by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
I knew it would happen at some point. I’d spent the last few weeks punching back and forth between New York’s new WCBS-FM (Jack FM), the incumbent ACs WPLJ and WLTW (Lite FM), and Classic Rock WAXQ (Q104.3). I had heard “Connected” by Stereo MCs five times and “I Was Made For Loving You” by Kiss at least twice-not a problem, exactly, but I was pounding the dashboard with a little less enthusiasm than a month ago. Finally, it was time to hear some new Top 40 music again.
There are four Mainstream Top 40 stations you can hear on a regular basis in Somerville, N.J. The first one I punched in was playing “These Are Days” by 10,000 Maniacs. The next one was playing “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M. To be fair, one was in a “Retro Lunch” program at the time. And there were new songs on my other two buttons: Papa Roach’s “Scars” and Rihanna’s “Pon De Replay.” But it still said something about the landscape that two of my choices for Today’s Best Music were playing 13- and 18-year-old records respectively.
There is usually more worthwhile new music out there than PDs believe
The dramatic return of so much “oh wow” gold at once seems to be sending a lot of PDs back to the library, and not just in Hot AC–although the presence of the Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrids is most obvious there. Bob- and Jack-FM are showing up at a time when programmers are grumbling about the available current product in every current-based format, save Country. While you might think that there’s room for a station to present itself as the “now” choice on a dial full of older songs, it’s hard to counter-program an “oh wow” oldie, particularly when you’re not so confident in your own music. But there is usually more worthwhile new music out there than PDs believe. It’s just a matter of being willing to look for it, and knowing how to best sell “today’s best music.”
Counter-programming “oh wow” oldies is particularly an issue for Hot AC PDs. With the exception of the late ’90s Lilith/Modern AC period, Hot AC has usually been driven not by current music, but by the availability of new eras of gold, and the new Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrids have snapped up everything except the late ’80s/early ’90s Hip-Hop hits that hasn’t been easily incorporated at Hot AC. (In fact, New York’s Jack-FM is playing those, too. I’ve heard “O.P.P.,” “Pump Up The Volume,” and even Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.”)
The good news for Hot AC is that there’s a new Rob Thomas, a new Dave Matthews Band, and a new Coldplay, as well as some payoff for the two years of effort the format has put into Gavin DeGraw and Howie Day. But much of the artist coalition is a pastiche of the ’90s Modern AC acts that have since been exiled from Top 40, and new, younger Top 40 acts who have the sound of the Lilith-era singer/songwriters, but not always the substance. There’s Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” here or Collective Soul’s “Better Now” there, but there’s not enough tempo and energy when the choice on the other button is “The Warrior” or “One Thing Leads To Another.”
And Hot AC isn’t the only format going through a crisis of confidence with its new music right now:
- Top 40 has had a few great records recently, particularly “Hollaback Girl” and “Since U Been Gone,” that both recall and stand up to the best uptempo hits of Top 40 boom years 1984 or 1997. But overall the Mainstream Top 40 chart feels weaker than ever. In recent months, we’ve seen multiple artists with two or three songs going at once, not because PDs are being pro-active and finding new hits on the album, but because there aren’t that many other legitimate choices and the old songs are sticking around longer. It was good to see Rob Thomas’ “Lonely No More” go back up the Mainstream Top 40 charts once programmers realized it was a real hit. But it does show how few other real hits there are.
- R&B/Hip-Hop and Rhythmic Top 40 programmers have all been bemoaning the state of current hip-hop has been for a while. And less Hip-Hop has been making its way over to the Mainstream Top 40 side for several years. Actually, there’s a lot of interesting Hip-Hop happening right now, if you look at what’s coming from Atlanta, Houston, and the reggaeton boom. But a lot of that is music that Mainstream and even Rhythmic Top 40 PDs don’t know how to deal with. So while there are still a few across-the-board hits like Bow Wow’s “Let Me Hold You,” we’re increasingly seeing three sets of Hip-Hop hits: one for R&B reporters, one for Rhythmic stations, and now a handful of Mainstream Top 40 hits from Will Smith or Black Eyed Peas that face resistance even at Rhythmic. Hip-Hop has been divided and, to some extent, diluted.
- Modern Rock radio has its best-received music in years, but hasn’t parlayed that into better numbers. (Ross On Radio) And programmers are still trying to figure out what the right balance is for an audience that had gotten used to three-parts hard rock and one-part neo-garage/punk before the balance of the available product had changed. And Rock radio has been digging in the crates for several years now, whether it’s Alternative stations inspired by KBZT San Diego’s impact in 2003 or, more recently, WXRK New York’s move to a more library-based Active Rock format.
- Country is the only one of the major formats where programmers have been uniformly optimistic about the state of current product for a while.. And even there, what we’re seeing now is a lot of really good records, but nothing as galvanizing as Gretchen Wilson or Big & Rich last summer, (which isn’t stopping 18-34 numbers from growing in many cases).
