.

I had heard On Air with Ryan Seacrest, and it sounded canned and bland.  And though affiliates can program their own music, and technology makes Seacrest sound almost local, the show takes away the normal formatic flow as well as the ability to air local promotions.  Star 94's Chase Daniels was inserted to run contests.  And on a show that was not created with drivetime in mind, the talented Daniels also would come on to introduce traffic reports.

Star 94 remained in a ratings malaise although Seacrest's afternoon drive numbers were no worse than the station's as a whole.  When Star moved Seacrest back to noon to 4 and created a 4-to-8PM slot for Chase Daniels, the bloom was off the rose.  The watch was on for the other shoe to drop.  Management had come to the realization that On Air was not the best use of the station's time.

That shoe did drop as of 4PM on Friday, when Seacrest signed off for the last time on Star 94.  (He will of course still be heard on American Top 40.)  The contract reportedly ran into next January, but the station somehow managed to wrangle itself free.  The new schedule is Cindy & Ray from 5:30-9AM, Heather Branch 9AM-2PM, Chase Daniels 2-7PM and Darik Kristofer 7PM to midnight.

Removing Seacrest makes the Star 94 team a more cohesive unit.  Everyone sounds like Star 94.  Formatics are consistent across the day.  Heather Branch's talent is more fully utilized over the midday hours.  The same holds true for Chase Daniels in afternoon drive and Darik Kristofer in evenings.  Star has more control over its destiny.

The upside potential notwithstanding, the move does nothing to alleviate Star 94's major structural problem, mornings dragging down the rest of the day.  And some decisions regarding music need to be made.  I was glad the station finally added B.O.B.'s Nothing On You now that the song is on its way down.  Of course, the rap was edited out, making the sound perfect for Star.  Break Your Heart by Taio Cruz Not Featuring Ludacris also is now being played, and the song sans Ludacris has a general market flavor.  (Star 94 could have a sweeper promoting "your favorite songs without Ludacris."  The station airs Justin Bieber's Baby leaving out the Ludacris part.)

"iPads All Day + 5K," and being live and local lead Star 94 into the July PPM period with a nice one-two punch.  This could lift the station's ratings ceiling.  By how much is anyone's guess, but I don't see this moving Star into the high-rent district occupied by Q100.  But, living life without Seacrest was a move in the right direction.

Get Well, Julie Shaw
Our best wishes go out to Julie Shaw of the CBS Radio/Atlanta management team, a beautiful person both inside and out.  Julie, we wish you a full and speedy recovery. 

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Defying Radio's Law of Gravity

Something is in the air at 104.7 The Fish.  Salem's Contemporary Christian outlet is an oasis of stability in the characteristically unstable business of radio.

The Fish (WFSH-FM) surfaced in Atlanta during September, 2000 as the result of a deal among Cox Radio, the Dickey family (of Cumulus fame) and Salem.  Cox's purchase of Dickey's Kiss 104.7 (WALR-FM) left the company with too many FM's in the Atlanta market.  Cox moved the WALR-FM call letters and Kiss intellectual property to 104.1, and traded 104.7 to Salem for an FM in Houston.

The Fish's first General Manager, Allen Power, now a Senior VP with Salem, put the station on the air.  Under the cover of 40 days of uninterrupted music, Power swung into action, quickly assembling a staff.  Two of his first hires were Kevin Avery and Taylor Scott, who do the morning show to this day.

Power named Kevin Avery the PD, and Kevin brought in Parks Stamper for middays and Dan Ratcliffe for afternoon drive during the first few months.  Parks and Dan remain in their original shifts.  Mike Stoudt, who handles evenings, joined The Fish in January, 2001 as a copywriter and weekend personality.  A year later, he became Music Director and moved into his current slot.

Some might argue that WSB-AM has been stable for longer.  Scott Slade has been at WSB since 1982, originally as a traffic reporter, and Neal Boortz and Clark Howard have been there since the early 1990's.  And Atlanta radio has some individual cases of incredible longevity.  Kelly McCoy recently celebrated 25 years in afternoons at B98.5, and that station's Jordan Graye first joined in 1989 as a part-timer and became full time in 1991.

