We Will, We Will Mock You or Songs That You Hope A Rival Plays

When WXRK (Now 92.3) New York launched its Top 40 attack on heritage rival WHTZ (Z100), one of the first things it did was try to reimage Z100 and morning host Elvis Duran as old and dated by running promos with “Mickey” by Toni Basil, a song that remains the standard bearer of ’80s cheese for anybody who didn’t help make it a platinum single at the time. (“Mickey” was also used about a decade ago in an ad for a music-related dot-com as an example of what 60-year-old record executives thought the youth of America wanted.)
Of course, Z100 never played “Mickey” as a current. It was already more than six months old in America when Z100 signed on. Any 12-to-24 listener who might want their Top 40 in a shiny new package wasn’t even born when it was a hit, and doesn’t necessarily know what “Mickey” is, except that it sounds like “Hollaback Girl” and Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend.” Whatever your taste in music, there’s a lot that Z100 – like any heritage CHR — has played over the years that could induce just as many groans now from someone, just a few of which include:
* Culture Club, “Karma Chameleon”
* Taco, “Putting On The Ritz”
* Debbie Gibson, “Lost In Your Eyes”
* Gloria Loring & Carl Anderson, “Friends And Lovers”
* Paula Abdul, “The Promise Of A New Day”
* Rod Stewart, “Have I Told You Lately”
* Amy Grant, “I Will Remember You”
* Michael Bolton, “When A Man Loves A Woman”
* ‘N Sync & Gloria Estefan, “Music Of My Heart”
* Celine Dion, “My Heart Will Go On”
* Ricky Martin, “She Bangs”
* William Hung, “She Bangs”
* James Blunt, “You’re Beautiful”
Now 92.3 is also attacking Z100 for playing the decade-old-plus “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls. But, for the most part, the nature of the attack promo usually seems to demand a certain amount of exaggeration. When Z100 signed on, of course, its calling card was a series of vignettes suggesting that WPLJ played “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone, another roundly reviled 1977 hit that was probably long-gone from the airwaves at any contemporary major-market station well before then. And WPLJ, having been rock in 1977, would likely never have played it at any time.
Twenty-five years later, WWFS (Fresh 102.7) New York launched with TV commercials trying to establish rival WLTW (Lite FM) as old and stodgy. And the song they used was “You Light Up My Life.” Lite FM had likely never played that song either, since they signed on well after Z100’s WPLJ attacks had furthered Debby Boone’s reputation as radio poison. Again, Lite FM had plenty of songs they were playing that you could have made fun of; even after “Jersey Boys” made the Four Seasons hip again, it still made me cringe to hear them playing “My Eyes Adored You” by Frankie Valli. But Fresh never went after that. Or “I Go Crazy” by Paul Davis. Or “I Just Want To Be Your Everything” by Andy Gibb.
The songs that populate the “you don’t have to sit through this ….. to hear this” promo are rarely real examples either. Hip-hop often figures into that promo, and it’s often the most extreme sort possible – not something that any radio station actually played. Same goes for hard rock.
Usually, however, it’s a little hard to mock a station for something they actually play. For one thing, most major-market stations work very hard not to play anything that might be perceived as goofy. Most Country stations won’t even test “Achy Breaky Heart” – polarizing, but always liked by somebody – for just that reason. Stations have spent a lot of money in research to avoid playing bad records and those that have less to spend these days are likely to take an even harder line about what gets in.
Also, songs dart in and out of legitimacy. You’d think that “Escape (the Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes would have been a natural for an attack promo. But it was out of sight, out of mind for many years, then re-emerged as a surprisingly viable oldie. Same for the Bee Gees’ “Saturday Night Fever” hits. They may have been chased off the radio by the “Disco Sucks” movement in 1980. By 1997, they were newly rehabilitated. And three years ago, you probably could have made fun of Z100 for having played Britney Spears. But Now 92.3 launched with three of her songs in an hour’s time.
There’s also the file-sharing effect, which tends to strip songs of their original context. It’s not rare to see an AC station where the ’70s cheese tests better with younger listeners – they weren’t the ones who knew that they weren’t supposed to like “I Go Crazy” at the time. And when a peer turns you on to a 30-year-old song, as we’ve seen with teens and Classic Rock in recent years, it’s no longer your parents’ music.
Then there’s the relatively conservative taste of today’s teens. I think “Iris” would be a vulnerability to Z100’s young-end, but it’s not so different from “Bubbly” or “You Found Me” or some equally mellow things that teens actually seem to like now. (Not coincidentally, Now isn’t playing those songs either. But it’s not attacking them.) Besides, dull-but-harmless rarely seems worth attacking, which is probably why Now is going after “Mickey” and not, say, Amy Grant.
Bob- and Jack-FM also did a lot to reduce the vulnerability of any one song on a radio station with liners like “come for the good songs, stay for the bad ones to end.” Suddenly, one person’s “bad song” was another’s “oh wow.” Then there’s holiday music. You’d think that playing Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams for 6-8 weeks would make a station vulnerable. But despite the first signs this year that the frost may be off the pumpkin (pie), nobody wants to take on Santa.
You’d also think that with so few stations in any market playing new music that it might be possible to take some of the most overplayed songs of all time – “Jack and Diane,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “We Will Rock You,” and “Old Time Rock & Roll” – and ask listeners if it wouldn’t be nice to hear something else occasionally. The problem is that listeners, despite their high burn scores, still like those songs. As with Christmas music, you’d have to explain carefully that you’re not attacking the songs, only the way that stations use them. And there’s no room for subtlety in an attack promo.
Now 92.3’s jabs at Z100 have been one of the things that have made the New York CHR battle interesting. And Fresh’s attacks (still ongoing) on WLTW did have, at the very least, the short-term effect of throwing off its competitor. Long-term, however, attack promos have a better track record of tarnishing the other guy than helping the challenger. And listeners do react adversely to too much negativity. In the late ’80s/early ’90s, when Top 40 reached the “don’t be a dickhead” stage in its promos, the listener reaction was ultimately “a pox on both your houses.”
Can you think of any good examples of a song being used effectively in an attack promo? Please leave a comment.

