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One Night In Bangkok Makes A Rock Fan…Nostalgic?

Entry by Edison Research | Wednesday, February 9th, 2005 | Permalink

‘80s Rock Listeners Aren’t Just Used To Variety, They Were Raised With It

by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming

Even after the Jack/Bob format’s American inroads, some aspects of the Classic Hits/Hot AC-hybrid are still hard for programmers to come to grips with. In particular, there’s the format’s ability to draw Rock radio listeners, even though the U.S. variants of the format often include music with no rock credentials. Inevitably, in any discussion of Jack/Bob, somebody says, “But they’re playing ‘One Night In Bangkok.” (The song title itself changes, but it’s always something that no self-respecting Rock listener should be willing to sit through, at least long-term.)

Listeners’ usage has never been as focused as the radio formats offered them. A well programmed Top 40 often shares 15-25% of its cume with all of a market’s major players. Beyond that, if you look at the history of how most listeners experienced Rock music over the last two decades, it makes a lot more sense. Programmers often compare Jack/Bob to an iPod on shuffle, but the sudden marketability of broad variety and the recent resurgence of ‘80s Rock both have much deeper roots in the radio landscape of 25 years ago.

How could somebody who likes “Pink Houses” or “Panama” put up with a station that also plays “Caribbean Queen”?

In 1980, Top 40 radio wanted to be AOR radio. Or it wanted to be AC radio. Sometimes, it wanted to be both. Faced with both the disco backlash on one side and the introduction of gold-based AC on FM in many markets, Top 40 in many markets became either “Rock 40” (although the term then was “Top Tracks”) or it softened dramatically. Some Top 40 stations, like KRBE Houston, would end trying both approaches in that era.

Even those stations that stayed nominally Top 40 became, in many cases, Rock/AC hybrids. Occasionally, a WHYI (Y100) Miami, WXKS-FM (Kiss 108) Boston, KFRC San Francisco, or WZGC (Z93) Atlanta would play all the hits, including R&B crossovers. Many others set the parameters as Billy Squier on the hard end, and Air Supply at the other. And if you had an act like Toto that fit in to both food groups (or a power ballad from Journey or Styx), well, that was even better.

Rock radio, meanwhile, was getting harder and a lot more insular. Three years earlier, the format had been just as much about Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles as Ted Nugent and Lynyrd Skynyrd. By 1980, stations like WCOZ Boston and WLUP Chicago had ushered in an era of “Kickass Rock ‘N’ Roll,” to quote one much-used liner of the time. And the success of Doubleday’s heavily researched KWK St. Louis and WLLZ Detroit helped shift a once-artist-driven format to one more dependent on one-off turntable hits.

If you’d grown up with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in AOR’s first generation, the corporate rock of the early ‘80s already represented the doldrums. But if you were 18 at the time, you didn’t know you weren’t supposed to like Pat Benatar and Journey. And if you were an 18-year-old female, it was probably your hit music. Corporate rock was hardly the only music that mattered in 1980-81. But back then, Rick James and the Gap Band were relegated to Urban radio. Songs like “I Got You” by Split Enz or “What I Like About You” by the Romantics got only a relative smattering of airplay. And in an era marked by soft pop from Christopher Cross and Paul Davis, who wouldn’t gravitate to 38 Special and Loverboy instead?

By 1982-83, of course, things were a lot different. MTV had helped propel the next spate of new wave singles-“Tainted Love,” “Don’t You Want Me,” “Rock The Casbah”-a lot further than “I Got You” or “What I Like About You.” Rick James, Michael Jackson, Prince and others had co-opted early ‘80s rock and forced Top 40 to pay attention to R&B again. Mike Joseph’s “Hot Hits” WCAU-FM Philadelphia had galvanized Top 40 in the same way that WLLZ had impacted Rock radio a few years earlier, giving the format a new confidence. Top 40, which already had an expectation for pop/rock, could still play John Mellencamp, Joan Jett, and anything important on Rock radio, leaving that format without ownership of much besides the one-hit wonders of the Doubleday era.

By 1983-84, Rock radio wanted to be Top 40 radio. The success of MTV and the now infamous Burkhart-Abrams “80/20 doctrine” urging AOR to play more new music sent Rock PDs scrambling to find a place for “I Melt With You” and “I Know There’s Something Going On.” The segregation of Rock radio that took hold in the late ‘70s was shattered by not only “Beat It” and “Little Red Corvette,” but by “Electric Avenue,” and even “Running With The Night” by Lionel Richie at some stations. WLLZ played Shalamar’s “Dead Giveaway” and several of its Doubleday brethren, such as WAVA Washington and KPKE Denver, kept going until flipping to top 40 outright. So did heritage rockers such as WPLJ New York and WLRS Louisville.

And that was how things stayed for a while. Mainstream pop/rock was abundant in the mid-‘80s-Springsteen, Mellencamp, Dire Straits, Tom Petty, Def Leppard—but it fueled the success of Top 40, not Rock radio. Even Quiet Riot and Ratt’s hits were experienced next to Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, and Daryl Hall & John Oates by many listeners.