It’s worth noting that Country is both the least fragmented of the major formats and one that has enough critical mass to effectively expose new music. Even at 45 spins a week on powers, two large-market stations with 10-12 shares between them have a pretty good chance of establishing new music, compared to a Rock world that’s divided into Alternative and Active camps, a Rhythm/R&B landscape that’s split several ways, or a Mainstream Top 40 format that has half the shares of Country (or R&B) in many markets.
It’s also no accident that Country titles have been performing so well at AC lately. Even a successful mainstream AC is going to have a hard time establishing its own music at 20-25 spins a week — many of them in overnights — when Tim McGraw and Keith Urban have been getting twice that amount of exposure, usually for nine months by the time a Country hit is taken to AC.
There are some Hot ACs and even a few Top 40s for whom exploiting the library makes sense right now. Hot ACs that have spent the last few years rebuilding their libraries around the ’80s shouldn’t be expected to just hand back Def Leppard and Journey because somebody else wants them. KMYI (My 94.1) San Diego in particular seems to have done a good job of protecting the ’80s, growing in the face of KFMB-FM’s switch from Star 100.7 to Jack-FM, and still holding on to new music.
But Bob- and Jack-mania is also driving some stations to protect ’80s and library depth images that were never driving their success in the first place. And whatever you think of the formats’ long-term prospects, the “oh wow” value of “Better Be Good To Me” by Tina Turner goes down pretty quickly when there are two places to hear it in a given market for the first time in two decades. It’s never easy to compete against the “oh wow” station, but it seems that “today’s great new music” ought to still be a viable franchise for somebody–if only the stations that rely on today’s music were playing and marketing it effectively.
So how might that happen?
For starters, it’s time to take back the variety franchise. Top 40, technically, never gave it up. But it’s done a better job at some times than it has at others of playing all the hits from all the genres. After a late ’90s period when you could finally hear Notorious B.I.G., LeAnn Rimes, and Third Eye Blind together, the format went back to its usual zig-zagging: overdosing on teen pop, then Hip-Hop, then teen pop again. Between 50 Cent, 3 Doors Down, D.H.T., B.S.B., Green Day and Howie Day, Top 40 is doing a much better job of playing variety right now than it is of telling people about it.
And it’s not just Top 40 that has more variety to talk about right now. WXRK had the right idea with its new positioner, “Great rock, period.” That slogan is being used to explain playing the Foo Fighters next to Pink Floyd, but it would also work for any more contemporary rocker that has to find a place for both Cold and Coldplay. R&B/Hip-Hop outlets have a variety story, too, at the moment, between Fantasia, 50 Cent, Lyfe Jennings, Ying-Yang Twins and even Gwen Stefani at the moment. Some programmers have responded to Jack- and Bob-FM ‘s variety attack by increasing library depth, but the wide variety of genres and sub-genres that many stations now play is variety, too, and not everybody is taking advantage of it.
It’s also time to stop leaving hit records on the table. By now, chances are that the music-lovers out there have reeled off a list to themselves of five recent songs that ought to be hits. To some extent, the softness of the current charts reflects a label environment where fewer records are being worked, not a lack of available product. Yet, the PD who goes looking for those five extra records is more likely than ever to face flack from both the labels and their own management.
Where could a Top 40 programmer look if they were determined? There’s the poppy Alternative product that will never be worked to pop radio-often because it’s too inherently poppy to get much of a quorum at rock radio. Mainstream and Rhythmic PDs could both be taking better advantage of the R&B hits in their market — there’s no rule that a 22-year-old female pop listener only relates to R&B ballads when they’re by Mariah Carey. There are still Dance records being overlooked. There are Country hits that have already been pre-sold to 18-to-24 listeners. And there’s always international product that gets overlooked here. (WXSS Milwaukee PD Brian Kelly gets double points for trying to break both Cowboy Troy and the headline-making U.K. hit, “Axel F” by Crazy Frog.)
And there are the albums from core artists. Gwen Stefani’s “Cool” seems like an obvious record for Hot AC (and Top 40) now, but Hot AC PDs let that song sit on the “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” album from Thanksgiving ’04 through summer ’05. Some tried to play “Rich Girl” and “Hollaback Girl,” even if they weren’t as perfectly suited. Some just lived without a new song by a core artist for six months.
Finally, programmers need to do a better job of selling urgency. The effectiveness of “Today’s Best Music,” the positioner of choice for the last 15 years, has been eroded by time. For that matter, it never entirely recovered from its overuse at Top 40 in the early ’90s when “Today’s Best Music” wasn’t nearly as compelling as what Country or R&B or Alternative had to offer. But there’s still a story to tell. As markets become glutted with gold-based, upper-demo choices, the allure of what’s exciting now should only increase, as long as stations find the product to back it up and the right way to sell it.
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. 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.