15 replies
  1. Bill Weston, WMMR
    Bill Weston, WMMR says:

    Here’s one done to me! WYSP, flipping from part-time talk to “the Rock is Back” (a couple positioning statements ago) starts with attack promos highlighting some of the non-rock oddities played on MMR during a recent 11 day “A to Z” Their copy-“On Sept. 6th at 1114am, WMMR played this! (hook from Huey Lewis’ ‘The Power of Love’) This is not rock… etc. etc. They did other versions with specific dates and times we played Mrs. Robinson, and Walking on Sunshine. Gee, maybe we deserved the attacks? It played well in PPM and tgreat depth imaging. I’m glad they didn’t catch us Sinatra’s Summer Wind!

  2. Mark Charger
    Mark Charger says:

    Now let me get this straight. The true test of how good a record is is — how recently it was recorded? I find it amusing that what the programmers cited refer to as “bad songs” are the very ones programmers just like them vigorously endorsed and played continuously when they were new. So what happened? Did those older recordings suddely go bad like last year’s potato salad? I don’t know. Somehow they sound exactly the same to me today. So what’s different? Are you telliing me that somehow the hits of 2009 are BETTER than the hits of 1999 or 1989 or 1979 or 1969? The fact is they are NO better — and often worse –than what came before. The only significant difference is — they’re newer. AND they are destined to be reviled by the programmers of 2019 with the same ignorant cockiness as those who dismiss the oldies cited in this article.
    The truth is a good record is a good record regardless of when it was made. What’s important is — does it engage your emotions — does it speak to and for your heart? All songs, when you get down to it, are portraits of feelings painted with sound. And if a song either reinforces the mood you’re in or takes you somewhere else where you’d like to go, then it is a success. In Europe, it is not at all unusual for records several decades old to not only get aiplay but become contemporary hits. Over there, it doesn’t matter when the record was cut. As Berry Gordy would say, “It’s what’s in the groove that counts.” If “Mickey,” “My Heart Should Go On” and other million-sellers are such a load of crap, then why did they ever become hits in the first place? And if they were big and now apparently suck, what does that say about the future of the hits stations play currently? If THEY are all future crap, then why tune in at all?

