Star 94′s unusual dance pop mélange bearing early fruit

The current unusual dance-pop Star 94 playlist includes Barry White, the Pet Shop Boys, TLC and Dua Lipa.
The current unusual dance-pop Star 94 playlist includes Barry White, the Pet Shop Boys, TLC and Dua Lipa.

Credit: ALBUM COVERS

Credit: ALBUM COVERS

Covering five decades of upbeat pop has given the station a fresh buzz

Usually when a radio station changes format, it also changes its name, in part to erase its past and forge a new future.

The owners of Star 94 did something different last fall: they dumped its traditional adult pop format and started over with an unusual mix of dance-oriented, upbeat pop music covering five decades. But they kept the Star name.

The new slogan: “The Rhythm of Atlanta,” with heavy use of phrases like “feel good” and “throwback.”

The format itself is unusual in its intermingling of artists, genres and eras, from Barry White and Lou Rawls, to Jody Watley and UB40, from Britney Spears and Ja Rule to Maroon 5 and Ava Max. There isn’t anything comparable nationwide.

In any given hour, you might hear the ridiculous 1992 one-hit wonder Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” Lizzo’s 2019 monster rave “Good as Hell,” the Emotions’ 1977 disco classic “Best of My Love,” 1982 New Wave standard “Situation” by Yaz and 1995 R&B hit “Freak Like Me” by Adina Howard, which the original Star never played 26 years ago.

The change happened last fall and Star’s ratings have shown signs of life recently. The station finished 12th overall with a 3.1 share in February, up from 2.5 and 17th place in December. Star also landed in the top 10 with a 3.2 share among women 25 to 54, beating Power 96.1 (3.0) but still well behind B98.5 (6.3) and Q99.7 (5.9).

The cumulative listening audience hit 584,500 last month, sixth highest in metro Atlanta and the most in more than a year. It’s also higher than Q (480,100) or Power (518,400), according to Nielsen ratings.

“In the month of January, we popped,” said program director Jerry McKenna. “I’m expecting the sound of the station and the feel-good vibe will be conducive for the spring and summer and we’ll see a lot more growth.”

Many fans of the new format praised the change on the AJC Radio & TV Talk Facebook page.

“I added it back to my presets since day one of the new format,” wrote Whitney Cook Martin, a Cumming insurance agent and mom of two. “Great variety, and the fun music just puts me in a good mood. I’m not a fan of any of the newer music so this is perfect mix for me.”

Cathy Wheeler, a voice-over and background actor from Peachtree City, noted: “That is all I listen to on long drive! Makes time fly!”

Star has a legacy in this market going back to 1989 with a target audience heavily skewed to the suburban mom set. Its image over the years has been a bit vanilla but that worked during its heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s. For a time, with Steve & Vikki at the morning show helm, it was a massively profitable, powerhouse station.

But Star’s glow first began to fade when Q100 arrived in 2001, slicing off Star’s younger audience. B98.5 pepped up its sound in the early 2010s and Star found itself slipping behind while chasing the “at-work” crowd. The arrival of another younger-skewing pop station in Power in 2012 narrowed Star’s lane even more.

So the station in recent years has been regularly the fourth-rated pop station in town often playing a lot of the same songs from Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift that the others were spinning as well.

McKenna, who has more than a quarter century of programming experience, arrived in October 2019 and soon convinced executives at station owner Entercom (recently renamed Audacy) that a change was needed.

Afternoon host Kannon (left) helps Jerry McKenna out with the music mix on Star 94. FACEBOOK/TWITTER public photos
Afternoon host Kannon (left) helps Jerry McKenna out with the music mix on Star 94. FACEBOOK/TWITTER public photos

Credit: PUBLIC PHOTOS FROM FB and TWITTER

Credit: PUBLIC PHOTOS FROM FB and TWITTER

They pondered different format ideas. There is a “Chuck” format in Gainesville that has never been tried in metro Atlanta which covers top 40 music going back to the 1970s, from Elton John to Suzanne Vega to Bruno Mars. They could have gone older and revived the old Peach soft rock format that hasn’t been in Atlanta for more than a decade playing the Carpenters, Barbra Streisand, Air Supply and Ed Sheeran. Many major markets have this type of station such as the Breeze in San Francisco, The Sound in Seattle and Easy 93.1 in Miami.

But McKenna chose a format he developed in Boston 15 years ago for a time and tweaked it for Atlanta. For him, the station was about texture: rhythmic hits spanning generations.

“It’s still the same target audience,” said McKenna, which is largely women 25 to 54.

