The new Top 40 battle between Cumulus’ KRBE Houston and CBS’ newly launched “Hot Hits” KHJZ (Hot 95.7) will be a referendum on several fronts: rhythmic-leaning vs. determinedly mainstream, mostly current vs. a broader library, and, in particular, ultra- fast power rotations vs. the slowest power rotation in the top 50 markets.
KRBE, according to Mediabase, played its six powers no more than 65 times last week. On the day before KHJZ launched, the station’s most spun song, Buckcherry’s “Sorry” was coming around every 2:45 or so. By contrast, KHJZ could be heard playing songs as close together as 45 minutes on its first full day. After six days on the air, six songs have more than 100 spins. Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” shows a jaw dropping 169 spins, but that apparently includes stunting before the launch.
Among mainstream Top 40 stations, the mega-powers put Hot 95.7 in rarefied company. Beasley’s WXKB (B103.9) Fort Myers, Fla., played Flo Rida’s “Low” 138 times last week. During the midday/afternoon stretch I looked at yesterday, its spins came as close as 45 minutes together (but also as far apart as 1:15). Clear Channel’s WIOQ (Q102) Philadelphia was at 120 spins on its most-played record, Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song,” which was playing anywhere from 45-minutes to 1:10 apart yesterday.
Mega-spins used to be mostly for a launch or relaunch. But Philly has been a battleground for monster spins since 2003 when Rhythmic WRDW (Wired 96.5) came to town under consultant Jerry Clifton and launched with powers as close as 45-minutes to each other. (Wired was at 108 spins on its most-played song last week.) Last fall, Q102′s rotations made national news when The New York Times, reporting on the national spin record set by Timbaland/One Republic’s “Apologize,” said that Q102 was “letting as little as 50 minutes tick by between repeat spins.”
The headline of the Times article – “Radio’s Newest Strategy: Play a Hit Again and Again” – wasn’t entirely on point. Many of Q102′s Clear Channel brethren had hit the 100 spin mark on powers in the early part of this decade. Monster spins were neither quite as audacious as they were when a handful of PDs first cracked the 100 mark in the mid-’90s or, it seemed, quite as common as they were a few years ago. Since then, for example, WHTZ (Z100) New York has backed down to what now feels like a positively leisurely 94 spins a week. But that article was before B103.9 and Hot 95.7. So it’s easy to see mega-spins capturing programmers’ attentions again.
Ultra-high spins usually went hand-in-hand with stations that were distinctive in other ways. Mike Joseph’s all-current version of “Hot Hits” on WCAU-FM Philadelphia spun its powers every hour and 10 minutes. In the morning countdowns that ran on his WHYT Detroit, the biggest songs played literally an hour apart. More than a decade ago, Roy Jaynes used mega-spins on the early WKXJ Chattanooga, Tenn..–a tight-playlisted station that was mostly rhythmic, but was also one of the few Top 40s to play LeAnn Rimes’ “Blue,” because it, too, was a reaction record.
Among advocates of ultra-high spins, the prevailing logic has often been that Top 40 is going to be saddled with the image for repetition anyway, so why waste time fighting it when you could be playing a hit record? More recently, some have thought of it as an appropriate strategy for a PPM world where a station’s cume is larger and its Time Spent Listening is shorter. In today’s instant gratification world, why not hear the strongest record every time you tune in?
And for some PDs, ultra high spins are not just a matter of playing the strongest song available at any given moment; they’re also about burning the hits out for the other guy and creating a war of attrition. And, indeed, a number of the stations confronted with that type of Top 40 station did indeed get out.
But as programmers ponder Hot 95.7 or Q102 or B103.7 and wonder if they, too, need to play the hits every 45 minutes, they should consider the following:
- While there was probably more to it than merely fatigue, Top 40′s doldrums of the mid-’00s pretty neatly coincide with the moment when the bulk of large-market Top 40s were over 100 spins a week on their powers. At that moment, ultra high spins were not a distinctive statement; instead, they were part of an increasingly oppressive template. And for the first time, it seemed like it might be possible to play the hits too much–top burn scores in Top 40 callout started to top 50% in that era and have remained high ever since;
- The genre most favored by many of the 100-plus club is also the one that has suffered the most genre burnout in recent years. Hip-Hop has a lot of other issues as well, but three or four stations in a market playing the biggest songs 200-300 times a week between them has not likely helped;
- Whether because of “the long tail” or fewer major-label releases, there are fewer hits in most genres now. While one response is certainly to pound the hits that do exist, there’s also something to be said for not burning out your powers because you don’t know how long you’ll have to live with them. And few songs have the ability to hang in there for six months like “Apologize” did;
- You can’t do it without research. Because even if there’s no such thing as playing the right records too much, you have to know what those songs are;
- While you can’t program your station for the people who don’t like Top 40 radio, there was some comfort in knowing that critics’ perceptions of radio were ridiculous: nobody really plays records every half-hour. Now, anybody who read the Times article is convinced that their local station is turning them over like Q102 does; (indeed, I got a call a few weeks later from a reporter whose question began with, “so now that Top 40 is playing the same songs over and over”).
- If PPM is the motivator, we haven’t yet seen a CHR battle between fast and slow rotations yet. KRBE and Z100 are faring better than Q102 at the moment, but they also have the advantage of being the only CHRs in their market. But it’s interesting that the PPM strategy in, say, Rock has resulted in less intense rotations and a broader gold library. And Z100, in particular, has done a good job of having it both ways–three songs top the 90 spin mark, but there’s also a broad library and other relief throughout the day.
As that suggests, the “moneyball” formula for maximizing the hits could be just a few spins-per-week slower than the one for destroying them. WPOW (Power 96) Miami is another station that tops out in the mid 90s on its hits and is, for a variety of reasons, doing better than it was two years ago when it was over the 100 mark.
Hot 95.7 has been an exciting launch in an industry that doesn’t get a lot of new major-market Top 40s. And as with Joseph’s “Hot Hits,” which was much more than its rotations, it’s exciting in a number of ways. It’s also in a rare market where the opportunity is to go more rhythmic and more current than the incumbent. One hopes that 2008 will see a lot of audacious station launches, and that each of them will look a little different as PDs assess what the market will give them. Chances are the answer will be “45 minute rotations” only under very special circumstances.