How Did Modern Gold Come Back Before The Rhythmic 90s?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

I’ve never seen XETRA-FM (91X) San Diego’s library test. But I feel reasonably safe in the belief that if you had looked at it two springs ago, many of the songs that have become so potent for gold-based modern rival KBZT (FM94.9) wouldn’t have come back at the top of the test, or even playable.

91X was already an adult-friendly Modern Rock station. It had a sister station, KIOZ, that kept it from having to engage in an active rock war of attrition. So if “A Girl Like You” by Edwyn Collins or “New Pollution” by Beck or “Fade Into You” by Mazzy Starr had been research monsters, they probably would have been on the air already. As it happens, songs like those hadn’t done much to help KMRR (Merge 93.3) Dallas, now classic rock KDBN, during its brief stint as a ‘90s-based Modern Rocker.

Then KBZT edged past 91X and suddenly gold-based Modern Rock was no longer viewed as the ultimate niche. Some stations began testing the lost ‘90s and the era before Nirvana. Others didn’t wait to put those songs on the air, lest a rival get there first. So far, the initial tests show that much of the music that disappeared from Alternative radio appears to have done so for a reason—even with new airplay and a more appreciative audience screened in, Veruca Salt’s “Seether” moves only from the bottom of the test to the bottom of the median. But a handful of real hits did emerge once stations were willing to put them back on the radio.

So you’ve got to wonder. If there does, indeed, turn out to be a market for lost Alternative, why then isn’t anybody playing the rhythmic hits of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s? Last week, it was easier to hear “Ball and Chain” by Social Distortion, one of the songs given a new lease on life by KBZT, and now getting 101 Mediabase spins a week, then “Rump Shaker” (92 spins), “The Humpty Dance” (93 spins) or “My Prerogative” (49 spins)—songs with a much greater reach during their early ‘90s heyday.

A few late ‘80s/early ‘90s songs have come back aleady. Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” gets upwards of 300 spins between all formats. Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” once thought of as the harshest record on Top 40 has emerged as an all-ages party jam (and a reliable tester) with 200-plus spins. But if you’re waiting to hear “Do Me,” “Don’t Want To Fall In Love,” or “The Power” again, they’re all in that limbo where somebody will have to play them again before there’s any possibility of them testing.

And who’d want to do that, right? As one colleague asked when I mentioned what I was writing about this week, “You’re not talking about ‘U Can’t Touch This’ and ‘Opposites Attract,’ are you? Hardly songs that have stood the test of time.” Well, yeah, but also Salt ‘N’ Pepa, En Vogue, Digible Planets, Run-D.M.C., Deee-Lite (which often does test) and other acts whose props have been a little less eroded by time.

If there does, indeed, turn out to be a market for lost Alternative, why then isn’t anybody playing the rhythmic hits of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s?

And even Milli Vanilli and Vanilla Ice, which my co-worker was good enough not to mention, were the music of somebody’s life. This became clear a few weeks ago after a previous article about the reappearance of some ‘80s titles when Mike Couchman, PD of Christian CHR WAYG Grand Rapids, Mich., reeled off a long list of artists he was missing from that era, including Milli Vanilli, Bell Biv Devoe, Jody Watley, and Technotronic. Hearing those songs resurface “could not [happen] soon enough for me,” says Couchman, who grew up with them on WBBM-FM (B96) Chicago.

But it’s not when listeners who grew up with a body of lost songs become PDs that you get to hear them on the radio; it’s when they become GMs and group owners. Suggest playing the ‘70s on the radio and for many years you would get the same sort of looks from people who’d ask if you really intended to play “Seasons In The Sun” and “Billy Don’t Be A Hero.” Those songs stayed gone, but “I Will Survive,” “Margaritaville,” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” eventually did resurface as potent songs for multiple formats that outlived the brief tenure of the All-‘70s format. And, as was the case with the ‘70s at the time, we’ve already seen several successful early ‘90s compilations.

There’s also the question of where you’d put the rhythmic hits of the early ‘90s. They’re too old for most mainstream Top 40s (although New York’s WHTZ [Z100] recently found a place for them on special weekends). Most are now considered too rap for Urban AC, but too pop for the recent handful of Mainstream R&B stations that play old-school Hip-Hop. And no matter how it tests, you’re not likely to hear “Baby Got Back” on most Hot AC stations, particularly those that have avoided any rhythmic music for the better part of a decade.

You might have heard an occasional “Rub You The Right Way” on a Jammin’ Oldies station, but PDs were just starting to discover those songs as the format faded away. New “Jammin Hits” outlet WXQL, Saginaw, Mich., does play “Straight Up” and “This Is How We Do It” next to the rhythmic ‘70s and ‘80s. You heard some En Vogue and Salt ‘N’Pepa on the Blink 102.7 incarnation of WNEW, although it was just one tentacle of that station’s particularly ambitious mix. (It will be interesting to see whether any of those songs re-emerge on its successor, Mix 102.7, which has taken a more rhythmic turn recently.)

Gold-based Alternative became an issue because upper-demo stations like KBZT threatened to split a 15-to-34 format that wasn’t ready to live without the upper half of the coalition. Rhythmic Top 40 and, to some extent, R&B have learned to sell younger demos, which makes them a little less likely to rush 10-to-15-year-old records back on to the radio (which still hasn’t stopped a few “old school” wars from breaking out through the years).

It’s hard to be sure where the rhythmic ‘90s will turn up, but they’re probably going to turn up somewhere, if only because few bodies of hit music don’t turn up somewhere. (The closest thing I’ve seen to a truly lost era is Top 40 music from 1979-82, and even “Bette Davis Eyes” is starting to come back playable here and there). Today, you’d have to swallow hard to put some of those titles on the radio. But there will likely come a time when it’s hard to imagine just how lost those songs were.

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 Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or