“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”