by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming
The discussion started because Edison Media Research president Larry Rosin found himself in a Chicago area shopping mall last weekend staring at a reissued version of the original depression-era Monopoly game: original packaging, original artwork and pieces, and the heavier board. Most of us own Monopoly already, but only the thought of having to carry it back to New Jersey stopped him from buying it again.
From there, the discussion turned to the current power of all things retro. Even in happier times and a better economy, the throwback craze had first compelled the Chicago White Sox to return to their old uniforms, and then made the team’s goofy double-knit ‘70s relic jersey hot again. So, Larry asked, what about a throwback radio station? What if WCAU-FM, whose Mike Joseph-consulted Hot Hits format both galvanized Philadelphia and helped revive Top 40 in 1981, showed up again at its old 98.1 dial position?
Over the past 20 years, we’ve already seen the power of reviving and updating the right brands in radio. WAPE Jacksonville, Fla., relaunched in the ‘80s, has now had a Top 40 run to rival its success of the AM era. The same goes for WKTU New York, which, at eight years old, has matched the longevity of the legendary late ‘70s disco powerhouse.
We’ve also seen radio stations adapt deliberately retro elements: Oldies KRTH Los Angeles in the early ‘90s evoking ‘60s KHJ; N/T WABC New York’s holiday weekend re-creations of its Top 40 heyday; the use of ‘70s jingles on Canada’s “Jack” stations, harking back to the day when its deliberately broad segues wouldn’t have been out of place at all on Top 40 radio. And Joseph’s Hot Hits was itself a throwback to Drake-era Top 40 and even before.
So if WCAU-FM did come back next Monday, what would happen?
The question is, as far as we know, entirely hypothetical. WOGL has the same challenges as many oldies stations (and one that most don’t yet have, the presence of a Soft AC/Oldies hybrid in rival WSNI). But at No. 7 in the market with a 4.3 share 12-plus, it’s not an obvious format change candidate. Still, it’s an intriguing question. What would happen if Hot Hits WCAU-FM returned with today’s Top 40, but with the same formatics that made it famous in 1981: the 70 minute power rotations, the TM Fusion jingle package, the high-energy jocks and the heavily formatted breaks?
As editor of Billboard’s Airplay Monitor, the author actually polled some Joseph aficionados a few years ago whether they thought the Hot Hits formula would be viable now. At the time, the consensus was that the best of what Joseph had done had already been co-opted and updated by today’s Top 40. Bringing back Hot Hits verbatim would just strike today’s cynical 13-year-old as hopelessly corny, programmers regretfully said. But that was several years ago at a time when Top 40 was in a relatively happier place. Today’s format in certain ways recalls 1981’s Top 40 radio, which had long swapped disco for poppier music, but which was hardly the center of pop culture.
So if WCAU-FM did come back next Monday, what would happen?
Well, first, it would have to generate enough attention to distract younger listeners from their current new toy. Rhythmic Top 40 WRDW (Wired 96.5) Philadelphia, which is about eight months old, debuted with a 3.5 in its first book and is up to a 3.9 in the first spring Arbitrend. It trails WIOQ (Q102) (4.5 – 4.4 – 4.4 in the same period) and R&B WUSL (Power 99) (6.0 – 4.6 – 4.5) but has had an unmistakable musical impact on both.
Wired’s “Rocco the Janitor takes over the station” launch stunt struck some local radio people as hokey at first. But there’s no denying that something about Wired has worked. And if the station hasn’t reached WCAU-FM levels yet, well, what in 2004 has?
And what would the kids think? With Wired in the market, Q102 is leaning heavily rhythmic, even by its usual standards. Are there more than a handful of viable pop records that could differentiate a station with an “all the hits” mission? And would Hot Hits DJs indeed seem hopelessly bogus to any self-respecting 13-year-old? You can only hope the answer to that last question is found in 1982 when Larry’s junior class at Princeton, which should have been way too hip and cynical, was instead transfixed by hearing “Gloria” by Laura Branigan every 70 minutes. (At the slightly harder rocking Univ. of Michigan that fall, the author recalls that Joseph’s WHYT got some attention from the radio junkies, but was largely upstaged by the debuts of Urban WDRQ and New Wave/Top 40 hybrid WABX.)