The Fish somehow seems different.  In addition to the on-air team, the sales department has been pretty much intact for just as long.  Staffers say the atmosphere is unlike any other radio station that they have experienced.

In what space does 104.7 The Fish compete?  The Christian Contemporary format has elements of both Adult Contemporary and Gospel/Religious programming.  As someone who takes stations apart and analyzes them, I hear a state-of-the-art AC when I listen to The Fish.

When we radio junkies talk shop, 104.7 The Fish rarely or never makes its way into the conversation.  Nevertheless, the station's use of sweepers, song tags, jingles and promos reflects a sophisticated understanding of programming elements.

The Fish is a finely-tuned machine, which is not surprising if you know anything about PD Mike Blakemore.  General Manager Mike Moran hired Blakemore 2 1/2 years ago to take the station to the next level.  Mike grew up listening to Chicago's WLS and dreamed of working there.  Although he never joined The Big 89, he has successfully programmed stations in a variety of formats around the country.

Unlike stations in other formats, whose positioning involves the music they play, 104.7 The Fish positions the station as being "safe for the whole family."  Words such as "uplifting" and "positive" pop up in sweepers.  While maintaining the perception of continuous music, Blakemore gives his personalities breathing room; and they often use it to converse with listeners, whose comments contribute to the station's message.  He also skillfully uses Kevin & Taylor, the established and trusted morning duo, as a centerpiece across the other dayparts.

In this age of specialization, personalities in each format usually have a sound inherent to that format.  Contemporary Christian jocks should connote such traits as wholesomeness, family and sincerity, and both Taylor Scott and Parks Stamper fit the persona perfectly, as do weekender Margaret Cheeley and traffic reporter Heidi Rew.  Kevin Avery, Dan Ratcliffe and Mike Stoudt are steadfast radio pros who uphold the station's image as well.

Contemporary Christian is a niche format and not expected to challenge the big boys.  Yet 104.7 The Fish has been earning shares in the mid 4's among total persons 6+, good enough for 9th place in the May PPM ratings.  In its target audience of women 25-54, however, The Fish came in at a stellar #6.  Moreover, Arbitron indicates that 90% of the station's women 25-54 average quarter-hour audience are "preferred" listeners, indicating a high degree of loyalty.

The 104.7 signal is one of the numerous FM move-ins that recognized Atlanta's transformation from a medium to large market over the past 30 years.  As such, The Fish must still throw a city-grade signal over its original city of license, Athens, GA.  Thus, the transmitter site is approximately 25 miles east of Atlanta, creating somewhat of a signal-strength disadvantage compared to the true Atlanta-licensed facilities.  Several years ago, Salem erected a new 1,762-foot monster tower in Loganville, making the signal more competitive.

So, why does 104.7 The Fish have such stability and is, according to employees, a terrific and unique place to work?  Of course, ratings and billings success tend to foster high morale and longevity.  But, staff members say there's more to it.  I asked a few of them to provide their thoughts.
  • Mike Blakemore, Program Director: "We are not just providing first-class radio entertainment, but real lives are being changed through the music we play and the stories shared by our listeners and DJ's.  All of this makes working at The Fish not just another job, but a job with a mission."
  • Parks Stamper, Midday Personality: "I can only speak to my personal experience, which is pretty simple.  I love our listeners, and I love what I get to do everyday."
  • Michael Howell, Sales Executive: "There is an underlying current of trust among the salespeople. No backstabbing like at other places.  Kevin Isaac (General Sales Manager) is like a teacher, calm, collected.  He filters everything through the sales team."
With cost-cutting and voice tracking all too prevalent in the industry, 104.7 The Fish proves that live and local programming created by caring radio professionals is still a winning formula.
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    Monday, June 14, 2010

    V-103's Minor Tremor

    When V-103 chose not to renew the contract of morning show drag queen Miss Sophia (Joe Taylor), the radio community began to speculate why.  Then the announcement that midday host Elle Duncan would move to mornings in a new role prompted additional conjecture.  Some of the theories seem to make more sense than others, but let's take a look at what the pundits were saying.

