by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
You haven’t read much about Modern AC lately. The female singer/songwriter movement that helped spur the format in the late ’90s has long dissipated, leaving only Sheryl Crow, Jewel, and newcomers K.T. Tunstall and Missy Higgins to represent the genre on the most recent Hot AC chart. The edgy, interesting Hot AC stations these days are playing the Black Eyed Peas and Rihanna, not Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam. Then there were the Bob- and Jack-FMs, which managed to upstage many of their newer focused Hot AC counterparts last year by bringing back all those Bryan Adams and Phil Collins records that Hot AC once phased out because of Modern AC.
In fact, when the tenth anniversary of the format rolled around last fall at KYSR (Star 98.7) Los Angeles and KFMB-FM (Star 100.7) San Diego last fall, chances are that you read little about it. In Los Angeles, the headlines were dominated by the success of Hot AC/Classic Hits hybrid KCBS (93.1 Jack FM), while KFMB-FM had switched to Jack-FM itself. And earlier this year, the format lost one of its purest practitioners when WWZZ (Z104) Washington, D.C., became the new home of all-news WTOP-FM.
As veterans of the format cycles know, all of this can only mean one thing.
It must be time for Modern AC to make a comeback.
This may come as a surprise to anybody who has programmed Modern AC for a while, particularly those who started grappling with issues of available product almost as soon as the format coalesced. Within a year or two, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” and the Shania Twain/Faith Hill Country crossovers forced Modern AC to choose between staying focused musically and being able to play the biggest songs. Modern Rock, meanwhile, got much harder–graduating fewer records and fewer listeners to Modern AC. And without little music to tether them to Alternative radio during the Korn/Limp Bizkit era, many Modern AC listeners evolved into Hot AC listeners with little interest in new Modern Rock–even after that music softened and became more palatable to adults.
But over the last year, a few things have changed.
First, there was Green Day. The Hot AC success of “Holiday” (a recurring topic in these pages) cannot be overstated, having shown that the listeners who grew up with “When I Come Around” were still coming around, and just waiting for a record to latch on to. Then there were the Killers, and suddenly Modern Rock’s lean toward a retro-based, more melodic sound didn’t seem to be drifting over the head of 33-year-olds after all.
There has also been the proliferation of pop/rock at Top 40. Two years ago, it felt a little forced on the part of CHR program directors. But somewhere between Nickelback’s “Someday” and Nickelback’s “Photograph,”the pop/rock component began to feel a little more legit.
Finally, the successes of Bob- and Jack-FM have once again left Hot AC with the question of “what to own,” since custody of “Jessie’s Girl” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me” has been wrested away, making the “’80s, ’90s and now” model a lot harder. Often, the remaining Adult Top 40 audience just looks like the more conservative half of the Mainstream Top 40 coalition, as evidenced by the relative paucity of markets where both a pop-focused Mainstream Top 40 and a newer leaning Hot AC perform well.
But while older “women who rock” have their format in Bob- and Jack-FM, their younger counterparts have been without their own station for a while. Roughly a third of the Top 100 markets are without a Modern Rock station now, and that’s not counting the 15 or so markets where a hard-rocking Modern outlet differs from Active Rock by only a song or two. Top 40 has accommodated Green Day, Weezer, Gorillaz (eventually), and Fall Out Boy in the last year. But even if there are more rock slots, they often go to teen punk or power ballads. And now Top 40 has the pure pop of James Blunt and Daniel Powter to accommodate as well.
In fact, over the last year, there’s been a pretty good body of (often uptempo) mainstream pop/alternative product that has been scattered between Modern Rock, Hot AC, and Triple-A, rarely making it to CHR. Triple-A has covered a lot of that product, but its Classic Rock component and low current spins (an average of 20 per week on the No. 1 song) keep it from being used as a pop format by many listeners.
Some songs, like O.A.R.’s “Love And Memories” receive partial support at various formats, peaking at 12 at Triple-A and 31 at Alternative. (It’s a bulleted 23 at Hot AC at this writing.) Same goes for Depeche Mode’s “Precious.” Others are spread between disparate formats. Him’s Euro-oddity “Wings Of A Butterfly” is a Top 25 Alternative rock. Collective Soul’s “Better Now” made it to No. 7 at Hot AC last year. But they’d both sound pretty good on the same format.
For that matter, so would Matisyahu’s “King Without A Crown” (which went straight from Alternative to Top 40 without Hot AC), the Fray’s “Over My Head (Cable Car)” (Hot AC, some Top 40, some Alternative), Gorillaz’ “Dare” (Alternative, but building elsewhere), Death Cab for Cutie’s “Soul Meets Body” (Alternative and Triple-A, with a smattering of play elsewhere), The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Gold Lion” (Alternative). You could also throw in a handful of poppy leaning songs that never got anywhere near Top 40 last year, such as Tegan & Sara’s “Walking With A Ghost” and Rise Against’s “Swing Life Away” (an Alternative hit that was never on Top 40’s radar). And the best pop song on the Hard-Fi album, “Hard To Beat,” has been a single in the U.K., but not yet in the U.S.
You might not be familiar with every one of those records. And that list might not seem like enough to hang a format on. But there are established multi-format artists to put in the middle–e.g., Green Day, Killers, Fall Out Boy, Weezer, etc. And when WHTZ (Z100) New York took a decisively modern slant with its music in early ’93, a lot of its center-lane music was the same sort of medium-weight pop/rock that existed just under the radar a few months earlier.
And even as Modern AC stations exit the format or evolve to something mainstream, others are moving in–mostly in medium-to-smaller markets. KQKQ (Q98.5) Omaha has been playing “Modern Hit Music” for several years; it has since been joined by the similarly positioned KZZU Spokane, Wash., KPLN Billings, Mont., and KZPT (Z104.1) Tucson, Ariz. (WIXX Green Bay, Wis., which reports Top 40, also plays a lot of the same music.) There are also a few Alternative rock stations, most notably WWDC (DC101) Washington, that have managed to control both Rock and Pop franchises. And recently WRAX Birmingham, Ala., which doubled as Modern AC for its market in the mid-’90s, recently moved back in that direction as well.
Making Modern AC work means finding a way around the pitfalls of the format’s last decade. The format needs enough musical focus to serve as a viable alternative to Alternative, or as a replacement in markets without a Modern Rocker. And somehow, it needs to do so without becoming as niched out or as bleached out as it did in the late ’90s. Those challenges aren’t easily solved, but they increasingly seem worth solving. Format holes always begin with more current music than other formats can acknowledge and that, at the very least, now seems to exist.