by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
It’s been a while since PDs first realized that nobody wakes up on their twenty-fifth birthday with a sudden desire to hear Barry Manilow. (It’s been at least 25 years, in fact, since I first heard that programmers’ truism when Manilow was still a regular chart presence.) Eventually, PDs came to understand that each new prospective listener in the Hot AC or Classic Rock target demo brought their once-edgy music with them, whether it was “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress” in the early days of AC FM or Nirvana and Pearl Jam creeping on to some Classic Rock stations today.
But if any preconceptions still existed, they’ve been pretty well smashed by a few recent developments on the Hot AC side. One is the music test strength of Usher’s “Yeah.” Not every PD is willing to test “Yeah,” fewer actually play it, now that it’s a two-year-old record. But it’s often a front pager where tested. And the prohibition against any vestige of Hip-Hop at Hot AC–once waived only for Tone Loc–has been pretty well dented by “Switch,” “Don’t Phunk With My Heart,” “Hollaback Girl” and other recent hits.
Then there’s the frontal punk attack of Green Day’s “Holiday.” It’s the most aggressive of the three pop singles from “American Idiot.” And yet it was a bigger, more sustained hit at Hot AC, where it went top 5, than at Mainstream Top 40, where it was only top 15. It’s hardly surprising that the 27-year-old who was 16-years-old at the time of “Longview” and “Basketcase” still likes Green Day, but more than 16-to-24-year-olds? And “Holiday” often does even better with the upper end of the Hot AC target, listeners in their late 30s and early 40s.
There’s the much-discussed recent interest in Classic Rock by younger demos.
And just to confound things, there’s the much-discussed recent interest in Classic Rock by younger demos, as manifested in some Active Rock music tests of the last two years. PDs that were gearing up for the day when Active Rock wouldn’t be able to play Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, or maybe even Led Zeppelin anymore, are now seeing not just Zeppelin and AC/DC atop their tests, but also some not-so-edgy titles from Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd and very little from the last few years.
So if 25-plus listeners have some appetite for edgier music, and if younger listeners are showing some interest in their parents’ Rock records, why are there so few all-ages radio stations anywhere except Country? Why, in particular, hasn’t Top 40’s mother/daughter coalition, allegedly shattered when ‘N Sync gave way to Linkin Park, ever really recovered?
Consider these numbers from the top 50 markets for the spring 2005 Arbitron:
- Only eight mainstream top 40s ranked in the top five with 25-54 adults. Only one, WNCI Columbus, Ohio, was No. 1. Looking at true Rhythmic Top 40s only adds one additional station to the No. 1 column, KGGI Riverside, Calif.
- Only 10 Hot AC stations showed top 5 teen numbers. None were No. 1 in teens.
- There were also 11 Active Rock stations in the top 5 25-54. That number, however, can be whittled to seven if you subtract Howard Stern affiliates–which could explain upper-demo strength. Of those 11 stations, only nine were also top 5 in teens.
- Only one Modern Rock outlet, WWDC (DC101) Washington, D.C., was top 5 25-54.
- Despite the mounting anecdotal evidence that teens are discovering Classic Rock, only one Classic Rock station was top 5 in teens, KLBJ Austin, Texas. (WMGK Philadelphia and WAXQ [Q104.3] New York both ranked sixth.)
- There were, however, 13 R&B/Hip-hop outlets in the top 5 25-54, including No. 1s for WGCI Chicago, WVEE (V103) Atlanta, and WERQ (92Q) Baltimore. With the exception of WHHH Indianapolis, those were all stations with heritage call letters in the format.
- Finally, there were 24 Country stations in the top 50 markets that were top 5 or better with teens, including several No. 3 outlets (WGAR Cleveland, WDSY Pittsburgh, WFMS Indianapolis, WQDR Raleigh, N.C., and WCOL Columbus, Ohio).