    V-103 needed to inject some youth into the morning show.  Frank Ski and Wanda Smith are in their 40's as was Miss Sophia.  Nevertheless, the morning show is a dominant #1 in 18-34.  The lovely Elle Duncan is in her 20's so perhaps the station is being proactive and protecting its turf.  Yet the only Urban competitor targeting the 18-34 demographic is Hot 107-9 (WHTA-FM), which, with the syndicated Ricky Smiley, has little chance of stealing anyone or anything from V-103.

    The morning show needed more sports.  V-103 has admitted that the Frank & Wanda Show has been a little sparse in this area, which is of interest to many listeners.  And Elle Duncan is said to know sports, which will now enjoy increased coverage.  However, wanting more emphasis on sports was not a reason to release Miss Sophia.

    Elle Duncan was not yet ready to be a solo show host.  I tend not to agree with this one.  V-103 is a big-sounding station, and in a sense, Elle sounded overmatched in bigness.  But, I loved Elle's bright voice.  Importantly, she sounded unique, a quality associated with everyone on V-103.  Keep in mind the morning show is a promotion for Elle.

    Miss Sophia had no support except for Wanda Smith; Frank Ski got an earful on the streets.  This is possible but consider that before coming to Atlanta, Frank Ski had a similar character on his show in Baltimore, Miss Toni, so he knew what to expect from Miss Sophia.  And, Atlanta is a more gay-friendly town than Baltimore.

    V-103 did research, and the results were not positive.  If Sophia were widely disliked, I doubt he would have stayed for 4 years, which consisted of multiple contracts.  Many listeners are not fond of Frank Ski but apparently listen anyway.  The ratings are the bottom line and are huge.

    Miss Sophia turned down a 2-year contract.  A blog entitled is reporting that Sophia turned down a 2-year deal because it disallowed his doing any outside appearances.  The blogger does not identify himself, but former longtime V-103 morning man Mike Roberts told me that the author is a friend of his and "tends to be pretty plugged in."  While this could be factual, I wonder why V-103 would not want Sophia doing appearances since they would be promoting the station.  Even if Sophia's appearances tended to be raunchy enough to embarrass the station, the crowds attending would perceive them as just delightful.

    Ramona Debreaux is the odds-on favorite to win middays on V-103.  Ramona held down the slot in the months between Porche Foxx's departure and Elle Duncan's coming.  She fits the demo and lifestyle, and is well known from her years at Hot 107-9.  Other possible candidates are weekenders Shay Moore and Sytonnia.  Moore has a long stay doing middays at Urban KRNB-FM in Dallas on her resume; Sytonnia has handled middays at Orlando's WJHM-FM.

    Too Much Heat From Radio One
    Since the FM translator on 102.9 signed back on under Radio One ownership, it's duplicated the programming of the company's Hot 107-9.  As a long-term strategy, this of course would make no sense since the new signal is completely contained within 107-9's primary coverage area.  So I have to assume that Radio One has plans for its precious new Atlanta baby.

    I had thought Radio One would have had a well-reasoned business plan when it purchased 102.9, and maybe it did.  The company, however, is being mum regarding any potential format.  Some say Radio One should be excused if it did not have a plan since the signal was a virtual steal.  Radio One did indeed get a terrific deal.  The company had previous owner Extreme Media, or former Radio One executive Steve Hegwood, backed up against a wall.  Hegwood had been hiding behind the Extreme Media name, having appointed his nephew CEO.  Radio One sued Hegwood for stealing proprietary mixes from the company, and he did not appear to have a case.  Radio One dropped the lawsuit as part of the deal for 102.9.

    The 102.9 signal is strong across most high-density African-American neighborhoods and therefore has potential as an Urban station.  Radio One has the Hip-Hop, Gospel and Urban AC genres covered with its Hot 107-9, Praise 102.5 and Majic 107.5/97.5, respectively.  The Smooth Jazz format is pretty much extinct.  Urban Talk is a possibility although WAOK-AM has Syndication One hosts Al Sharpton and Warren Ballentine tied up.  If Radio One cannot find an Urban format for 102.9, the company's best strategy might be to sell the signal for a hefty profit.

