Blink And It’s Back: How Entertainment News Took Over Music Radio

Astral Media’s CKFM (Mix 99.9) Toronto, which just became the first North American station to brand itself Virgin Radio, doesn’t have a lot in common musically with its British counterpart (itself now in the process of rebranding as Absolute Radio). Instead of the U.K.’s combination of Classic Rock and Indie Rock, the music is mostly rhythmic leaning Adult Top 40 (with the exception of a few pop megahits and the music needed to fulfill Canadian content requirements) with an occasional ’80s throwback cut.
What sets Toronto’s Virgin Radio 9-9-9 apart from CHUM-FM, also a Rhythmic-leaning Adult Top 40, is a heavy emphasis on entertainment news: Perez Hilton updates and two other scheduled entertainment features in afternoons – part of a full-service two-person afternoon show — and Ryan Seacrest at night. Celebrity news (or, say, the Toronto Film Festival) was also a lot of what I heard being talked about during the first week.
Hearing a rhythmic-leaning Adult Top 40 with a lot of entertainment and celebrity news reminded me of – and not, one must emphasize, in a bad way – was Blink 102.7 (now WWFS New York), CBS Radio’s short-lived 2003 attempt at its own broad-playlisted Rhythmic Hot AC that offered “music, gossip, entertainment” with hourly entertainment news updates.
Blink 102.7 was the subject of the first Ross On Radio column on this site almost exactly five years ago when, after six months, it dropped the entertainment-driven format to become more of a mainstream AC. At the time, it was a then-rare example of a major-group-owned full-signal station to launch with less than a one-share, the victim of an overly ambitious format that wasn’t easy to grasp and marketing that reinforced a vibe but didn’t always explain how to use the station.
But the Blink concept obviously wasn’t without validity. It was already a tabloid news world in 2003, and other stations–particularly the Bob and Jack-FMs–would soon find an easier way to explain a broad music mix. And the station continued to fascinate, particularly in Canada. The September 2003 column prompted a phone call from a GM in Winnipeg wondering if Blink would work there. That station chose something else, but Canadian broadcasters in particular continued to ask about and research variants of its format. (Any discussion of a “Jack for Woman” format inevitably incorported some elements of Blink.)
There was lingering interest in Blink at Citadel as well, which took a similar tack for several years at its WDVW (Diva 92.3) New Orleans–lots of entertainment and lifestyle news with, in this case, WKTU New York-style dance music, and a similar logo. But even where it’s not the central concept of the station, what endures most about Blink is the rapid proliferation of regularly scheduled entertainment news segments throughout the day. WHTZ (Z100) New York has been doing them for several years. Across town, WPLJ now features Hilton in mornings and runs midday promos teasing hourly afternoon updates. And WQHT (Hot 97) is indeed doing entertainment reports at the top of the hour throughout the day.
So how did the Blink concept go from folly to genius in five years? For starters, business-as-usual continued to deteriorate. As terrestrial radio found its hegemony in the “best mix of the ’80s, ’90s and now” business threatened, the concept espoused by then-CBS Radio honchos John Sykes and Andy Schuon of offering “more than just a radio station” resonates now with many broadcasters.
You can also factor in the dawn of Arbitron’s PPM era with its perceived commands that music radio must eliminate all clutter and any features that break format, yet somehow create appointment listening. Programmers seem to have settled on entertainment news as the solution. In the new paradigm, a 10-second sweeper is too long, but two minutes of celebrity news is compelling content. (To hear Urban AC radio now in early PPM markets is to hear veteran talents like KMJQ Houston’s Kandi Eastman or WDAS Philadelphia’s Pattie Jackson now talking only two or three times an hour – one of which is usually entertainment news.)
And although we were headed there in 2003, we are clearly in a world where entertainment news dominates. Even before the rise of Perez Hilton and, entertainment news had already taken the place of all but the biggest hard news on most music radio morning shows. As stations became charged with creating more content for their Websites, it was often entertainment news that they turned to as well. And stations became more sophisticated about creating throughout-the-date updates; five years ago, you would hear a feature that was clearly cut at 10:01 a.m. playing at 4 p.m., with stories that were by then outdated.
Since then, there has also been a further proliferation of syndicated content for radio. Without in any way suggesting that there wasn’t already a plethora of available content before Hilton hit the radio and Seacrest went into syndication, they are two more ways in which it is easier for a radio station to find entertainment content than to build its own celebrity news apparatus from wholecloth. And they are brand names for celebrity news who are celebrities themselves. Even with the resources of CBS and some highly touted partnerships, one common industry perception of Blink–justified or not–was that it rarely generated enough scoop to become a destination for gossip. And news operations of any sort have long been on the endangered species list at music radio.
As celebrity news proliferates, it now seems reasonable to ask whether making radio more-than-just-music might also mandate offering something more than just entertainment news? This is a year of greater-than-usual-engagement in election and other real-world issues. (And a year in which entertainment news keeps inserting itself in the headlines, whether it’s Paris Hilton responding to John McCain or Jamie Lynn Spears reaching out to Bristol Palin. So how can they be two different piles of copy.) It’s not outrageous to suggest that it might be time for the original appointment listening – the full-service top-of-the-hour newscast — to make a return.