It’s not surprising that Country has managed to reassemble its all-ages coalition in so many markets, given the publicity for younger skewing artists, often exceeding those acts’ actual airplay, and the increased amount of tempo-driven product. It’s still impressive though, seeing how the format’s previous coalition scattered in the mid-‘90s when the format became hyper-focused on upper demos.
Nor is it surprising to see heritage R&B outlets like KPRS Kansas City, WHRK (K97) Memphis, or KKDA-FM (K104) Dallas doing well with both teens and adults. So do some relatively recent arrivals like WHHH Indianapolis and WJMH Greensboro, N.C. It was even more common to see mainstream R&B perform in all demos until the format became more fragmented and younger leaning.
But the relatively small numbers of pop or rock stations that can unite the demos must be particularly confounding for Top 40 PDs, who have worked hard at making the format more adult friendly in the last 2-3 years. Anecdotally, most PDs know adults who want to stay current. Anecdotally, any attempt to talk to the young adults among my friends or family about the music they like usually becomes a discussion with their parents as well, who start reeling off a list of current songs they like, perhaps to prove that they still can.
The failure to build a coalition has also been particularly devastating on the Alternative side. It was specifically cited when WXRK (K-Rock) New York switched out of the format this year. And it’s happening at a time where current rock is more retro-flavored – and thus, seemingly, more adult friendly than it was five years ago. When Top 40 made its early ’80s comeback, it helped that “Talking In Your Sleep” by the Romantics sounded like a ’60s song and “Tainted Love” actually was. We’ve seen some neo-garage rock show adult strength, e.g., “Seven Nation Army” or “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” but those are the exceptions. Mostly, it seems easier for a 24-year-old to relate to Rush than for his 48-year-old dad to understand that group’s spiritual connection to Coheed & Cambria.
So what’s going on here? It’s worth pointing out right away that Country and R&B inherently cast a wider net by targeting both men and women in many cases, thus giving them twice the out-of-target-demo listeners to draw on. But there are other factors at play.
One is that Top 40’s mother/daughter coalition wasn’t disrupted only by the hardening of pop music around 2001, but also by a constant turnover of artists, whose hitmaking streaks are often now shorter than a listener’s high school years, and music styles, which go from exciting to saturated in thirty months’ time. At the end, artists and styles aren’t just supplanted; they’re destroyed by over saturation. Perhaps each high school class has their own music, inexplicable to older or younger siblings. That could explain why we haven’t yet seen early ‘90s rhythmic titles move into the Hot AC world in any significant way. “Do Me” and “Ice Ice Baby” are the hits of somebody’s high-school years, but four years worth of listeners’ tastes often get lost when PDs test an 8-to-12-year swath.
So why would adult women put “Yeah” and “Let’s Get It Started” at the top of a music test now, but not do the same for “Push It” or “Pump Up The Jam”? The most obvious answer is that their kids are making those songs top-of-mind for them. And that raises the question of whether the mother/daughter coalition exists, but eludes the way most stations target or test music. Hot AC and Top 40 stations generally test adjacent demo cells, but musical tastes haven’t been symmetrical by age since the boy band era, when songs would test with teens and 25-34s, but not 18-34s.
With more people having waited longer to have kids, it’s possible that the adults who think young are not just 25-34, but spread throughout 25-to-54. And the way to reach them with a Top 40 station may not be testing 25-to-34 (or, in most cases, even younger), but perhaps casting a wider net among 25-plus women, if they screen in with a reasonably contemporary music montage.
That simple proposition raises a lot of questions, I realize. Can a Top 40 station command any listening from a 44-year-old after the kids are dropped off at school or activities? If these listeners exist and are just more diffused, shouldn’t Top 40’s 25-to-54 numbers still be OK in the aggregate? Would a station really let moms-and-daughters outvote 20-to-24-year-olds, seemingly the easiest listeners to target? It’s easy to despair for the prospects of a broad coalition again, but there have been enough glimpses of hope in recent years–the Bob- and Jack-FM boom, the resurgence of Country–that it’s worth trying. And if available listening is depleted even slightly by new competition, then there’s something to be said for targeting as much of the available listening as possible.
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.