Top 40 Reclaims B94, But What About Now?

“B94 is the sort of CHR that a lot of programmers just didn’t think was viable anymore a few years ago.”

WBZZ (B94) Pittsburgh launched as Top 40 in April, 1981, just a few months before it would be overshadowed in the trade press by Mike Joseph’s flashier “Hot Hits” WCAU-FM Philadelphia. But B94 was no less important to Top 40′s comeback and certainly more of a sustained success story, outlasting the Philly station by 17 years in the format. B94 went into a “shot-and-a-beer” market, proved that there was still room for R&B at Top 40 at a very sterile time for the format, and finished off Rock 40 WXKX (96KX) in just about 18 months. It was a more Rhythmic successor to that station, WKST (96 Kiss FM) that nudged B94, by then owned by CBS, out of Top 40 several years ago.

Emmis’ WNOU (Radio Now 93.1) Indianapolis debuted in 2001 under consultants Alan Burns and Dave Shakes as a modern day successor to Hot Hits: mostly current, emphasizing young-end reaction records in contrast to the Modern AC-leaning WZPL. It would go through several changes during the decade–sometimes more Modern AC itself, other times more Rhythmic. WNOU was never quite dominant during its time as a CHR, but it was No. 5 in the market in the most recent trend.

On Friday, October. 5, B94 returned after three years in various Rock and Talk permutations, On October. 8, WNOU flipped to Christmas music, exiled Radio Now to its HD-2 channel, and prepared to become the new FM home of News/Talk powerhouse WIBC. The return of B94 had said some interesting, and encouraging, things about the state of Top 40. So what then to make of a prominent defection a few days later that, technically, leaves the market without a Mainstream Top 40? (WZPL, nominally a Hot AC now, is very close.)

To answer that one, you have to go back to the early part of this decade, around the time that WNOU launched, but also when the B94 vs. Kiss battle was at its most heated. B94, despite its role in bringing R&B back to Pittsburgh Top 40 two decades earlier, was a pop/rock-leaning CHR. WKST launched in 2000 as a mostly rhythmic outlet, modeled on Clear Channel sister WKFS (Kiss 107.1) Cincinnati.

As the Clear Channel programming folks freely noted at the time, the aim of WKFS was initially to flank, not to win. But just successfully flanking a heritage Top 40 at the time was usually enough to mess everything up for the incumbent. In the early ’00s, with Hip-Hop at its most influential among Top 40 listeners, the Cincinnati model was hard for a lot of legacy CHRs to compete with. Those battles often ended with the heritage CHR deciding not to bicker over half the Top 40 franchise and evolving to Hot AC, as did Cincinnati’s WKRQ (Q102).

As the Cincinnati model spread, many CHRs landed in one of two camps. Some Top 40s were 90% Hip-Hop and R&B with just one or two of the biggest Rock hits, usually Linkin Park, teen/punk or power-ballads, and those usually were added somewhere around the time they hit the top 15. Other Top 40s, if they didn’t switch outright, were more Pop/Rock leaning, usually borderline Hot ACs, with very little rhythm.

For some reason, it was hard for most PDs to successfully negotiate a middle ground and fashion a young-end Top 40 that was aggressive on both Rhythm and Rock. WNOU tried it briefly at the outset. Keith Clark, B94′s OM then and now, had tried something similar in the early ’90s in several other markets; B94 would briefly try to battle Kiss by becoming both aggressive and broader, before ditching the format altogether. But the young-end franchise hardly seemed worth splitting up or fighting for in the mid-’00s. That left Top 40 as a battle between the two models–mostly rhythm and no rhythm. And in 2003, it wasn’t so exciting to be playing “Bright Lights” by Matchbox Twenty when your more Rhythmic rival was playing “Get Low” by Lil’ Jon.

But things have changed. Hip-Hop, whatever you think of its current product, can not credibly be called “the only current music that matters” to today’s 18-year-old. WKRQ has returned as a very Hot AC and is neck-and-neck with WKFS. Many of the stations modeled on Cincinnati have added at least a little more pop/rock product. And WHTZ (Z100) New York, which was very Rhythmic in the early ’00s, is now more adult- and pop-leaning, and is enjoying its greatest success in two decades. And in an era when so many teens are growing up without radio, those that still listen are a lot more amenable to a station that is less extreme and more mom-friendly in its approach.

So it says something that the new B94 is not that far, musically, from the pop/rock-leaning Top 40 it was in the late ’90s, before Kiss forced it into a war of attrition. In fact, only the lack of any “Hot AC chart-only” songs keeps it from being WZPL, which does play Kanye West. It is certainly positioned to cover both the Mainstream Top 40 and Hot AC franchises. And today, anyway, it has some room to maneuver since sister WZPT has moved away from Adult Top 40 and WKST continues to lean heavily on Hip-Hop.
In other words, B94 is the sort of CHR that a lot of programmers just didn’t think was viable anymore a few years ago.

