So What Is AC Going To Do About The Early ’90s?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming

Okay, what is AC radio going to do about the listener who came of age in early ’90s? And what, in particular, about some of their favorite records? After all, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Baby Got Back” were not exactly the songs that the whole office could agree on at the time.

The listeners who grew up during Top 40’s early ’90s fragmentation and “extreme” music cycles aren’t just in the Hot AC demo now; they’re already moving into mainstream AC’s research screener.

It’s a question that Hot AC has been grappling with for a while now. But now, the woman who was 18 in 1990 is turning 34 this year. After almost a decade in the Hot AC target, she is suddenly eligible for a mainstream AC’s research screener. Now, the challenge of targeting those listeners has manifested itself in two distinctly different programming approaches.
The most publicized has been consultant Alan Burns & Associates’ new “Movin’,” format, a rhythmic-based Hot AC that updates the Jammin’ Oldies concept by about 10-15 years, linking today’s rhythmic crossovers (Usher, Black Eyed Peas) with the early ’90s party records that have never quite found a home at any one format. “Movin’,” according to its demo presentation, is targeted to 28-to-40-year-old white and Hispanic women who “grew up on Top 40 hits that were primarily rhythmic.”
The Cary Pall-consulted WQFM (The new Q-FM) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa., takes a different tack. In structure, it’s a MAINSTREAM AC that also makes a point of being “family friendly.” But at a time when some Mainstream ACs are going back to soft ’70s titles of the “Sometimes When We Touch” and “You Are The Woman” variety, WQFM goes back no further than the mid-’80s and its center is in the early ’90s. (Pall had done something similar at WRVF Toledo, Ohio, a few years ago.) WQFM doesn’t play a lot of rhythmic titles, but there are some En Vogue, Stevie B, and Stereo MCs titles that you wouldn’t find on most Mainstream or Hot ACs.
The whole history of AC and Hot AC is, of course, that new listeners move into the demo window and bring once-edgy genres of music with them. That, of course, was how Modern AC was born more than a decade ago and how Green Day has become a core artist today. In a world where “You Dropped A Bomb On Me” by the Gap Band now plays 9-10 times a week on WNIC Detroit, it’s not impossible to imagine a time when “Baby Got Back” won’t be edgy either, even if it’s in a decade.
But so far, the Salt ‘N’ Pepa/Black Eyed Peas contingent that should in theory exist has been elusive. It’s been hard to find more than a few late ’80s/early ’90s titles–rhythm or rock–that work for Hot ACs, much less mainstream AC. For every “Gonna Make You Sweat” or “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” there are scores of songs like “Rico Suave” or “Headed For A Heartache” that show no sign of coming back playable anytime soon. And it’s been no easier to put together a “hip-hop for adults” format on the Urban side although some stations like WWPR (Power 105.1) New York and WBLK Buffalo, N.Y., have succeeded with elements of that approach.
Conversely, the rootsier mid-’90s pop has performed better at Mainstream AC, which, these days, seems to be taking custody of acts like Melissa Etheridge and Hootie & the Blowfish from Hot AC. But those songs weren’t necessarily the core music of a new generation of listeners, as much as a throwback to an earlier era. Songs like “Come To My Window” or John Mellencamp’s “Wild Night” should work next to James Taylor and the Eagles.
Part of the problem in trying to program the ’90s is that there was no shared pop experience that lasted for more than a year or two. The all-ages coalition that made Top 40 so successful in the mid-’80s (and is at the center of a Bob- or Jack-FM now) had scattered by the early ’90s. Many markets lost their only Mainstream Top 40, dispersing listeners to Country (the only truly shared experience of the time), Hot AC, or Rhythmic Top 40. For a minute, the mid-’90s Modern Rock revolution managed a quorum, but it fragmented, too, with the advent of Modern AC. In fact, the most heard Top 40 music of the decade was late ’90s teen pop, which Mainstream AC has just finished purging.
When Modern AC came along in the mid-’90s, it successfully acknowledged that there were listeners who had grown up with something edgier than Phil Collins and Rod Stewart. But by throwing its lot in with the women-who-rocked, Hot AC effectively turned away from those who had been listening to Rhythmic music a few years before. After all, who in 1996 wanted custody of Bell Biv DeVoe? That has a lot to do with why Usher and the Black Eyed Peas are such a challenge for many Hot ACs now.
It could, theoretically, be easier for Mainstream AC to deal with certain early ’90s rhythm titles, if only because the format never excised rhythm quite as thoroughly. While the once-core George Benson/Jeffrey Osborne/James Ingram sound is long gone at many ACs, disco has more than replaced it in many markets. Again, that doesn’t mean “Baby Got Back” on Lite FM tomorrow. But it does mean that En Vogue’s “My Lovin'” or Real McCoy’s “Another Night” wouldn’t be a textural stretch.
Deciding what to do about Country will be another issue for AC. Right now, most AC PDs would probably be more comfortable with Faith Hill (who did cross over) than Garth Brooks (who never needed to–at least at the time). But if you’re looking to reach somebody who was 18 in 1990, in many markets, Garth was a part of their formative musical years as well. And the distinction between those records that were worked to pop in the late ’90s and those that weren’t in the early ’90s is probably not a real one to many listeners.
Ultimately, it’s still hard to believe that any generation will go forever without reclaiming the radio for its music. In a world where even “Laughter In The Rain” by Neil Sedaka is back on KOST Los Angeles, no body of records should ever be counted out indefinitely. Listeners always want to hear the songs they grew up with. It just takes radio a while to work out the delivery system.
WQFM Wilkes-Barre, p.m. drive, Feb. 7
Heart, “What About Love”
UB40, “Can’t Help Fallin’ In Love”
Prince, “Let’s Go Crazy”
Jeff Healey Band, “Angel Eyes”
Janet Jackson, “What Have You Done For Me Lately”
Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories, “Stay (I Missed You)”
Tom Petty & Heartbreakers, “Don’t Come Around Here No More”
No Doubt, “Underneath It All”
Mike & the Mechanics, “All I Need Is A Miracle”
Third-Eye Blind, “Semi-Charmed Life”
Heart, “Never”
WQFM Wilkes-Barre, middays, March 6, 2006
Belinda Carlisle, “Mad About You”
Matchbox 20, “3 A.M.”
Roxette, “The Look”
Hootie & the Blowfish, “I Go Blind”
Bon Jovi, “Wanted Dead Or Alive”
Mariah Carey, “I’ll Be There”
Genesis, “Throwing It All Away”
Melissa Etheridge, “Come To My Window”
Tears For Fears, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”
Kylie Minogue, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”
Alan Burns’ “Movin'” Format, demo music monitor, March 2006
2 Unlimited/Get Ready For This
Rihanna/Pon De Replay
Shannon/Let The Music Play
Puff Daddy/I’ll Be Missing You
Black Eyed Peas/Let’s Get It Started
Young MC/Bust A Move
Mariah Carey/We Belong Together
Corona/The Rhythm Of The Night
Outkast/The Way You Move