You also have to hope the answer to the musical question is found in 1981. When I first heard WCAU-FM, the hits were “Theme From ‘The Greatest American Hero’” by Joey Scarbury and “Here I Am” by Air Supply. When “Private Eyes” by Hall & Oates rolled around, it was kickass rock ‘n’ roll by comparison. WCAU-FM managed to make those records sound interesting. And within six months, “I Love Rock & Roll” and “Don’t You Want Me” were hits and Top 40’s available music was a whole lot better.
Then there’s the question of whether you could still implement Joseph’s “go to the box-office” music policy in an era where singles sales don’t mean much and downloads haven’t quite replaced them as an indicator. Joseph himself had tried to retrofit the formula a decade ago by using album sales, but it raises questions: Would you play Slipknot this week? Gretchen Wilson? Method Man? Would you play Prince’s new record? I know people for whom the answer, in Gretchen’s words, would be, “Hell, yeah!” but they’re not programming Top 40 right now.
Joseph’s rotations, however, could, be made to work. Turning your powers around every 70 minutes isn’t so outrageous when Q102’s top record is playing 100 times a week and Wired’s five powers are getting 120-130 spins. (During its initial stunting, Wired was actually turning songs around in an hour or less.) When I roughed out some Joseph-like rotations, I was indeed able to find seven songs that I was willing to rotate at 1:10. (That would have included the extra-crispy “My Immortal,” but, hey, it was still Top 5 on Q102 last week, and it’s certainly the sort of record that would be a power on Hot Hits, even at this point in its lifespan.)
Then I tried to come up with the 50 currents that Hot Hits stations used to play, since they had no gold and recurrents. I cheated a little on Joseph’s formula—I made honorary currents of a few songs as old as “Harder To Breathe” and “Hey Ya,” since they’re still being used that way at many stations. But when I’d taken the hits from Q102 and Wired, added all the teen pop not being played in the market right now, then skimmed a few from Power 99 and Modern Rock WPLY (Y100), I actually found myself with 53 songs, not including Gretchen Wilson, Slipknot or Prince.
Jingles? Their level of exposure is about the same place they were in 1981. Like WIFI, the good-sounding Top 40 that WCAU upstaged, Q102 uses a few but they’re not prevalent. I’d be more worried about finding jocks that could do high-energy Top 40. In 1981, the screaming ‘70s jocks had been toning it down for at least 5-6 years, but at least younger jocks had grown up admiring them. Now it’s hard for most programmers to imagine that listeners ever found that kind of radio appealing.
Even if a new WCAU-FM didn’t galvanize teens the way the 1981 station did, it would probably grab the attention of adults—at least those who’d been in the market at the time. WMWX (Mix 95.7), Philly’s remaining Adult Top 40 since last fall, is now showing some momentum, but AC powerhouse WBEB (B101) is still managing to cover a lot of potential Hot AC listeners by default. If any of those listeners have a yet-untapped desire to hear Top 40, “Hot Hits” is probably a package they’d feel comfortable hearing it in.
When WCAU-FM debuted in 1981, there were already programmers who felt that “all the hits” would never again be a marketable proposition, particularly at a time when Rock and R&B had a monopoly on cool. These days, Top 40 PDs are determined to make “all the hits” work again—it’s just not taking everywhere yet (and in Philly, Wired’s debut has sidetracked that mission for the moment). Long-term, Top 40 probably needs a package that again puts Joseph’s radio basics in contemporary trimmings. For now, taking a classic formula and using “retro” as the hook sounds surprisingly compelling. I’d be more interested in hearing the old WCAU-FM again than a lot of what’s out there.
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.