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VALLEY BUSINESS | ON THE AIR: VYING FOR LISTENERS

They're Playing Our Songs

Star 98 Calls Core Group Weekly to Find Out What It Wants to Hear

May 30, 2000|CONSTANCE SOMMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BURBANK — They're programming my songs.

They know that my girlfriends and I, growing up in the Valley in the '80s, listened to KROQ-FM (106.7) and KIIS-FM (102.7). They understand our need to still feel hip and edgy, but that we need it tempered with mellowness these days. They realize we will listen enthusiastically to the goofy, bubble gum and discordant, angst-ridden tunes of 15 years ago, because it brings back memories, but that playing today's teen fads will only prompt us to change the station.

The folks at Burbank's Star 98 (KYSR-FM [98.7]) are programming my songs, and predictably, I'm tuning in.

In the business of radio, Star 98's business is women, ages 25 to 34, mostly white, affluent, college-educated and either married with young kids, or headed in that direction. I fit somewhere in that description, and it is disarming to discover that your musical tastes can be predicted and presented like data spewing from a computer printer.

But over in the leopard-print and purple-accented studios at 3500 W. Olive St., people aren't so much unnerved as pleased. Years of fine-tuning and on-air personality juggling have produced a format that's easily understood and embraced by advertisers. As at so many other stations these days, the money drives the music, and no one shies away from admitting it.

"The beauty of the modern adult contemporary format is it's a very advertiser-friendly market," said station Vice President and General Manager Ken Christensen, adding that Star 98 is one of the easiest stations he's ever had to sell. "A lot of buyers at the agencies are in our target [audience]. They get it."

They're not the only ones. Star 98 is the most closely watched station in its format in the country, said Tom Taylor, editor of M Street Daily, an industry newsletter. From its chatty, confessional female morning disc jockey, Jamie White, to its carefully targeted promotions, to its delicately balanced playlist, it's succeeding at being more than just another radio station, he said.

"It's about an attitude, a mind set, a lifestyle," he said.

White, the morning-drive deejay, makes her listeners feel like she's one of their girlfriends, in the car with them, gossiping on the drive to work, analysts say. Promotions like plum tickets to the MTV Movie Awards appeal to women who would not be caught dead at the latest teen idol crowd crusher at the Greek Theater. And a format that sprinkles in the KROQ sounds of their youth offers such listeners just the smidgen of nostalgia they like to remind them of the past without making them feel like old fogies, closed off to new sounds.

"Some stations are built around the music," Taylor said. "This one is built around what the target audience is doing."

The trick the Star 98 staff concentrates on is keeping the presentation current while still appealing to that core audience that is, according to Christensen, 65% female and more than 70% white. The station's strongest markets tend to be the Westside and the rest of the coastline, stretching to San Juan Capistrano, Simi Valley and Valencia, he said. The San Fernando Valley, with its ethnic melting pot and wide range of incomes, does not do as well for the station, he said.

*

A couple of years ago, the formula seemed easy enough to whip up: "We were the Lilith Fair station," said Angela Perelli, Star 98's program director. But these days, the folksy female artists who headlined the summer concert tour and gave the sound its name are not topping the charts like they once did. In fact, it's getting harder to predict what Star 98 listeners want to hear, and Perelli finds herself cautiously giving the nod to, what for this station are, some extremes.

The station regularly internally ranks its top five hottest songs, or "powers," and Perelli noted that "this is the most eclectic group of powers I've ever seen."

The latest list includes Santana's "Maria, Maria," a "rhythmic" song with a repetitive beat that Star 98 usually steers clear of; "I Try" by Macy Gray, an offbeat singer Perelli is happily surprised to learn her listeners like; Creed's "Higher," a harder rock song that might not have landed on the playlist but for the enthusiasm of the office staff; Sting's "Desert Rose," a tune Perelli describes as more "world music" sounding than she usually plays; and Vertical Horizon's "Everything You Want," the one alternative rock song that reflects the station's usual sound.

"We're getting to music styles that are more extreme," she said. "It does make it more challenging."

*

Still, the rules haven't changed too drastically.

A listener calls deejay Lara Scott at 11:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, asking for a song by the Backstreet Boys, a teen pop group Christensen describes as too "rhythmic" for the station. "Sorry, we don't play that, but I'll write it down anyway," answers the cheerful Scott. Later, she explains: "The goal is never to say no. If we get a billion calls for the Backstreet Boys, maybe we'll start playing them."

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