  3. Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine
    Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine says:

    Once again, a classic example of why radio contiues to flounder when left to such methodology as “testing”, “consultants”, “executives” and the like.
    So Toni Basil’s “Mickey” is in line with the perceptions of 60 year olds? Tell that to my musician friend, whose 15 year old daughter loves Gary Lewis And The Playboys and Dusty Springfield. Or my 72 year old neighbor, who had third row seats to a recent Bon Jovi concert. Oy my late mother, for that matter (who would have been 90 years old this month), who thought that Snoop Dog’s records and videos were “cute”.
    Indeed, as someone else here observed, a good record is a good record, regardless of when it was made. And a listener can listen to whatever that listener likes, regardless of that listener’s age.
    As long as radio continues to base its programming on such out of touch methodology and narrow presumptions, it will continue to not speak for a sizeable demographic that has long been content to enhance its musical repertoire elsewhere.

  4. Bob Walker
    Bob Walker says:

    When I was programming KLCA/Reno (HAC) in the late 90?s we ran promos of kids calling in requesting “Getting Jiggy Wit It” (#1 song in the nation and top 10 in our callout), followed by our voice girl apologizing because “Alice just isn’t jiggy.” It was a tough call to position the station as not playing the #1 pop song of the year, even for a modern leaning station.
    It was without a doubt the best positioning that I have ever seen. When we did our research 9 months later, listeners got it. They conveyed the non-rhythmic position of the station in their own words and often times called it their “non-rap button.” In that study, ours was probably the best positioned station in the market and achieved ratings success. I am using a similar tactic today with a country client positioning ourselves against a very popular song, but out of our genre. It’s just as tough a call today as it was in the 90s, but it is easy to understand.
    My take on Mickey in NYC is that the tactic won’t work. The listener has to think too much about it. It’s the stuff that sounds great in the programming meetings, but you never hear it back from listeners. I do like the concept of using ‘Iris.’ That makes sense to a [Now] listener, but I still think they would have more success claiming not to play the Goo Goo Dolls, as opposed to pinning them on Z-100.

  5. halloran
    halloran says:

    aaah! i love the revisions in history. none of ya saw mickey coming at all….that song was played on my little punk rock radio show before it went to top 40 on WDET in detroit. along with our lips are sealed and countless other number one hits.
    . toni was associated with devo and ‘easy rider’ in those days. she had way more street cred than paula adbul ever did. nicky chinn and mike chapman, the songwriters were responsible for the hits of sweet, blondie and a myriad of other artists that still get covered today.
    MICKEY was actually recorded in 1979….it was a cover of a song called KITTY by a british roup called RACEY.
    alternative radio back in the day played more songs that went top 40 than you can imagine…thompson twins, devo, U2 REM etc and some we never thought were gunna go as far as they did. (EMF) sorry about that one. we even played tina turner’s version of ‘ball of confusion’ 3 years before private dancer was a reality. most peeps had written her off, but not the hipster college radio programmers.
    as i sit in my dentist’s chair listening to the local ac station i am constantly amazed at how many of those songs got their start on underground radio shows that didn’t care about labels. secretly we were all hoping that that we could infiltrate radio by any means necessary, to stop the lame, horrific sameness that made us all barf. top 40 is just the seal of approval that makes you realize that you were right. the masses agree with your twisted sense of musical taste.