11 replies
  1. Lou P.
    Lou P. says:

    For some time now I’ve heard CHR stations tease celebrity news/gossip in quick jock breaks as an enticement to keep people listening, particularly during midday and afternoon dayparts. It struck me usually as being vapid and shallow, but I suppose that the approach appealed to enough listeners to make it worth keeping.

  2. barry k
    barry k says:

    The Creep is very real.The incursion of entertainment news in music radio is like the ‘creeping charlie’in my front yard (not to be confused with Creepy Charlie,the hound in Martin Sheen’s family). Oops…that celebrity crap creeped right into this blog! Damn. Hard to avoid, no?
    Anyway…there’ve got to be some anchor/writers who can find the right, clever mix and make it all sound ok. I suspect that we frequency- modulation types (I was a Chi FM/ND for 30 years)have to live with it – and, make it work.

  3. Niko Batallones
    Niko Batallones says:

    This reminded me of a radio station – a short-lived one – established here in Manila. It’s downmarket, sure, but it had showbiz reporters going around in clearly-labeled (pink) vans and filing in reports like it was a rolling news station. And they had showbiz personalities doing weekend shows. That, aside from the DJs and the usual music… didn’t last, though.

  4. Kris Abrams
    Kris Abrams says:

    Logan was on to something with Blink when it came to pop culture content (gossip, entertainment news, etc). When he and I relaunched Citadel’s KOB-FM as a pop CHR (soon after the Blink experiment) as ‘The Pop Music Channel’ we had ‘Pop Spots’ every hour that had MTV/VH1/E!/etc content.
    While the mainstream pop-rock-soul music base of the station had wide-reaching appeal, KOB-FM differentiatied itself from two other CHR’s and three other Hot AC’s with pop culture content.
    Look back a couple Summers and you’ll see a #2 12+ with a 6 share, #2 18-34 and #2 18-49 radio. It works. In a competative battle of shared music titles – content packaged properly can break the tie.
    Kris Abrams
    (formerly) OD/PD, KOB-FM
    (now) OM CBS/Phoenix, KMLE/KOOL

  5. Tracy Austin
    Tracy Austin says:

    Some outside the US perspective…On most stations in Australia there are top of the hour news updates all day, usually with a full blown local news department in the building. For Nova, news was quick with 4 or 5 stories max, a local one, national one, and always some kind of pop culture/entertainment kicker story to tease and run out of the ad and into a song. Before I left we cut back on the updates across the day to help the music flow, but kept them in drive where it was a personality-driven show.
    I think Perez is a good appointment to set but anytime those are pre-recorded the trick is making sure they are still relevant when they run. People are getting their gossip so many ways now and so immediately that if you sound out of date, you lose.

  6. George
    George says:

    I really believe for radio to compete in the new millenium, it needs to bring more than just music to the table. There is a real hunger for gossip and chat. This is radio’s best chance to make an impact, come up with something distinctive.

  7. Peter J.Oleshchuk
    Peter J.Oleshchuk says:

    This is the basic philosophy behind the Pop Radio format that I program. Pop Culture and Pop Music. The idea is to make radio “big” again, by keeping people entertained with the songs and between the songs. Whether it’s artist, celebrity or movie news or a creative approach to sweepers, IDs and jingles, the point is to become larger than life and be a source for entertainment.

  8. Gregg Colamonico
    Gregg Colamonico says:

    A few added thoughts Sean…
    In Canada, there’s not only a Canadian content rule (you must play a certain percentage of Canadian artists) but there’s also a spoken word content rule on FM too. That’s why Canadian FM stations, even rock stations, have hourly newscasts all day. At one time CKFM and CHUM-FM had one-hour news blocks in the middle of the day allowing them to play more music in their other hours.
    So the incentive to sometimes stop the music flow for celebrity news is greater in Canada, although as you point out, it’s a trend catching on in the U.S. as well.
    Also I think Blink suffered from the same problem that maybe you should address in a separate column: Putting a new station on the air before it’s ready.
    No DJs? No P.D.? No researched playlist? No problem!!! When management decides the plug must be pulled on a failed format, the station switches weeks or months before it’s ready.
    You might remember for several weeks… or might it even be months?… WNEW-FM was playing ONLY the top 30 or so songs off the Billboard Hot 100, over and over. No recurrents, no gold, no DJs and almost no spoken words other than the hourly I.D. and a few spots per hour. So when Blink finally debuted, I think most New Yorkers thought it was a variation on the stunt format that they already decided they didn’t like.
    As the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
    It used to be when a new station debuted, it pretty much had 90% of its staff and music together. There may be tweaks later but what you heard the first week is what the station would largely sound like.
    Now radio station management is so anxious to get the new format on the air… and run the station with almost no payroll for a few weeks or months… that they shoot themselves in the foot.
    Need I mention New York’s Rock Experience, WRXP?

  9. andrew forsyth
    andrew forsyth says:

    there are no longer spoken word regulations in canada … haven’t been for a decade. but driving differeniation by having more content than just music is an artifact of the regulations.

  10. C Wright
    C Wright says:

    Our Texas Content Rule aside, the stations that are still relevant down here are those that have been doing this very thing for awhile. They pride themselves on being some degree of full service and they are usually in the small and smaller markets. And oh yeah, their revenue… still growing.


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