Songs That Will Never Test…Until They Do

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

AC and Hot AC are formats built around records that program directors couldn’t possibly imagine playing a decade ago. Songs that were hard enough to give Top 40 program directors pause when they were currents become songs the whole office can agree on, at least for the Retro Lunch. And that process has sped up in recent years. Once, “Headstrong” by Trapt would have needed a few years’ worth of music tests for Hot AC to feel comfortable with it. Now, it’s up to 5,700 spins to date in that format.

But if familiarity makes records seem less hard with time, the jury is still out on whether it makes songs less goofy. So it’s been very instructive for me to hear “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper back on the radio in recent years, or to find out just how many people it tests useable for. “Girls” now gets nearly 250 Mediabase spins a week, not just at ‘80s-based Hot AC stations, but also respected, research-driven mainstream ACs, including WBEB Philadelphia (9 spins a week), WMJX Boston (6 spins), WLIT Chicago (6 spins), and WLTW New York (2 spins). In Tucson, Ariz., it’s on Hot AC KSZR 10 times a week and on rival KZPT 6 times.

“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” hasn’t reached the level of acceptance of, say, “Time After Time,” (430-plus spins for the same week), but it’s ahead of the 160-plus spins that “All Through the Night” is getting, even though you would have expected that more neutral ballad to be a safer call. Its recent airplay is, in any event, pretty respectable for a song that once symbolized the ephemeral MTV ‘80s more than any other, except for “Mickey.” (Not to the author, by the way, who, as most longtime readers will know, has more than a soft spot for both those records.)

In fact, since making the transition from journalist to researcher five months ago, it’s been revelatory to see good tests at various stations for “Relax,” “Sunglasses at Night,” “Electric Avenue,” and ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” all songs that were once more likely to polarize than galvanize. “Jessie’s Girl” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” never quite had the same baggage to live down; they too have become more common these days on the Hot AC stations I’m hearing.

So how do songs go from goofy to golden?

In the case of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” the short-but-happy life of the all-‘80s format probably had something to do with it. Programmers were just starting to realize just how durable some ‘80s songs were when the boom/bust began, but the glut of All-‘80s stations gave more PDs the opportunity to test the decade and find out what the hits were. While the All-‘80s boom had the short-term effect of taking some of those songs off Hot ACs, many of those songs are starting to filter back on to regular Hot ACs now. And I’ve definitely seen at least one market where the coming-and-going of an all-‘80s station made those songs more useable for Hot AC, not less.

“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” isn’t back on every AC or Hot AC station, but, then again, many AC and Hot AC programmers haven’t tested it yet.

There were probably similar forces at work a decade earlier when “I Will Survive” began living up to its title after 15 years off the radio. Never as much of a lightning rod as, say, “Ring My Bell,” Gloria Gaynor’s hit was still iconic of the disco era in a way that earned almost immediate exile during a disco backlash that began in 1979, while it was still a recurrent. The All-‘70s format boom broke the taboo on “I Will Survive” but it was the 1996 success of dance/top 40 WKTU New York that helped put that song on rival WLTW and establish it as an AC warhorse alongside “Got To Be Real” and “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel.” Stations like WLTW and WMJX, in turn, set off a rush within AC to find songs that could replace any last semblance of the format’s Manilow/Streisand past.

Beyond that, you can also look at demographics. The audience that makes a song a hit as a current doesn’t really get to vote on its place in the gold library for another 10 to 15 years, until they move into the Hot AC and AC demos. If they do make their way into a Top 40 library test, they’re a lot more likely to be unkind to what they liked six months ago. It’s not inconceivable to me that “Mmmbop” or “2 Become 1” will be useable records again someday, but it seems safe to say that they were voted out of Top 40 libraries by 1999 and won’t be an issue for AC programmers for another 5-10 years. Then again, it’s surprising how quickly “Tubthumping” has resurfaced at some Hot ACs.

You also have to consider the demographics of the decision maker. It’s hard to remember now just how totally gone from the radio “I Will Survive” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” were until the mid-‘90s. That’s when the listeners who grew up with them were finally in programming positions, replacing the generation that hated playing those songs as DJs. Those ‘70s kids, by the way, have more than had their revenge, if you consider the way their music is usurping the ‘60s at oldies radio now.

Not every record is capable of having its honor restored. Whatever happened for “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” has dramatically not happened for, say, “Karma Chameleon.” And while you might be willing to explain that one by artist image, you’d then have a hard time accounting for “Safety Dance” or “Relax” testing well in any circumstance. And nothing will destroy some songs faster than being back on the radio: witness “YMCA,” which, after its flirtation with respectability, is now useable only on Saturday nights for most stations.

“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” isn’t back on every AC or Hot AC station, but, then again, many AC and Hot AC programmers haven’t tested it yet. Being on a monitor of WLTW or WBEB can do a lot to put a song back in many stations’ music test. My time on the research side has also shown me how easily a format safe list becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I’ve also seen how many potentially useable songs aren’t even being tested.

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