  6. Don Tandler
    Don Tandler says:

    The other morning, in the 5am hour, I heard 92.3 NOW play Tone Loc’s 1989 hit, “Wild Thing”. Do as we say, not as we do? I think attacking songs as being old is absurd. Most people have no idea how old or new a song is.

  7. greg gillispie
    greg gillispie says:

    This marketing style can have great power, BUT you must state your station’s strength (around this song), reinforce your competition’s weakness, and end with your strength.
    Without a “by-name” attack, it is useless…and research proves it!

  8. steve sobczuk
    steve sobczuk says:

    With the Mickey bashing Now is giving Z100, I can’t wait till either one of them starts spinning The Ting Ting’s That’s Not My Name, if one of them hasn’t already. The irony would be thick.
    Last night on the skywave I heard 1010 WINS playing a promo for 92.3 Now, do they really think there is much of a crossover audience? How many 12-35’s are listening to an all news station at 11 pm?

  9. Tony Lorino
    Tony Lorino says:

    Great article, Sean! I’m happy to see my station is only playing one title (regularly) on the list.
    We ran some sweepers to position ourselves as the “non-rap” station while I was working at KSTZ in Des Moines and KLTA in Fargo. By far, the easiest song to position in THAT genre is “Area Codes” by Ludacris. Personally, I feel like he crafted some pretty nice rhymes there…but some of it would make even a Beyonce-loving soccer mom cringe.

  10. Marcus Chapman
    Marcus Chapman says:

    when I did nights at WTLC Indianapolis in 2000 it was owned by Emmis and was leaning younger. The competition was WHHH, which was called “Hoosier 96″ at the time. We had one of those “you don’t have to sit through this” promos that had a snippet of Britney Spears “Oops I Did it Again”, and another one that had either the Backstreet Boys or NSync in it before going into a hip-hop song. By the next year after I’d left for Dallas, Radio One owned both stations. They turned TLC back into an Urban AC, changed “Hoosier 96″ to “Hot 96″, and they’ve been sister stations ever since.

  11. Tim
    Tim says:

    These comments are better than the article. Good to see there is still passion in the programming side of radio. Heres to us old-schoolers that lived and died by OUR musical decisions, not some audience test done in Walla Walla.

  12. Ryan Beaman
    Ryan Beaman says:

    I – like Tony – was working at KSTZ in the days of “Today’s Best Variety…without the Rap, Rap, Rap” (clearly sound like something a listener would say, doesn’t it?) At the time we were playing the “no rap” version of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” A part-timer played the “You don’t have to listen to this….” sweeper as he rebooted the computer. Only to play the rap version off of CD.
    Apparently, sometimes you did have to listen to THIS…to hear THIS…
    I think it was the last time the sweeper played on the station, and shockingly – the ratings didn’t dive off.

  13. Chucky
    Chucky says:

    Fresh 102.7 uses “not too old, not too Lite” — and the first half of that statement is taking aim at a suburban competitor.
    Middlesex/Somerset/Union (Market 38) gets New York as well as local signals. Magic 98.3 is a local AC that sounds stale: at least two 70’s hits an hour, “soft rock” positioning into harder music (e.g. “Love is a Battlefield”), even playing Christmas music after New Year’s Day. The station’s been around for over 30 years only because of office-radio inertia.
    Based on the most recent PPMs for Middlesex/Somerset/Union the Fresh attack seems to be working. Magic 98.3 may have a higher rating yet Fresh 102.7 has a larger cume.

  14. Joe Dugan
    Joe Dugan says:

    Let’s be realistic…..if it wasn’t for The Telecommunications Act of 1996, radio as we know it would still have VARIETY AND HONESTY in its programming. Unfortunately, those days are long gone. Listen to Fresh 102.7 and the tagline of “Fresh Music, Better Variety” is nothing more than horse excrement!!! You know the same 20 songs will get overplayed ad nauseum!!!!


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