WNOU, meanwhile, had ended up, as a Rhythmic-leaning young-end Top 40, not exactly the Kiss Cincinnati model, but in the same ballpark. And other broadcasters have rarely been as willing as Clear Channel to devote a signal in so many markets to a young-end CHR. Clear Channel was certainly unique in its willingness to devote an extra signal in so many markets to a format that was first meant to serve as a spoiler–winning was nice, but it was a bonus. And as News/Talk powerhouses seek out new homes on FM, more than one station with viable 12-plus numbers has been elbowed aside. So it’s not surprising that an upper-demo station eventually got dibs on WNOU’s frequency.

Seeing Top 40 stations with decent 12-plus numbers go away is an unhappy echo of the format’s crisis periods. Even during the rebuilding years of the mid-’90s, there were still prominent defections, and you can only look at the incoming traffic vs. the outgoing stations as an indicator of the format’s overall health. For the most part, programmers still feel good about the format, particularly if it becomes possible to pull off 25-to-34-year-old CHR without immediately being flattened by a young-end flanker.

It’s nice to have B94 back. Like many in the industry, I still thought the brand had value even at its most battered. I’m also enjoying many of the little touches: the occasional reading of text messages to the station and liners like, “If you were really good in a past life, you get to come back as yourself.” Ultimately, the years when there was no B94 will probably be as forgotten as the years when there was no KZZP Phoenix or WAPE Jacksonville, Fla.

Globally, though, CHR still needs to find a way to do the “everything that 12-24s like” format that eluded WNOU and the old B94. There are only a few stations that really fit that description now: WEZB (B97) New Orleans, WZKL (Q92) Canton, Ohio, and, perhaps, as it evolves, KHKS (Kiss 106.1) Dallas. Even if it’s more viable now, one doesn’t want CHR to get too comfortable as a 25-to-34-driven format. Somebody has to repatriate those 16-year-olds who don’t listen to radio. And if Top 40 doesn’t do that, who will?

Here’s the new B94 at Noon on Monday, Oct. 8:

  • Pink, “U + Ur Hand”
  • Kanye West, “Stronger”
  • Nickelback, “Rockstar”
  • All-American Rejects, “Move Along”
  • Beyonce, “Irreplaceable”
  • Fall Out Boy, “Thnks Fr Th Mmrs”
  • Daughtry, “Over You”
  • Colbie Caillat, “Bubbly”
  • Christina Aguilera, “Fighter”
  • John Mayer, “Waiting for the World to Change”
  • Boys Like Girls, “The Great Escape”

And here’s 96.1 Kiss FM at 2:50 that afternoon:

  • Timbaland f/One Republic, “Apologize”
  • Pink, “Who Knew”
  • Black Eyed Peas, “My Humps”
  • Justin Timberlake, “Lovestoned/I Think She Knows”
  • Mims, “Like This”
  • Elliott Yamin, “Wait For You”
  • DMX, “Party Up (Up In Here)”
  • Soulja Boy, “Crank That (Soulja Boy)”
  • T.I., “What You Know”
  • Nickelback, “Rockstar”
  • 50 Cent, “Ayo Technology”
18 replies
  1. Jeff Scott
    Jeff Scott says:

    Having put B-97/New Orleans back in it’s rightful position of leadership “way back” between 2000-2002, I am happy to see another Bee make a comeback!
    We came into the market to revive B-97 as a rhythmic flanker, but ultimately planned to go back mainstream once we took apart the mainstream competitor (a KISS station, by the way.) And that is exactly how it turned out.
    Sean, you serve up an amazing valid point in your last paragraph; one that is lost on most who do CHR radio. I think it should serve as a caution to those who think they can tiptoe around the “teen image” issues that face CHR by leaning the station older musically. In the end, it won’t be enough just to satisfy the 25-34s who remember B94 in its heyday, because they will have different motivating forces in their lives now.
    B94 will ultimately have to do what we did in New Orleans with B-97…to rebuild the station first from the 12-17 and then the 18-24 bases. You can’t become a leader in fashion and style musically if you are playing too many John Mayer and Matchbox Twenty titles when you re-launch…although you MIGHT be able to get away with that later, which will inevitably lead to another flanker coming into the market to take you out…but I digress!
    If you don’t win the hearts and minds of the early-adopter teens, you’ll never have the impact on their lives whch makes your station’s presence in it so permeating that it forces the parents to go along for the ride.
    For a moment, consider this: because many 25-34 moms have young children, they tend to listen to stations that are more musically “conservative” around those children…they don’t want to have to explain hip-hop lyrics to a 10 year old. I believe this is why Hot and Modern AC’s have been so successful since the dawn of Hip-hop; they serve as a musical “safe-haven” for those with young children in the car.
    On the older side of the spectrum, however, you have 35-44 moms who are no longer trying to “protect the ears” of their teenage children; they are just trying to keep up with what is relevant in their children’s lives. This is why many women are pulled into the vortex of CHR radio again in their later lives.
    My maxim in CHR is “program young–position and market broadly.” And that philosophy is exactly what revived B-97/New Orleans. I think it would drive B94 to new heights as well. And living my that philosophy has kept stations like Z100 at the top for decades.

