If Rhythmic AC Works in London, Why Not Here?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

You probably won’t see the news about London’s Heart 106.2 wresting the market lead from Capital FM in any American trades. But in London, where Capital has been the No. 1 commercial station for 30 years, having somebody else at the top is as mind-blowing as it was in 1978 when AM Top 40 powerhouse WABC New York was no longer No. 1.

Twenty-five years later, of course, we realize that it was inevitable that an AM music station wouldn’t be No. 1 indefinitely. And on my first trip to London in 1992, I remember thinking that Capital was vulnerable, if only because of how the music was changing. Capital, like most European Top 40s of the time, was a very adult-friendly station, capable of doing a workforce triple-play from James Taylor at 3 p.m. Capital still had the kind of numbers that most American Top 40s could barely remember, but the Ugly American in me was sure it wouldn’t take long for somebody to do to them what, say, KPWR (Power 106) Los Angeles had done to KIIS-FM: go more rhythmic and out-hip them.

I thought that station would be London’s newly minted dance station Kiss 100. Rhythmic Top 40, I figured, was the real sound of the new London—or at least the one I’d seen in “Sammie and Rosie Get Laid.” But Kiss remained deliberately eclectic for several years—by the time it tightened up, Capital had made some changes as well, becoming increasingly Americanized. Capital never went Rhythmic, per se, but it constantly reinvented itself, playing enough dance and R&B/hip-hop that the opportunity to beat them on that flank seemed to disappear.

Which doesn’t mean Capital didn’t have issues. In the last few years, its numbers have been slipping, if only as a result of the greater number of choices in the market. As with the AM top 40 powerhouses of the ‘70s, pundits claimed the station was in trouble because it had “only” a 10-share. With each decline came the same fluctuations in programming that would accompany any such slide in the States. And in the just released summer RAJARs, Capital was down 8.9-7.0.

The station that beat Capital wasn’t Kiss—which itself went 4.6-4.1. Capital was instead out-rhythmed by, of all things, AC Heart 106.2, which was up 6.7-7.2. Heart isn’t much edgier than New York’s WLTW (Lite FM). But it’s rhythmic enough to have become the soundtrack of a changing London in the way that neither Kiss nor Choice FM (the mainstream R&B outlet) have yet mustered.

Here’s Heart at 1:15 p.m. on October 24:

Lionel Richie, “Truly”
Natalie Imbruglia, “Torn”
Janet Jackson, “Together Again”
Christina Aguilera, “Beautiful”
Barry White, “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe”
Whitney Houston, “My Love Is Your Love”
Patrice Rushen, “Forget Me Nots”
Beyonce, “Crazy In Love”
Sister Sledge, “We Are Family”
Mary Mary, “Shackles (Praise You)”
Toni Braxton, “Unbreak My Heart”

One irony is that Heart is rhythmic in a way that most U.S. AC stations would never attempt. A handful of Hot AC stations have tried leaning rhythmic, instead of rock, starting with the early ‘90s version of WBMX Boston and WYXR (now WSNI) Philadelphia in the mid-‘90s. But Rhythmic AC has never taken hold in America, which is all the more curious at a time when R&B and hip-hop are the predominant contemporary genres.

The exceptions: a few gold-based dance stations that target 25-54 (WKTU New York and WQSX Boston chief among them) and L.A.’s KBIG, which goes all-dance at night, but still mixes in Coldplay and Counting Crows during the day. In the summer ’03 Arbitron, KBIG was almost a share behind sister KOST, but still led Modern AC sister KYSR 2.6 to 2.2. WMWX (Mix 95.7) Philadelphia is also doing dance at night and throwing in Black Eyed Peas and Christina Aguilera during the day, but hasn’t gotten traction yet.

Whatever’s happening demographically in London has long happened in many American markets.

The short-lived first incarnation of WNEW (Blink 102.7) New York also had a strong rhythmic component, as well as liners, presumably aimed at rival WPLJ, offering music in more flavors than just “vanilla.” But even with some early ‘90s rhythmic titles that you can’t hear on the radio anymore (e.g., “Don’t Walk Away” by Jade), Blink was playing a lot of the same music as WKTU. And it was also playing too many other things (including Coldplay) for the rhythmic lean to be obvious.

By contrast, Paris radio went through a period in recent years where two major networks, Top 40 Fun Radio and AC Europe 2 both evolved to what they called a “groove” format, but which was, essentially, Rhythmic Hot AC. Europe 2 eventually segued to Adult Top 40, but Fun is still grooving. You might think it’s easier to own rhythmic music in Europe than it is in the more fragmented U.S., but Paris also has a Hip-hop station, a mainstream R&B, and several Top 40s with a strong dance component.

One possible explanation for the success of Heart FM, and the paucity of Rhythmic AC here, is that there’s a more consistent history of rhythmic-flavored Top 40 in the U.K. From the days when Top 40 was the only place to hear R&B (or any contemporary music, for that matter), the U.K. has had a long history of huge dance and R&B songs that are barely known in this country, ranging from “I’m Gonna Run Away From You” by Tami Lynn and “Use It Up And Wear It Out” by Odyssey to “Free” by Ultra Nate’ and the Mary Mary song, more recently.

But in the same way that it was hard for American Top 40 programmers to imagine rock and rhythm back on the radio together a decade ago, the concept of a rhythmic-leaning Hot or Mainstream AC may just defy the industry’s imagination, at least until there’s another KBIG or two. Which is why the Heart story is worth telling here, since whatever’s happening demographically in London has long happened in many American markets. And the listeners who are moving into the AC demo window now didn’t just grow up with Alanis and Hootie, but “Rhythm Is A Dancer” by Snap and “Another Night” by Real McCoy as well.

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.

1 reply
  1. Paul Easton
    Paul Easton says:

    This was an interesting read – especially from an outsider’s perspective.
    Since that piece was written, Heart’s success turned out to be very short-lived – they dropped back in the next book, and have continued to fall in just about every book since.
    In the most recent Rajar (the UK radio ratings service) book – Q4/2004 – Capital FM was 6.2, with Heart at 5.3. The big surprise was Soft AC Magic 105.4, which posted a 6.1 share!
    Heart’s success, though, probably owes more to Capital’s desire to reinvent itself to compete more with Kiss – during which many of Capital’s long-term, older, listeners felt disenfranchised and started to look elsewhere – than being a Rhythmic AC innovator. Heart had signed a couple of former Capital star names (David ‘Kid’ Jensen and Pat Sharp), and the station was, in all honesty, more pf a ‘Capital Lite’ clone than anything.
    It worked for a while, but since Capital decided to go back to being a more rhythmic version of the mass-appeal station everybody knew and loved, former defectors have been returning to the fold. This has not been helped by a peception that Heart’s music is “too repetitive”, and a general feeling that the station has “lost the plot”.
    The final nail in Heart’s coffin was failing to capitalise (sorry!) on the decision by Chris Tarrant to quit the Capital FM breakfast show after 18 years! Heart put a lot of money into promoting their breakfast show, with Jono Coleman and Harriet Scott, hoping to benefit from the changes at Capital.
    While Tarrant’s replacement, Johnny Vaughan, initially lost listeners, they weren’t switching to Heart – in fact in Q3/2004 Heart’s breakfast show was shedding more listeners than Capital – and continued to drop in Q4. The main beneficiary in London’s breakfast battle would seem to be Magic’s Graham Dene – ironically Capital FM’s breakfast host before Tarrant.
    Heart are starting to fight back, with a new breakfast show – with former BBC TV/radio presenter Jamie Theakston partnering Harriet – launching in April, and a general image overhaul.

    Reply

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