by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming
Even in early September, Infinity’s WNEW (102.7 Blink FM) New York was, like most new stations, already considerably revamped from its April launch. Since giving up the PD post at sister WXRK (K-Rock) to concentrate on Blink, OM Steve Kingston had trimmed the famously broad playlist, shuffled some airshifts, given the station’s much-vaunted entertainment features some consistency, and, in the last few weeks, made a station that had been deliberately hard to categorize sound more like a traditional hot AC.
But on Sept. 12, after three months of being stalled at a 0.7 share, Blink changed again, this time drastically. Gone were Kingston and much of the staff. Gone were Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, and most of the rhythmic titles that hadn’t been purged already. Gone were the “songs that don’t test” (although Kingston had already weeded most of those). Gone was the entertainment news at the top of the hour, the Kiefer Sutherland liners, the produced song intros, the hot pink logo. Gone, in short, were all of the trappings of Blink’s determination to be “more than just a radio station.”
In their place was a soothing female voice offering “music women love,” something she described as “really different” (for a classic rock station, maybe). Since then, we’ve also been promised no “angry” rock, no “nasty” rap, and nothing you can’t listen to in front of your kids. In other words, Blink is now telling listeners what the station is and how to use it—something it had seemed determined to avoid.
What did stay, however, was the station’s five-in-a-row music position, one of the more curious elements of the old format. Perhaps in a feature-heavy format, five-in-a-row might have been enough to convince people that you were still playing enough music. But you have to go back to the early ‘80s to remember a time when anything less than 10-in-a-row sounded like a lot of music.
There were some elements of Blink version 1.0 that make sense, even if they didn’t mesh, and may still bear fruit for somebody else.
Musically, you’ve read elsewhere that the new Blink is going straight up against WLTW (Lite FM). But it more often recalls the old WMXV (Mix 105.1), the quietly determined bright AC that occupied the lucrative but not-so-sexy place between Lite and WPLJ in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And since Blink’s sweeps are now known as five-in-a-row music mixes, that may well be by design. While the era of three or four AC stations in most markets is long behind us, there are still New York radio observers who believe there was room for somebody to move back into that space. For some, the only surprise is that Blink didn’t select this option from the beginning.
One key question for the new Blink will be whether Lite FM has, in the intervening years, plugged up any hole for a bright AC. While Lite may have gotten a little lighter again in recent years, the result of both 9/11 and the end of pop music’s mother/daughter coalition, it’s much closer to spectrum AC than soft AC. And while there would certainly have been a hole on the softer side of Lite for a WSNI Philadelphia-style super-soft AC, that station would likely have cannibalized oldies sister WCBS-FM. Still, finding the biggest player in the market and going after a piece of them is usually the strategy you invoke when there’s no other hole in the market—and this is still a market with no country, triple-A, mainstream rock, or R&B oldies.
That puts a lot of the onus on “music women love” as a point of differentiation. Of course, most AC stations (a few classic hits/hot AC hybrids notwithstanding) are music for women. And most rock stations are music for men. But classic rock KSLX Phoenix withdrew quickly from its “for men only” positioning in the late ‘80s. Then again, that was before TV offered us “The Man Show” at one end of the spectrum and Oxygen and Lifetime at the other.
The other issue for the new Blink is whether the name and frequency have been damaged by its first five months, during which the station was heavily marketed and indeed attracted some significant cume. The best news in that regard is the eventual success of WPLJ and R&B KKBT (the Beat) Los Angeles, both of which survived false starts in the early ‘90s: WPLJ’s “Mojo Radio” and KKBT’s “Rock with a Beat,” two previous examples of how a great mix tape doesn’t always translate into a format that listeners understand.
As with WPLJ and KKBT, there were some elements of Blink version 1.0 that make sense, even if they didn’t mesh, and may still bear fruit for somebody else. There are listeners moving into the hot AC demos now who grew up with LaBouche and En Vogue, not Rod Stewart and Phil Collins. Those listeners are still fair game for a station that’s more rhythmic than WPLJ and more recurrent than top 40 WHTZ (Z100), although in New York, that station, for many of them, is WKTU. And Canada’s “Bob” and “Jack” hot AC/classic hits hybrids have demonstrated some demand both for broad variety and for something that sounds a little unusual. It’s just a function of figuring out how different is different enough.
Here are two long stretches of Blink on Sunday, Sept. 14:
Huey Lewis & Gwynneth Paltrow, “Cruisin’”
Sugar Ray, “Someday”
Rod Stewart, “Reason to Believe”
Daniel Bedingfield, “If You’re Not the One”
Wham, “Careless Whisper”
Sarah McLachlan, “Fallen”
Lionel Richie, “All Night Long (All Night)”
Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive”
Backstreet Boys, “I Want It That Way”
Lee Ann Womack, “I Hope You Dance”
Billy Joel, “The River of Dreams”
Natalie Imbruglia, “Torn”
Bryan Adams, “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman?”
Christina Aguilera, “Beautiful”
Toni Braxton, “Breathe Again”
Marc Anthony, “You Sang To Me”
LeeAnn Rimes, “How Do I Live?”
Backstreet Boys, “As Long As You Love Me”
Fugees, “Killing Me Softly”
Rod Stewart, “This Old Heart of Mine”
Tracy Chapman, “Give Me One Reason”
Celine Dion, “Have You Ever Been In Love?”
Lionel Richie, “All Night Long (All Night)”
John Mellencamp, “Peaceful World”
Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight”
Kelly Clarkson, “Miss Independent”
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.