    Reply
  2. Buddy Scott
    Buddy Scott says:

    It’s great to hear B94 is back on the air as a mainstream CHR. The mainstream version of the format is the only one that delivers demos above 24. It’s great to hear Nickelback and Kanye West on the same staton. CHR that just “plays the hits” regardless of what they are.

    Reply
  3. Jeff Wyatt
    Jeff Wyatt says:

    Good stuff Sean… and all points are excellent… but as we all know… it ain’t just the music that matters… bringing presentation into the new millenium – the i-Pod world – is the other code that needs to be unlocked. The “right’ music mix without a whole new feel for young end targeted radio stations won’t get it done. A whole new sound of stations has to be coming… breakin’ the ho-hum radio stereotypes is next… Welcome back B-94!

    Reply
  4. Ric
    Ric says:

    Personally speaking, I think the O’Jays put it best with the song, “(Got to give the people) what they want”. I believe so many programmers have a sales instinct, that they forgot about what drives the sales. It’s the PEOPLE! 12-24 year olds don’t listen to the radio because they’re so much more saavy than we were at their age. They have I-phones, I-pods, and access that we never had. They can download the Wolf remix of Britney Spears’ “Gimmie More” (which no station is playing BTW) right NOW!
    I was listening to an aircheck of Robert W. Morgan on KHJ in the early 1970′s, and he went from Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” to Led Zepplin’s “Whole Lotta Love”, without missing a beat. This is what Top 40 in the 21st century needs to sound like. In this myspace and facebook age, we need to have programmers who comprehend what their jocks who truly are out there and understand what’s REALLY going on, and implement that in their programming strategy, or sit back, hire the right the people, and follow the lead, while getting credit for it.
    Here’s an example: In Washington DC, there is this great rock group called the Washington Social Club. They get ZERO airplay on the only rock station in the city, yet one of their songs ended up being played on the HBO series “Entourage”. How does this happen? How did anyone there miss them before and now?
    I believe if you hire creative people who are into the music, and understand that the MUSIC!!! is still the star, which as a jock you find, and understand, you’re the SIZZLE to the musical steak, be it a Top 40, an urban, or a crossover, that is the winning direction for ANY brand.
    UNDERSTAND YOUR BRAND!!!!! Then expand.

    Reply
  5. The Infinite Dial
    The Infinite Dial says:

    “Now” And Again

    If you Google “Radio Now 93.1″ today, the third entry is a petition asking WNOU Indianapolis owner Emmis to return the station to the air. Emmis exiled WNOU to HD-2 on Monday, making it the future home of News/Talk WIBC….

    Reply
  6. Marcus
    Marcus says:

    Hi shawn! i would add just a little to what you said! i think the actual reason hip hop stations started to be fazed out is they actually weren’t hip hop stations! kiss 96.1 actually leaned more dance from 2000 to 2002 with artists like Fragma and He loves you not by Dream! in 2002 they totally took away the dance hits and went strictly hip hop which turned me off totally! if b94 woulda went more dance i think it woulda regained the shares it lost! i don’t mean totally dance i mean top 40 dance lean!

    Reply
  7. Brian
    Brian says:

    Hey Shawn. As a Pittsburgher and person who is graduating college in December with aspirations of being on the radio I am so glad that Dan Mason, Keith Clark, Ryan Mill, and Jim Meltzer all brought B94 my favorite station back to the burgh. I love that CBS doesn’t speed or pitch up the music. Hopefuly the B can bring back jocks like Kobe and Adam Bomb to help make the station number one again.

    Reply
  8. tom
    tom says:

    brain said “Kobe and Adam Bomb to help make the station number one again” The station was NOT number one when these jocks were on. It wasn’t even top 5 18-34.

    Reply
  9. Kennedy
    Kennedy says:

    Adult CHR is on a comeback and alive and well. This is good news for Top 40.
    Dan Mason in my opinion is one of the most talented men in radio. We launched in April as the new CHR outlet in Arbitron #253 Lima Ohio. The station is true to its Adult CHR roots and has a lot of momentum.

