Monday, August 9, 2010

Q100's Music: Train Wreck or Stroke of Brilliance?

Q100 (WWWQ-FM) is categorized by virtually everyone as a CHR station.  Yet an hour's song log will reveal differences between Q100 and most other major market CHR's.

When Susquehanna Radio turned the keys over to Cumulus, Q100 was a state-of-the-art CHR.  Under Program Director Dylan Sprague, the station boasted of playing major hits that Star 94 ignored.  And Q100's music consisted of "all the hits," pure and simple.

Cumulus SVP/Programming Jan Jeffries is famous in the industry for programming recurrents.  It's a strategy that Jeffries deployed at stations long before coming to Cumulus.  In a now-famous 2009 interview, radio columnist Sean Ross posed the recurrent question to Jeffries early on.  Jeffries called recurrents "the backbone."  He said that while radio people think of the music as recurrents, to listeners they are good songs that have little burn.

Over the several months that followed the Cumulus acquisition, things at Q100 did indeed change.  Talk was tightened, and music became the undisputed star except in mornings.  As mentioned last week, evening personality Geller did not appreciate the gag order imposed on him and checked out.  Q100 got "10 times better" as the Cumulus 10-In-A-Row was installed.  And over the next several months, recurrents and recent gold became major parts of the music clock.

January 25, 2008 was a historic day in Atlanta radio.  99X, a station that blazed the trail for the Alternative format during the 1990's, breathed its last breath.  Q100 then moved from 100.5 to the 100,000-watt former 99X signal at 99.7.

Star 94 had made some big mistakes over the past year and a half.  The longtime Adult CHR ratings and billings winner had canceled Steve & Vikki.  Opinion on whether that was a prudent decision is to this day a mixed bag.  Star replaced its 17-year morning show with The Morning Mess, a successful morning drive team from Indianapolis.  The Mess had a mainstream CHR--some would say younger than mainstream--and not Adult CHR tenor and drove legions of Steve & Vikki listeners away.  That only strengthened The Bert Show.

With a less adult-friendly morning show, Star 94 made a decision to shed most of its Adult CHR stance and become more of a straight-ahead CHR product.  In doing so after being an Adult CHR for 19 years, the station had thrown away the baby with the bathwater.  Suddenly, Star 94 had a different sound, with a new music policy and new imaging.  To complicate things, Cindy & Ray in afternoon drive was almost a talk show, better suited for morning drive and not exactly consistent with Star's now-younger sound.

Q100's powerful new signal and Star's injured status gave Q the perfect opportunity to best its long-time rival, and it quickly won the first PPM monthly after the frequency switch.  The marketplace had chosen boring recurrents over the confusion of Star 94.

During 2008, Star 94 replaced 10-year Program Director Dan Bowen with JR Ammons.  Ammons had a few years earlier been Music Director/Assistant Program Director of Star and had since gone on to program Mix 93.3 (KMXV-FM) in Kansas City and The Big Ape (WAPE-FM) in Jacksonville.  He was well-liked, smart and a CHR expert.

Ammons quickly did what he could, firing The Morning Mess, restoring Star to its heritage Adult CHR position, improving the imaging and moving Cindy & Ray to morning drive.  If the Cindy & Ray move had been made immediately after Steve & Vikki left, Star probably would have held on to its audience, and things would have been a lot different.

JR Ammons and Music Director Michael Chase got the music back on track and in fact became a little adventurous regarding songs added.  By Spring, 2009, Atlanta had a choice of current CHR without Rhythmic on Star 94, or current CHR and Hot AC recurrents weighted about equally with Rhythmic added at night on Q100.  Star 94 won fairly handily for a couple of months.  The Bert Show dominated mornings, but Star's ratings increased as the day wore on.  Star beat Q100 in the evening and on weekends.

The Atlanta CHR marketplace was not all that happy with Star 94, just more unhappy with Q100.  Armed with a fully-competitive signal, Q100 made some music modifications, mainly decreasing the number of recurrents, which probably caused Jan Jeffries to have convulsions.  That's all it took for Q100 to bounce back on top, where it has remained since.  In the past 2 PPM's, Q100 had the highest ratings in its history.

Over time, Q100's music has evolved.  Recurrents are frequent in middays and afternoons, and Rhythmic of both a general market and Urban flavor is played all day long.  I took a look at Q100's music log in an hour of midday, afternoon drive and evening.  Current product, including Rhythmic songs, is pretty consistent across all three dayparts.  Q100 is as likely to play Drake and Taio Cruz in midday as in the evening.

In the midday hour, 5 of the 12 songs played were not current, a definite difference from the great majority of major market CHR stations.  The recurrents/gold included Dani California (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Her Diamonds (Rob Thomas), Two is Better Than One (Boys Like Girls), Bad Romance (Lady Gaga) and You Found Me (The Fray).  All of these would fit just fine on a Hot AC station though all had hit big on the CHR charts.

During the PM drive hour, again 5 of the 12 songs were recurrents/gold, consisting of The Sweet Escape (Gwen Stefani), Watcha Say (Jason DeRulo), Fallin' For You (Colbie Caillat), Down (Jay Sean) and Second Chance (Shinedown).  In the evening (8PM) hour, 4 of the 12 songs were recurrents/gold, including Love Game (Lady Gaga), Big Girls Don't Cry (Fergie), Boom Boom Pow (Black Eyed Peas) and Sweet Dreams (Beyonce).  (Love Game has the most intense Urban flavor of any recurrent on the above list.)

Back to our question: Train wreck or stroke of brilliance?  Overall, Q100's music is not a train wreck for the simple reason that all of the gold/recurrents charted big on CHR, and Q100's audience had accepted them.  I must admit that the amount of Hot AC in the midday hour did cause a rather jumpy flow.  The gold/recurrents included more Rhythmic songs during the afternoon and still more in the evening.

Does that mean the heavy use of recurrents and gold is brilliant?  I doubt it.  For one thing, the strategy is probably a manifestation of Jan Jeffries' way of putting together a CHR clock and not the result of analyzing the Atlanta competitive landscape.

The philosophy might make some sense in Atlanta because Q100 is the only station playing all the current CHR hits.  If that's what listeners are looking for, Q100 has a captive audience and might as well try to extend its reach to the format's high-end demos.  Then again, some former Q100 listeners might favor The Beat's policy of excluding some general-market tunes to sitting through a bunch of recurrents.

What is Jeffries' real objective with recurrents?  CHR is based on familiarity, and recurrents are certainly familiar.  Yet CHR stations repeat current songs so frequently that familiarity is hardly an issue.  Recurrents and gold are already proven, but new CHR tunes prove their mettle pretty quickly.

Q100 is the top-rated non-Urban station in the June Arbitron PPM ratings among both women 18-49 and women 25-54.  The station's commercial spots are consistently sold out.  So saying Q100 is doing it wrong is difficult.  Those of us starved for a real CHR since the Cumulus acquisition of Susquehanna know that if such a station launched, Jan Jeffries would have to react by breaking his recurrent habit.  Or would he?

Our frustrations notwithstanding, Q100 is not a train wreck though it's speeding down an ill-maintained track.  On the other hand, the music policy does not appear the result of ingenious insight into the market.  But for Atlanta's current CHR landscape, with no other station playing all the hits and Star 94's music lacking an edge, I can't blame Q100 for playing it as broadly as possible.

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  1. Wow - what an outstanding article. I didn't know Jan Jeffries was still around. I listen to CHR in the Tampa bay market and there's a ton of talk in the afternoon - no ten-in-a-row. I like the personalities. Am I the only one left?