First Look: “Modern Standards” Red 104/St.Louis

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

My grandfather and I used to have a deal involving his car radio when I came to visit him in Houston. I could listen to whatever music I wanted. He could make fun of it. So one afternoon in the mid-‘80s, I was listening to oldies KNUZ when he began, typically, singing atonally over the loud, boisterous rock ‘n’ roll ‘50s song on the radio.

That song was “Old Cape Cod” by Patti Page.

We don’t think of Patti Page as rock ‘n’ roll these days. But for my grandfather, whose musical allegiances fell far on the other side of the 1956 divide (and this was a hit from 1957), “Old Cape Cod” sure wasn’t his music either. Neither, for that matter, was anything by Connie Francis, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick or Brenda Lee. And even if Elvis Presley didn’t upset my grandfather as much as he did others in that age group, time had made him no less indifferent to the King, and that included “It’s Now Or Never” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

That divide is why it’s been so hard for Adult Standards stations to become more contemporary. For at least a decade now, many of those stations have had their center in ‘60s MOR. Add in Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, Barry Manilow and the Carpenters and the rock era suddenly comprises the biggest piece of the format. It’s been a compromise that ultimately hasn’t made either listeners or sales managers very happy. The Standards audience didn’t become younger, just less enthusiastic.

That divide is also why existing Standards listeners are not, judging from the initial ratings, hanging around for the new pre-Beatles Oldies AMs that are now replacing their stations on a monthly basis. Even with some Sinatra and Dean Martin thrown in, the average numbers have been in the mid-1s, a third of what a well-executed Standards station can do, even given the format’s recent attrition.

So what’s radical about Emmis’ new WMLL (Red 104.1) St. Louis is that, despite its mission of selling Standards to a younger audience, it may be the purest Adult Standards station I’ve heard in years. You’ll hear the artists who’ve given standards their new cachet among younger listeners—Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Buble, Rod Stewart, and Norah Jones—but you will, by and large, hear them singing the same songs as Sammy Davis, Jr., and Tony Bennett. The only nod to rock ‘n’ roll is the inclusion of neo-swing acts like Brian Setzer and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. And there’s a seeming emphasis on great performances over hit versions of songs—an aesthetic that has been the exception, not the rule, in the Adult Standards format for the last 10-15 years.

Even if older audiences wouldn’t accept rock ‘n’ roll, standards have never been entirely out of the picture for the rock generation, whether it was the early ‘70s nostalgia boom that gave us old songs (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”) and old sounding ones (“Oh Babe, What Would You Say?”), a stream of standards albums by contemporary artists that goes back at least 27 years (Willie Nelson’s “Stardust,” Linda Ronstadt’s “What’s New,” etc.), or the post-“Swingers” cachet of swing dancing, martinis, and all things Vegas.

Red 104.1 architect (and former Emmis GM) Chuck Hillier isn’t the first person hoping to recast Standards for this generation: WUBE-AM Cincinnati tried it in the mid-‘90s by playing only contemporary artists; Bob Hamilton acknowledged the swing resurgence at KABL San Francisco in the late ‘90s and Clear Channel retooled KLAC Los Angeles as “Fabulous 570” last year, even as it was converting standards stalwart WSAI Cincinnati to “Real Oldies.” There have also been conventional Standards stations that have shown how well the format can perform just by being on FM, including KJUL Las Vegas and Westwood One affiliate KJWL Fresno, Calif.

But Red 104.1 is significant for being a large market, major group-owner FM launch at a time when other groups aren’t so confident about the format on AM. A few days before Red’s launch, Greater Media’s WMTR/WWTR Morristown, N.J., became the latest pre-Beatles convert (and the fourth such station I can hear at my office).

Overall, being what you are is a pretty good strategy for any format.

Red 104.1 is also setting out with the lofty stated ambition of being a 25-plus station, not a 50-plus station. To do that, it’s going to have to be a six-share 12-plus station because the traditional Standards audience in St. Louis will contribute at least a 3-share to a well-programmed, well-promoted FM, and, as we’ve seen over the past decade, there’s no way to surgically remove older listeners from a Standards station without gutting the format altogether.

Red 104.1’s audience will certainly be somewhat younger than that of most AM Standards stations because it’s on an FM, because it’s being promoted to them at a time when they’re amenable, and because the former all-‘80s station is starting with cume that’s the right age to be at least curious about the new format. It also helps that younger listeners are more likely to be exposed to Standards by the media than by their grandparents these days—giving that music the feeling of something exotic, rather than tied to a specific time. So only the degree to which the Red 104.1 audience will be younger remains to be seen.

That said, the real mission of Standards shouldn’t be looking for ways to make it younger, but learning to communicate the substantial buying power of the existing core audience to GMs and radio buyers—the only two groups of people who are seemingly unaware of the graying of America. That task is daunting, but it shouldn’t be impossible for an industry that has finally managed to dent the racial prejudices of some ad buyers (judging from the proliferation of R&B/Hip-hop stations) in recent years.

And while they’re at it, facing down the same ageism that standards stations face is also the right course of action for the Oldies format. Stations that have forced the late-‘70s and ‘80s into the mix may have driven down their average age by alienating older listeners, but they have not, by and large, grown 25-54.

Overall, being what you are is a pretty good strategy for any format. Well-executed stations like KKSN-FM Portland, Ore., that haven’t ignored pre-Beatles music are often doing better 25-54 than the stations that are now trying to position “Every Breath You Take” as a good-time oldie. When Top 40 finally decided to concentrate on 12-24 in the late ‘90s, its adult numbers went up as well (at least for a while). What will make Standards radio relevant to a younger audience could well be Adult Standards without apologies. And, musically, Red 104 is certainly that.

Red 104 launch, Noon, January 8, 2004

Frank Sinatra, “My Kind Of Town”
Frank Sinatra & Luther Vandross, “The Lady Is A Tramp”
Michael Buble, “Come Fly With Me”
Bobby Darin, “Mack The Knife”
Steve Tyrell, “Cheek To Cheek”
Dean Martin, “All I Do Is Dream of You”
Peggy Lee, “Alright, Okay, You Win”
Frank Sinatra, “Almost Like Being In Love”
Rod Stewart, “I’ll Be Seeing You”
Louis Prima, “When You’re Smiling”
Sarah Vaughn, “Whatever Lola Wants”
Harry Connick, Jr., “A Wink And A Smile”
Sammy Davis, Jr., “You’re Nobody ‘Till Somebody Loves You”
Diane Schuur, “New York State Of Mind”
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, “Save My Soul”

Red 104, 10:15 a.m., January 21, 2004
Frank Sinatra, “Almost Like Being In Love”
Julie London, “Cry Me A River”
Steve Tyrell, “Ain’t Misbehavin’”
Sammy Davis, Jr., “The Birth Of The Blues”
Bobby Darin, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”
Indigo Swing, “Swing Lover”
Michael Bolton, “A Kiss To Build A Dream On”
Dean Martin, “Until The Real Thing Comes Along”
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, “Go Daddy-O”
Tony Bennett, “I’ll Be Seeing You”
Frank Sinatra & Frank Sinatra, Jr., “My Kind Of Town”

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.

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