2 replies
  1. David Gariano
    David Gariano says:

    Sean, your think pieces always are enlightening –
    You bring up some excellent points as to the challenges that face AC ahead –
    At SuperSpots, we began examing these issues over 30 months ago as we moved into original 3D character animation for AC. We wanted to communicate in a new and different way to the women who make AC tick — with our “Rebecca @ Work” and “Snowglobe” campaigns, we are reinventing how AC radio should market itself to its core –
    We look forward to helping the AC format evolve and maintain its dominance –
    David Gariano

  2. Bernie Straus
    Bernie Straus says:

    Having tuned in to the website and listened live, I see that this radio station has surprisingly so much in common with other old top 40s of the past, like the old 99X in New York pre-1981 (before it became R&B Kiss), and FM97 Lancaster c. mid-late 1980’s. Who knew that either of those stations would unwittingly prove to be the inspiration behind Philly’s 106 1? As you might expect, there’s bound to be a million dollar weekend here (with lots of Motown/Philly/ disco classics), powers to be turned over every 5 hrs., and a repeat-free midday. In fact, it’s been said you get up to 70% less repetition than on the hardest top 40. Next time I head to Philly, I’m nailing my dial to 106.1. I’m so glad 106.1 is back doing top 40 again for the first time since Eagle 106 left the air in 1993. By the way, this is 106.1’s first foray into rhythmic leaning top 40 since Eagle’s predecessor, Electric 106 c. mid-late 80’s, and 106.1’s first foray into active top 40 since Electric’s precedessor, Z106 c. 1984-6. Q102 finally has a long overdue archrival. This is gonna be one interesting battle for top 40 supremacy. Those of you living in southsoutheastern PA can rejoice now that heritage active rhythmic leaning top 40 is back on the dial. I wouldn’t dare call newly restarted top 40 Philly’s 106 1 adult contemporary, let alone rhythmic AC. After all, the permutation is nothing new to me. It may have been pushed off the air in New York, Lancaster, Boston, and Keene NH, and had modest success in L.A., but this format should work well in Philly. Hats off to 106.1 for bringing the fun back to top 40.


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