Monday, September 27, 2010

Star 94 Finishes What It Started

Toward the end of 2009, Star 94 (WSTR-FM) made a decision to transition to Hot AC.  The decision came after a couple of years of decline following the departure of the Steve & Vikki morning show.  With Star 94 just on the CHR side of the CHR/Hot AC border, a shift to Hot AC would not be a dramatic move.

The decision made sense.  Star's morning team of Cindy & Ray had hit a wall called The Bert Show, which launched Q100 into the ratings lead for the rest of the day.  Star 94 had to differentiate itself by going in a path of less resistance.  Its staff was as well suited to Hot AC as it was to CHR.  And Star could keep its moniker and most of its equity in the marketplace.

WSTR never made it quite to Hot AC, stopping just a little short.  The music was pretty much the Billboard Adult Pop Songs chart plus a liberal use of recurrents.  The "Atlanta's Hit Music Station" positioning remained.  To my ears, Star 94 was kind of the same station except the music had become somewhat boring.

The station's ratings over its almost-Hot AC days were not what Star 94 needed to grow its billings back to one of the market leaders.  In June, Star's "iPods All Day + $5K" contest helped enormously.  The promotion not only increased time spent listening but manifested itself in a team sound; the station's personalities sounded like they were energized and all pulling in one direction.  That made the station a better listen.  And it all paid off in the June PPM numbers.

When PD JR Ammons left last month, Lincoln Financial Media VP/Programming John Dimick took the reins and quickly completed the move to Hot AC.  The air staff, including Cindy & Ray, stayed in place.  Dimick's programming instincts quickly became evident.

Jingles were added back to complement Star 94's blue-chip imaging, and they sound incredible.  (For jingle fanatics, I believe they're the package often referred to as the Kiss 108 jingles.)  The weather jingle, along with the forecast, also returned.  These elements alone brightened the product considerably.  The "Hit Music" positioning was eliminated and thus far replaced with only "Atlanta's Star 94."  Some 90's songs were dropped in, and Star started jumping on new Hot AC product quickly; Home by the Goo Goo Dolls is an example.  (Of course, songs on Star are "new" for an awfully long time.  I mean how long can The Truth by Kris Allen and Train's Pat Monahan be new?)

Star 94 exudes a different personality from the country's other major Hot AC stations.  It has CHR pacing and in that respect sounds the same as it has for quite some time.  Since the original move toward Hot AC in 2009, Chase Daniels has been added to the full-time staff in afternoon drive.  Daniels is the station's most talented and fits in just fine with the CHR pacing.  I'm not sure how I would feel about him if Star 94 had the same tempo as other Hot AC's.  Other stations with Top-40 pacing and (what is now referred to as) Hot AC music exist in the annals of radio history, but the ones that I can think of were on the AM band.  (WJDX in Jackson, Mississippi under Bill Tanner quickly comes to mind.)

Now the music, and I'll preface this by saying that John Dimick probably has good reasons for what he's doing, and I'm commenting without knowing those reasons.  And I recognize that Star's playlist is similar to Washington, DC's Mix 107.3 (WRQX-FM), a successful station.  But I feel the music, while better than 2 months ago, is just too safe and needs more work.  In general, I feel the envelope needs to be pushed a bit more for Star to really stand out.  The station is in a crowded space; B98.5 FM could be defined as Hot AC without current product, and Q100 plays a fair amount of Hot AC.

Star's current and recurrent music could have just a little more depth.  It's the year 2010, and artists such as Jason Derulo and Jay Sean are accepted by adult audiences.  Star 94 did go as far as playing B.o.B.'s monster hit "Nothing On You" but edited out the rap.  In my opinion, the chorus framing the rap makes the song as a whole fine for Hot AC and more compelling than without the rap.  Chicago's "The Mix" (WTMX-FM) and San Francisco's Star 101.3 (KIOI-FM) apparently agree because they leave in the rap.

I like the addition of 90's product to Star 94 and recognize that familiarity is important.  But after awhile, Third Eye Blind, Counting Crows and Matchbox 20 become a little repetitive.  And what about 80's?  New York's WPLJ-FM stays away from anything approaching Urban, but groups including Duran Duran, ZZ Top, Guns N' Roses and Bon Jovi are staples.

The Mix in Chicago reflects my personal vision of how a Hot AC should sound musically.  The station has excellent balance, with current Adult Pop Hits infused with the likes of Timbaland, Eminem and B.o.B. on one hand, and Pearl Jam, Prince and Soft Cell on the other.  The Mix's music propels the station through the clutter.

I'll keep an ear on Star 94 and watch its ratings.  The return of "iPads All Day + $5K" should help, but ultimately the format needs to sustain the audience.  Star 94's imaging, jingles, clock and air staff sound excellent, and the CHR pacing is interesting.  I feel, however, that the music is not as compelling as it needs to be for the station to take serious share from its competitors.  The upcoming months and their PPM reports will provide the answers.

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:

Monday, September 20, 2010

Clear Channel Plays It Cool

Fantasizing is part of life.  I admit I sometimes daydream about rolling down the highway in a BMW 7 Series or relaxing poolside with a drink somewhere in Fiji.  Here in Atlanta, we have one continuous pity party over our lack of a true CHR station.  So 105.7 The Groove's announcement that it would get "bigger, better and louder" on Labor Day set off the fantasizing big time.  Hey, why not?

Posters on rearranged the entire Clear Channel Atlanta cluster.  Even WGST was back on FM.  And 94-9 The Bull was to be replaced with a new and better Groove.  When reality set in on Labor Day, however, Clear Channel had made one of the two moves that would have made sense; it added the small 96.7 signal south of town to create a 105.7/96.7 simulcast of The Groove.  It was a reasonable and conservative way to go.

Moving The Groove to 94.9 or 96.1 would not have made good business sense.  At last listen, The Groove had just about completed its post-Beat journey to Rhythmic CHR, a format that's not one of the more mass, bigger-billing ones.  The Groove's revenue potential might be in the $7 or $8 million-dollar range.  The 94.9 and 96.1 signals, both 99,000 watts from in town, are worth too much for that kind of revenue; those signals need billings commensurate with their value.  Mainstream CHR, on the other hand, is a mass-appeal format that can bill big.

Has anyone noticed that Clear Channel's CHR's are racking up big ratings across the U.S.?  Stations like Z107.7 in St. Louis, Hot 99.5 in Washington, Wild 95.5 in West Palm Beach and 96.5 Kiss FM in Cleveland are just some examples of CC CHR's that have soared to new ratings heights.  The company has learned how to do CHR.  Would doing it in Atlanta on 94.9 or 96.1 make sense?

In its first 2 years, 94-9 The Bull was a poorly-programmed Country station filling a format hole that wasn't there.  Its ratings reflected that and had people wondering why Clear Channel had destroyed the market's second AC station.  The Bull was thought to be a failure, and format flip rumors ran rampant.  Then in 2008, Melissa Forrest took over as Market Manager with an eye toward making the station a success.  She relaunched it on the Monday after Thanksgiving, 2008.  The new Bull was a far better product though still up against heritage Kicks 101-5.  Little by little, The Bull inched forward though taking little from Kicks.

Early this year, with the market's Country shares stretched to the limit, something had to give, and that something was The Bull.  Ratings started declining, but Forrest stayed the course, and things began to turn.  While Kicks still holds a substantial lead, The Bull became a top-10 station in the August PPM ratings, breaking a 4% share.  Country attracts prime demos though its power ratio (share of ad dollars vs. share of audience) is lower than CHR's.  The clear message for The Bull is to stay the course and keep pinging Kicks for the long term.

Project 9-6-1's looks are deceiving, at least its Persons 6+ looks.  While the station was #17 in the beauty contest, it was #2 in Men 18-34 and tied for #2 in Men 18-49 during July.  That means beers, cars and other manly products should be easy captures for the station, translating to some decent billings.  So Clear Channel appears to be under no pressure to flip 96.1.  Nevertheless, with The Beat gone and Q100's music often straying away from current hits, Atlanta's CHR format hole seems to have gotten bigger.  With Clear Channel's CHR finesse, flipping 96.1 to CHR might give the company two top-10 stations in a market that has been CC's achilles heel, and increase revenue.

My opinion is that Clear Channel should stay pat with Project 9-6-1 at least until The Bull is firmly entrenched as a top-billing station.  After that, the risk might be worth taking (though 105.7 would have to be rethought).  The problem for Clear Channel would be that Q100 holds the cards.  Q100 has The Bert Show, which would be a huge barrier to success for any CHR newbie.  With Bert in command during mornings, Q100 could revamp its music clock in the other dayparts, making significant listener jump to 96.1 a more unlikely proposition.  Nevertheless, the young audience is a fickle one, and seeing a CC full-power CHR in Atlanta succeed big would not surprise me.

Although the addition of 96.7 to 105.7 The Groove should prove beneficial, a better move, and one that I've been touting ad nauseam, would have been to switch frequencies with El Patron at 105.3.  The 105.3 signal is competitive inside Atlanta, which both 105.7 and 96.7 are not.  While 105.7 puts a strong signal into affluent northern areas such as East Cobb, 105.3 is almost as potent.  Though coverage maps show 105.3's city-grade signal stopping at Sandy Springs, we doubt that's really the case.  Clear Channel knows how to maximize signals, and you can bet that the 105.3 signal is not really circular as shown on maps; that it's maximized toward the northeast, which can be done legally on FM without becoming officially directional.

