A lot of what you think of the new Mainstream AC format at WNEW New York, now billing itself as “Fresh 102.7″ will depend on whether you agree with the following two propositions:
- Clear Channel’s market-leading WLTW (Lite FM) is cheating too young, (making it one of a few Mainstream ACs that manages to do so–despite overall concerns about the aging of the format)
- Lite’s sister, top 40 WHTZ (Z100), which has re-emerged as a market force over the last year, is cheating too old, somehow convincing too many 30-year-old moms to sit through Akon and Ludacris to hear Christina Aguilera and the Fray.
CBS’ new bright AC launched yesterday morning (Jan. 2), billing itself as “Today’s Soft Music without the tired old songs,” a point of differentiation from WLTW and its prominent ’70s component. A less-prominent liner, the one seemingly aimed at Z100, promises “no loud music or talky DJs.” Between those two extremes, on the station’s first day, was a primarily ’90s and now-based AC, playing only one ’80s song an hour, sometimes none, and nothing older.
This is WNEW’s second attempt to find a wedge between WLTW and Hot AC WPLJ, the old WMXV (Mix 105) position that it first attempted to fill in late 2003 before evolving to Rhythmic AC. But a lot has changed in three years, and the notion that you would now have to think of Z100 factoring into that equation is just part of it:
- Hot AC WPLJ, while never relinquishing its currents, opened up its library around the time that WCBS-FM became “Jack-FM,” a change that did not go unnoticed by some of its fans. While that library has since become less prominent, you’ll still hear a “Brown-Eyed Girl” from time-to-time.
- In addition, WKTU’s recent reconfiguration to Rhythmic AC and the lack of a current rock station in the market mean that there aren’t a lot of stations specializing in “today” beyond Z100 and the market’s Hip-Hop and Latin outlets.
- A mainstream AC specializing in the ’90s and ’00s gets WNEW and sister WCBS-FM out of each other’s way. While one leaned Rhythm and one leaned Pop/Rock, the two stations were covering much of the same turf chronologically.
Beyond that, the notion of a “soft and contemporary” approach to AC has had advocates for a while. (In fact, the only time an AC is usually willing to use the word “soft” in a liner is if it is thus modified, as is the case here.) Last year at this time, then-consultant Cary Pall advocated something similar at WQFM Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Hot AC has certainly seen a split across eras and demography, particularly since the advent of Jack-FM. So why shouldn’t the same thing happen at Mainstream AC?
Well, if it doesn’t, the answer will be the ’70s disco that has been such a secret weapon for Lite-FM, giving it a greater vitality than you’d expect from 30-year-old songs. Ultimately, demography insists that a new group of listeners must come along who have no interest in “Brick House” or “I Will Survive.” But those songs have done a pretty good job of living up to the durability implied by their titles so far. They have also helped to give WLTW a utility with African-American and Hispanic listeners that ACs don’t usually have. (On its first day, Fresh 102.7 was about 15% rhythmic; WLTW is usually at least twice that.) If those records are indeed the “played out” songs that Fresh is promising to provide relief from, it’s only because there have been at least four stations in the market playing them over the last year.
WLTW has also done a pretty good job of protecting the “today” half of its franchise. It hasn’t delved as deep in the soft pop ’70s as many of its Clear Channel brethren. (Sister KOST Los Angeles, for instance, will play Neil Sedaka and the Carpenters.) WLTW has always been aggressive about finding titles that are finally ready for Mainstream AC, whether that means a current like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” or the Fray’s “How To Save A Life” or an older title like Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” that has finally softened just enough.
A lot of the viability of the “today” franchise will depend on how much recent music there is for Fresh 102.7 to work with.
A lot of the viability of the “today” franchise will depend on how much recent music there is for Fresh 102.7 to work with. The ’90s have always been thorny for AC because of the available music. When pop music went through its mid-’90s resurgence, it offered several bodies of galvanizing music, but there are not now a lot of formats, except perhaps Modern Rock, where the ’90s represent the most compelling available music. Relying on the ’90s means having to grapple with the following:
- The early ’90s rhythmic titles that have become the basis for the new generation of Rhythmic ACs–and which have recently been a bigger part of WKTU;
- The mid-’90s dance music that propelled WKTU: I’ve heard an occasional Cher and Janet Jackson’s “Together Again,” but on day No. 1, Fresh wasn’t trying to wrest most of those songs from WKTU;
- The singer-songwriter era of Modern AC. The bad news is that this genre–which was heavily in evidence on Fresh’s first day–has been whittled down to a handful of useable Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachlan titles at Hot AC in the last few years. It’s possible that there’s an audience waiting to reconnect with those artists, along with Melissa Etheridge, Jewel, and Hootie at a more Mainstream AC format. But it’s not such a potent wedge for Hot AC.
- The late ’90s teen pop explosion: The latter has considerable “oh wow” potential at some point in the future, but it’s hard to imagine building a station around it now. I have heard the Backstreet Boys on Fresh, but it’s not a major part of the station.
That said, there’s a lot more new music to work with than one would have thought possible a few years ago when the format’s flagship artists were either becoming increasingly damaged (Celine Dion) or on loan from Country (Keith Urban, Faith Hill, Shania Twain). There aren’t a lot of new core artists yet, but among Kelly Clarkson, James Blunt, Daniel Powter, KT Tunstall, and Gnarls Barkley, there are enough hits to fill a current/recurrent category with again, and enough songs that are indeed both soft and contemporary.
January 2, 2007
Genesis, “That’s All”
Nickelback, “Far Away”
Five For Fighting, “100 Years”
Simply Red, “Holding Back The Years”
Rob Thomas, “Ever The Same”
Huey Lewis & Gwynneth Paltrow, “Cruisin’”
John Mayer, “No Such Thing”
Aerosmith, “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing”
KT Tunstall, “Suddenly I See”
Wallflowers, “One Headlight”
Marc Anthony, “You Sang To Me”
Uncle Kracker, “Follow Me”
LeAnn Rimes, “Can’t Fight The Moonlight”
K-Ci & Jojo, “All My Life”