By the late ‘80s, the landscape had evolved again. Unable and increasingly unwilling to compete with Top 40 for teens, AOR stations had begun following the new lead of a much-less-kickass WLUP Chicago to a more adult sound, based more in blues and roots music than corporate rock. And many of those that didn’t take their cues from WLUP in 1985 still ended up going older a few years later because of the success of Classic Rock.

Top 40s, by then, were having troubles of their own. KPWR (Power 106) Los Angeles had ended the 10-share era of KIIS and shifted the format’s emphasis from pop to rhythm. Even so, when Rock radio finally got something it might have owned in the late ‘80s with the success of Guns ‘N’ Roses and the hair band explosion, many of the newly adult AORs were reluctant to embrace those records. So “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “Wanted Dead Or Alive” were experienced on Top 40 for many listeners as well.

It’s not until 1992-93, a decade after the Top 40 resurgence, that Rock radio regained any sort of agenda-setting primacy. By then, it helped that there was no Top 40 radio in many markets. And for several years, “The New Rock Revolution” made Modern Rock stations (or Top 40/Modern Rock hybrids) the place where women-who-rocked heard not only Pearl Jam and Nirvana but also, for a while, Spin Doctors, R.E.M., and “Ordinary World” by Duran Duran. That lasted until the women were peeled off first by the advent of Modern AC in late 1995 and then by the new strength of Top 40 a few years later.

All of which explains a lot of what we’re seeing on the landscape now:

Why is early ‘80s rock showing up at the top of so many Hot AC music tests? Because it was the pop music of the time for a woman who’s now in her late 30s or early 40s. And because Hot AC doesn’t have much current music to offer as an alternative.

Why do the hair bands test as well with Hot AC women as Rock radio’s men? Because those acts were the Top 40 teen idols of the late ‘80s.

How could somebody who likes “Pink Houses” or “Panama” put up with a station that also plays “Caribbean Queen”? Because many people experienced those songs played together when they were currents. ‘80s Rock by itself has given stations like WQBW (the Brew) Milwaukee and WDTW (the Drive) Detroit a franchise. But ‘80s Rock doesn’t have to be played by itself.

A ‘60s Oldies listener would never expect to have to go to one station to hear the Animals and another to hear the Supremes (although a few stations have tried the former approach.) But the success of Classic Rock created an expectation that in the future all new Oldies formats would be just as clearly defined. But Classic Rock was a throwback to an era when rock music had a place in the firmament that it doesn’t occupy now.

Even ‘70s AOR listeners weren’t raised on as restrictive a diet as we remember. Their Rock radio played Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers. Even as free-form gave way to the “Superstars” format over the course of the decade, listeners still believed that AOR was less restrictive than Top 40. Only in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s did Rock radio become the place to go if you hated “Get Down Tonight” and “Stayin’Alive.” And judging from some of today’s AC test scores, not everybody stayed mad at disco or decided not to like it anymore in the first place.

AC, of course, has become the successor to ‘50s/’60s oldies for people who grew up 10 years later. We may think the ‘70s Oldies format fizzled, but Abba, Barry White, and Seals & Crofts co-exist happily on many Mainstream AC stations. And WLTW (Lite FM) New York had already demonstrated the ability to be a mile wide and an inch deep long before that became the rallying cry for today’s broader stations.

It’s hard to know what form each generation’s Oldies format will take. Our various waves of ‘70s Oldies, Jammin’ Oldies, and ‘80s Gold stations didn’t create a template for how best to play those records, but they did demonstrate a need to hear them again. Only time will tell if Jack/Bob looks the same in five years and even its own PDs are hedging their bets by letting listeners hear some current music now. But even if the deliberately provocative segues of some of today’s Jack/Bobs go away, listeners’ ability to accommodate broad variety will not.

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.

10 Responses to “One Night In Bangkok Makes A Rock Fan…Nostalgic?”

  1. David Gariano says:

    Boy do we need Sean Ross to help give us much needed perspective. We in radio get so close to the forest, we can no longer see the trees -
    Thanks for letting us see the trees in this awesome piece!
    The Jacks and Bobs are here to stay, the same tired 300 songs in any format have lost their magic -

  2. Dave Lange says:

    Sean – Great observations and an excellent history of music programming. One note – the B/A 80/20 moment was one of the shortest trends in the Rock format’s history. As I remember it we came back from a convention and jumped into the new 80/20 lists and most stations jumped back to their old approach in less than a week. The audience reaction was amazing – protests in front of the station – phones ringing off the hook – clients leaving. A few stations hung on for the Spring Book – but most of us were back to rock as it was in a flash.

  3. Patrick Cloonan says:

    Recently, WRRK-FM 96.9, Braddock-licensed but a Pittsburgh market radio property, went through a well-hyped retuning of its “classic rock” music format. The program director denied that it’s a Jack or Bob FM format, but the station calls itself “rock without rules.” In truth, it probably is the same classic rock albeit with a few more songs one wouldn’t normally hear on a classic rock station, spiced with some drop-in comments from rock artists with Pittsburgh ties. WRRK is co-owned with WLTJ-FM 92.9, a “lite rock” station, and City Paper, a local weekly alternative newspaper. Actually, the station where I’m surprised (sometimes pleasantly) at what songs one might hear is “The Rock of Pittsburgh,” K-Rock, or WRKZ-FM 93.7, an Infinity property formerly known as B-94 or B93.7 or WBZZ-FM 93.7. It recently went to a more intense rock format 20 hours a day, albeit much of it a heavier form of its previous Top 40 music, along with the Howard Stern Sirius infomercial in morning drive.

  4. Mark Summer says:

    Sean-
    Nice article. I listened to 103 KDF/Nashville in the the 80′s during their rock glory days. They were an old school “catch all” AOR. They played plenty of Seger, Zeppelin, Skynyrd, Journey and Foreigner, but they also played Tracy Chapman,
    John Hiatt, Richard Marx and Howard Jones. KDF was the first place I heard “To be With You” by
    Mr. Big. Looking back, many people did use KDF as
    ,at least, a rock leaning Adult Top 40. The top 40, Y107, was targeting very young and sounded very rhythmic so KDF filled a void. Thanks for jarring a memory.

  5. I agree with David Gariano, and I wonder if we won’t see Jacks and Bobs pop up in lots of genres – playing the songs that stations played and people bought, but don’t necessarily do that great in auditorium tests, and thus haven’t been heard on the radio in a while. There’s a certain safety to the Jack & Bob “Oh wow” factor…even their wackiest songs had sales and airplay back in the day.

  6. Justin Case says:

    Sean,
    As always, so accurate, you rock! During high school and college in Phoenix I heard all the presentations you described. KUPD “kick ass” the “EOR” (eclectic oriented rock)of KDKB somewhere between hit and AOR with alot of mid-charts mixed in about 1985, and the touches of early modern hits mixed in at Zap’s KZZP long about 1986. (Kevin Weatherly aka “Doug Kelly”) did it right on the Saturday Night Party Patrol!)
    Jack/Bob is not the next “70′s format”. It can also be leaned a few different ways to acomadate a cluster or market too. This should not be so hard for GM’s or PD’s to understand….maybe they don’t have the right guy in the PD chair anymore :)
    Justin Case

  7. Paul Christy says:

    I’ve appreciated your analysis for years, Sean, but I must say you have really been on top of things in your last few articles. I, too, have an interest in Jack/Bob, and your well-annotated history of past programming trends gives away the “secret” to why it works. I would mention, however, that the original Mix format featured many startling segues, too–it just didn’t showcase them. Radio people found our mix of, say, Benny Mardones into INXS or Whitney Houston into Gin Blossoms really weird. Listeners didn’t find it weird at all, though. They loved the variety, just as they now love Bob or Jack (where available.) I think the format could have legs, especially if we keep talent on the air to avoid that souless automated sound. Keep those commentaries coming! I can’t believe we don’t have to pay you.

  8. Peter Mc Lane says:

    …..As Todd Storz knew, The Top 40 “hits” are the musical mainstream of America. Sean, excellent writing, as always.

  9. Brian Woods says:

    Good points as always raised by Sean. A couple of points come to mind:
    1. I’ve never met a male AOR listner who likes (OR) admits to liking “Hair Band” rock. I refer to bands like Def Leppard and Whitesnake as female rock acts. My brother, for example, who has a deep rock CD library will ignore a rock radio station that plays one or two Hair Band acts. He would much rather hear Dream Theater than “Pour Some Sugar On Me”. So I’m not sure what kind of call out Rock PD’s are looking at, but they had better re-think that cell of music.
    2. The Jack/Bob format does inspire some some good radio. Deep playlists ARE a good thing and is expected by listeners much more so than in the days before Satellite radio. What concerns me is that these stations are too wide age wise, and they do not play enough currents to buffer (ie:) extend the life of the gold. 600-700 titles in a library are a blessing to those who have long complained that librarys of 250-300 songs were too small. They were! But if 150 of 600 titles are un-familliar what’s the point of that kind of variety. Also, most women I know aren’t eager to hear “The Ballad Of John & Yoko” next to John Mayer. These stations should pick a small age demo and go for it…not one as wide as 25-54. Also, and more importantly, these stations should embrace MUCH more of the current product on Hot AC. Otherwise their basically another oldies station. And as we all know most markets have nothing BUT oldies stations. Give us current music fans something to listen to besides Hot AC and Top 40.

  10. Jim Hays says:

    Excellent article, Sean. As a Hot AC programmer, I am interested in the success stories of the Jack/Bob format.
    And your article confirms our research which shows “Pour Some Sugar On Me”, “Here I Go
    Again” and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” testing as well as, if not better than, the Alanis and Matchbox 20 tracks so often associated with Hot AC.

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