And he chose to keep Star’s name. “We found there was still great love for the brand from people in the market,” he said. “Our problem was we weren’t different enough.”

He doesn’t delve heavily into the 1970s but when he does, it could be a hot-and-heavy Barry White tune or a disco classic like “Good Times” by Chic.

McKenna’s 1980s picks are particularly intriguing. Besides obvious dance-pop hits by Madonna, Prince and Whitney Houston, he’s brought back lesser-known songs by Sheena Easton (”Strut”), Samantha Fox (”Naughty Girls (Need Love Too)”) and the Cover Girls (”Show Me”) as well as New Wave “oh wow” tunes such as Yaz’s “Situation” and the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin.”

His 1990s choices include a broad mix of pop (Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over,” Cher’s “Believe”), “MTV Total Request Live” acts (Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody,” Christina Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants”) and EDM-style dance club staples (Amber’s “Sexual,” Everything But the Girl’s “Missing”). And there are plenty of R&B and hip-hop songs Star would never have touched when they came out, such as Ginuwine’s “Pony,” Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” and Xscape’s “Just Kickin’ It.”

The song picks from the past 20 years are less eclectic, featuring mostly hits that Star actually did play when they came out such as No Doubt’s “Hella Good,” Maroon 5′s “This Love,” Pink’s “Who Knew,” Usher’s “DJ’s Got Us Fallin’ in Love,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and Daya’s “Sit Still, Look Pretty.” Any recent song has to be an already established hit such as Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” and 24KGoldn’s “Mood.”

Besides a general “feel good sense,” McKenna said he avoids songs with a heavy guitar sound. One exception: the Go Go’s propulsive “We Got the Beat.”

He is constantly fiddling with the playlist, which has encompassed nearly 900 different songs since the beginning of the year, according to Mediabase 24/7, which tracks radio airplay. (This compares to 731 unique songs spun at least once on B98.5, 498 songs on Power and 343 songs on Q99.7.)

He recently added Stevie Wonder’s “That Girl,” Pebbles’ “Giving You the Benefit,” Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” and Gloria Estefan’s “Conga.”

“We want to make sure Star has this unpredictability,” he said, " a sense of variety.”

Here’s a sample hour from March 27:

  • 11:02 a.m. “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” New Kids on the Block 1988
  • 11:06 a.m. “1, 2 Step” Ciara 2004
  • 11:10 a.m. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” Nicki French 1995
  • 11:13 a.m. “Ladies Night” Kool & the Gang 1979
  • 11:17 a.m. “Wake Me Up” Avicii 2013
  • 11:21 a.m. “Ghetto Superstar” Pras/ODB/Mya 1998
  • 11:25 a.m. “Straight Up” Paula Abdul 1988
  • 11:29 a.m. “One More Time” Daft Punk, 2000
  • 11:36 a.m. “This Is How We Do It” Montell Jordan 1995
  • 11:39 a.m. “Fighter” Christina Aguilera 2002
  • 11:49 a.m. “Bad” Michael Jackson 1987
  • 11:53 a.m. “Creep” TLC 1994
  • 11:57 a.m. “Levitating” Dua Lipa 2020

Currently, the station has just two live jocks: Jenn Hobby in the mornings and Kannon in the afternoons. Between songs, McKenna is interspersing comments from listeners about how cool and unique the station is.

“Jenn and Kannon are well liked in this market,” McKenna said. “We want to keep them as a part of the mix. As for hiring more on-air staff, we’re looking into that and will reassess down the road. Right now, the focus is on the music.”

Other radio sleight of hand balances paying the bills with keeping people listening. For instance, he runs a commercial-free two hours from 9:45] to 11:45 a.m. each weekday, does not repeat a song from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and airs 10 songs in a row on weekends.

One trade off: fewer ad breaks generally mean longer ad breaks. Fayetteville resident Tammy Franklin-Wideman, a financial consultant and retail shoe store owner, on the AJC Radio & TV Talk blog wrote, “I love the music. The commercial breaks go for too long. It’s like listening to talk radio.”

Demographically, he said the station has brought in a surprisingly high percentage of men, making it almost 50/50 vs. 60/40 female under the old format. “It’s a coalition station,” he said. “We bring in people of different ethnicities, age groups and geographic locations.”

Jenn Hobby was kept as the solo morning host for Star 94 after the format shift. FB public photo
Jenn Hobby was kept as the solo morning host for Star 94 after the format shift. FB public photo

Credit: Facebook

Credit: Facebook

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