    Where has the time gone?  Darik is coming on with the Text Top 5.  Excuse me while I run to my radio.

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    Monday, June 7, 2010

    The Quiet Storm Lives Up To Its Name

    V-103 was the New York Yankees of Atlanta radio.  It was the one station that got it; the station that realized investing in talent paid off in terms of ratings and billings.  It was the station that believed personalities were as important as the music.

    Have you noticed that the Quiet Storm, V-103's late night program, has become, well, awfully quiet?  That's because since longtime host Joyce Littel was let go in January, the Quiet Storm has been running jockless.  Yet it feels like the other shoe will drop at some point, especially with live personalities on all other shifts, including overnights.

    The Quiet Storm, a name used by Urban stations for their slow jams show late at night, typically features a signature voice.  In her 19 years at V-103, Joyce Littel became the love-life maven of Atlanta, dispensing advice on the air and attracting a large following.  Suddenly all of that was conspicuously missing.

    V-103 never provided a reason for Littel's dismissal, but it was widely assumed to be related to the big salary that she had accumulated over the years.  When she departed, a rumor surfaced that the station needed the dollars to bring Rashan Ali on board, to co-host with Ryan Cameron in afternoons as she did in mornings when Cameron worked at Hot 107-9 (WHTA-FM).  The rumor made some sense since afternoon drive is a far higher revenue-generating daypart than late night, and it came to fruition.

    The move also fueled speculation that Cameron and Ali will eventually replace Frank & Wanda in mornings.  After all, Ryan Cameron's afternoon ratings were not crying for the addition of a co-host.  Keep in mind, however, that the morning rumors swirled when Cameron first jumped to V-103, and Frank Ski has signed two contracts since then, the most recent in October, 2009.  Neither the station nor Ski has divulged the length of that contract.

    The Quiet Storm has been a staple of late night Urban Radio over the past 30 years.  The title has been used in virtually every market, for the show that followed the day's pressures with mellow, relaxed tempos and rhythms.  How did this nighttime mainstay originate?

    The Quiet Storm name came from a song recorded by Smokey Robinson in 1975.  His soulful rendition perfectly befit the personality that was to be exuded by the radio show.  In fact, the song was used as the opening theme of the Quiet Storm on its first station.

    WHUR-FM was a full-power commercial FM station donated to Washington, DC's Howard University by Post-Newsweek in 1971.  Post-Newsweek, which also owned AM, TV and the Washington Post in the market, became concerned that the Nixon Administration would frown on its heavy media concentration; and what better way to allay that concern than to hand its FM to a minority university.

    With no debt, WHUR was under little ratings pressure.  Howard University installed a very progressive black music format, one that was quite different from its hit-based competitors in the market.  Washington's sophisticated African-American population made the station, which had little in the way of production values, a ratings winner.

    Cathy Hughes, who would later found Radio One, served as General Manager of WHUR in 1976 and brought the Quiet Storm into existence.  She tapped a station intern, Melvin Lindsey, to host the program.  The show and Lindsey became immensely popular.  After several years, DC competitor 93 K-Y-S (WKYS-FM) hired Lindsey to compete against WHUR, but he never came close to his WHUR ratings.  Lindsey died of AIDS in 1992.

    Fybush Tour Wraps Up at Tech
    Scott Fybush's whirlwind Atlanta tour concludes this week with the ramblin' WREK from Georgia Tech.  The installment features both the modern studios in the Student Center and a visit to the transmitter at the west end of the campus.  The host was WREK's young chief engineer, Thomas Shanks.  Here's the link:

    That's it for now.  I need to get back to my new Justin Bieber album.  Thanks for reading.  I would love to hear from you at  Follow us on Twitter at, and we'll follow you back.

    Link to Rodney Ho's AJC Radio & TV Blog: