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.
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Link to Rodney Ho's AJC Radio & TV Blog: http://blogs.ajc.com/radio-tv-talk/