    Reply
  10. Jeff Gerstl
    Jeff Gerstl says:

    Hi Sean – long tme reader, first time poster. I was a jock and APD (at a very young age) at KDON in Monterey/Salinas from 1985-89. We were a solid peforming mainstream CHR and then in 1989 the new PD decided to take the format Churban. I played the last “rock” song before the playlist change at Midnight. We were already about 85% Churban at that point anyway. Today KDON is an unrecognizable Hip-Hop/R&B that still reports Top 40.
    I’m 38 now. All through the 90s and part of this decade I lamented the lack of “real” Top 40. Stations began segmenting (Rock 40, Dance, Hip-Hop) and talent began suffering. No longer do you have to sound like a personality to be on the air. Just work on your street cred and lingo.
    I always applauded stations like Z-100 and KIIS-FM for never letting go totally. While these stations changed direction many times, they always managed to keep some mainstream product in their mix. And today those two heritage CHR’s are still winners. Meanwhile we see a steady resurgence of Hot AC and Adult Top 40s that keep the Hot Hits jocks of the 80s employed. I really feel (and hope) personality will re-emerge at the Hit Music stations and the Hot ACs again. I miss music radio dearly, but have kept my foot in with Internet talk radio.
    While I love the musical direction (or lack of) by the Variety Hits stations, I am somewhat upset that many choose to limit or forgo personality radio in favor of a nonstop IPod of hits we all knew and loved. Could Mainstream Pop or Mainstream Adult come back to the 80s, with music (old and new) to boot? I think so.

    Reply
  11. JJ SOLOMON
    JJ SOLOMON says:

    I agree with Jeff about the personality is needed. I am a personality that is recognized by industry names and ready to add my mark to Pittsburgh’s B94 or Washington’s WPGC or LA’s Kiss-FM.

    Reply
  12. Nate Fernandes
    Nate Fernandes says:

    From someone in the 18-24 demo:
    I love the fact that “The B” is back! I grew up with it, and even though I’ve been in Dayton at school, have missed the B. I ran a small college radio station (WUDR) and one thing that I stressed to the DJs I put on the air was this. People are not going to listen to you for the music you play. They are going to listen for the personality. If people want music, they have a commercial-free outlet called an IPod where they make their own playlists. What those IPods cannot provide is a live DJ talking about what’s going on at a club or if something major breaks like say, 9-11 or something. That’s what at least I listen for.

    Reply
  13. Dave K
    Dave K says:

    CBS is rediculious!! They kept Krock on for how long..and pulled TheZone after a few months, The only mistake with thezone was letting the “MAN” part slip out. I’m 19 years old, and i listened To The Zone, music now a days is crap, if i listen to radio, ITS FOR TALK. Kidd Chris, Loveline, and The Adam Carolla show are some fine examples. Every talk station in the Pittsburgh area is political, we had a chance for a really good off-kilter talk station, and cbs ruined it… looks like I have to stream ALL my radio shows…

    Reply
  14. dave
    dave says:

    Well its a few months in now….And B94 is a flop…I laughed when i met with keith at lunch and he told me they didnt have money to go after the freak show for morning drive and they were going to be putting bubba back on from star
    I know what your going to say no offical ratings…But im telling you as a insider at cbs pgh that station maybe has 6-8 months before it becomes pgh first fm sports talk…Its not selling with advertisers and has no buzz through out the city

    Reply
  15. Zack
    Zack says:

    I will say, being that it is now June, and B94 has been back in Pittsburgh for about 8 months, it does lack something. I loved B94 back in the 90s and early 00s. The morning show is weak. The best jock they have, in my own opinion is Flick. The ratings did go up slightly from Fall 07 (1.8) to Winter 08 (2.4). Keep in mind this was without a full air-staff. A morning show from the late winter from 6-10am, No jock from 10a-3p, Kobe from 3-7 and Flick 7-Midnight.
    Now, it is June 1 and they finally added another jock from 10-3 weekdays. There however is still no personality at all on the weekends, with the exception of their club broadcasts late at night, and then Open House Party Sunday nights.
    It has major potential. I enjoy the mix of music much better on B94 than on 96.1 Kiss.

    Reply
  16. Michael St. John
    Michael St. John says:

    I think CBS is making a mistake. Pttsburgh does not need another sports station. B94 is a Pittsburgh institution that has oulasted many top 40 stations around the country. My belief is that it did so because it did what it did well. I am sorry to say that when the station returned, it did lack some of it’s old “magic”. But there was and is potential here. Radio audiences are not what they used to be with satellite radio, internet radio and ipods providing stiffer competition than ever for listenership. B94 is a station with very loyal followers. Many of us have grown up with B94, were sad to see it go and very happy to see it return. To see it go again actually makes me sad. I don’t think listeners will be so forgiving this time. The proposed blend of with Star100.7, in my opinion, will disappoint listeners of both stations and CBS will find it has shot itself in the foot! This is a big mistake and I think they will pay dearly for it.

    Reply

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