The 105.7 signal provides good coverage of the market's high density Hispanic areas, Gwinnett County, Smryna and Austell.  More importantly, 105.7 proved it could get good ratings with a Latino format when it was Viva prior to the launch of El Patron.

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:

Monday, September 13, 2010

It's Double Talk For WSB

It's not that the idea of WSB adding an FM had not been predicted.  In recent years, the concept had popped up from time to time on  And as WSB-AM's audience decline became a legitimate issue this year, posts on the subject increased.

When WSB-AM added 95.5 on August 16, however, it still generated some surprise.  The sudden demise of 95-5 The Beat, a successful station, topped off the move with an element of shock.

As to why the action was taken, I can only speculate.  Below are the probable reasons:
  • WSB's declining ratings spiked worries about revenue and status.  Cox Media Group's Bob Neil's favorite station might be B98.5 FM, but he knows WSB-AM is the flagship of the empire.  During the past 15 years, WSB's advertising rates had been far higher than the market's cost-per-rating-point merited, and advertisers still flocked to the station given its #1 ratings, prestige and mystique.  And, high ratings and status have a direct correlation.
  • Young people never listen to AM.  Cox executives Dan Kearney and Tony Kidd were quoted as saying FM was added because people under 40 never visit the AM band.  Younger folks are much more sought after by advertisers than persons over 50.
  • WABE has been soaring.  WABE-FM, Atlanta's NPR affiliate, has been grabbing audience share concurrent with WSB's decline.  Over the past several months, WABE has been just under or at a 5% share in Persons 6+.  The public station's newfound ratings glory coincided with the hiring of popular Atlanta radio veterans Steve Goss, to provide local content in morning drive, and Dennis O'Hayer in afternoons, and with beefing up its news department.
  • Precedence for success exists within Cox and elsewhere.  In the Jacksonville market, Cox added an FM simulcast to news/talk WOKV, and the station has been #1 among persons 12+ in most ratings periods since.  The company did the same with its WHIO in Dayton and KRMG in Tulsa.  In all three cases, Cox used either a Class A (lowest-power FM classification) or a "rimshot" signal, as it did in Atlanta.
Was the addition of the 95.5 signal for WSB and the sacrificial killing of The Beat a prudent decision for Cox?  I would say that on balance and looking at the long term, it probably was.  How much will the change help WSB in the short term?  That's hard to say.

WSB had been losing audience since the start of the year, but the more dramatic erosion happened in the past 4 months.  Was it because WSB's longtime audience suddenly decided it did not like AM?  The answer is yes and no.  WABE's enhancements made the station an acceptable news alternative in the drive times, and the fact that it's on FM probably added to its attractiveness.  On the other hand, with WSB's losses occurring more during talk shows, most of the decrease might be attributed to listener weariness, a problem that FM will not solve.

Just being on the FM band will attract some new audience.  And some AM listeners probably will move to the FM simulcast.  All told, the Persons 6+ numbers are likely to increase.  But what about WSB's stated reason for the move, attracting younger people?

As the Cox execs asserted, younger people listen to FM only.  Nevertheless, News/Talk is an older-skewing format, and being on FM is not going to change that.  WABE is on FM only, and 66% of its audience is at least 55; 48% at least 65.  But as younger people reach the news/talk age demos, WSB will be more likely to pick them up as listeners, so the move augers well for the long haul.

Revenue is influenced heavily by ratings but is also closely tied to supply and demand.  It's hard to imagine that WSB's revenue will grow enough in the immediate future to compensate for the loss of The Beat.

The Groove at 105.7 has smartly taken advantage of the hole in the market left by The Beat's exit by adding a number of current Rhythmic songs.  But The Groove has been staying away from the more Urban-oriented product and still airs some older Rhythmic AC.  (Where else does B.o.B. meet Madonna?)

Clear Channel also has added a Groove simulcast outside the south-side Perimeter on the little 96.7 signal.  With 105.7 strong outside the north-side Perimeter, that leaves just one area not getting an effective signal, and it's called Atlanta.  The Beat's audience was 26% Hispanic and 33% African-American.  The 105.7 signal is powerful in Gwinnett, a high-density Latino area.

Based on The Beat's high black audience composition and The Groove's weak signal in town as well as absence of hard-core Hip-Hop, the biggest beneficiary of The Beat's untimely death might be Urban Hot 107-9.  The Radio One property been wooing former Beat listeners by proclaiming itself "Atlanta's only hip-hop station," and its age target of 12-34 matches The Beat's.  Even Q100 could snag some listeners.

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: