Why Is It So Hard To Be Today’s Soft Rock?

When Smooth Jazz WJJZ Philadelphia flipped to Mainstream AC as Now 97.5 on Monday morning, something was readily apparent to most industry observers. Despite positioning itself as “a younger approach to today’s soft rock” and numerous attempts to tag rival WBEB (B101) as old-sounding, Now 97.5’s music was pretty similar to B101’s. In fact it appeared to be essentially like any mainstream AC, with two ’70s songs in the launch hour and an average era that was, in many hours, often only slightly newer than B101 (e.g., 1991 vs. 1993 at 8 a.m. Tuesday morning).
Can an AC station hang its hat on being newer and younger and segue, as Now 97.5 has, from Celine Dion’s 14-year-old “Because You Loved Me” to Boston’s 32-year-old “More Than A Feeling”? Well, throughout the industry, even AC stations positioned as ‘more contemporary’ hedge their bets musically, at least a little. WWFS (Fresh 102.7), the concept’s breakthrough station, has always played the ’80s. KFRH (Fresh 102.7) Las Vegas, one of the first subsequent launches, signed on newer and edgier but has bolstered its ’80s concept in recent months. And B101, which licensed the term “fresh” as a pre-emptive strike, has made its music more contemporary over the years, but it also hangs on to a few ’70s songs an hour. Only Chicago’s Fresh FM, WCFS, is primarily a ’90s and now AC station.
When WWFS launched nearly two years ago, it was the firmest proof to date that “soft and contemporary” was not an oxymoron. Fresh never unseated WLTW (Lite FM), but it did seemingly nudge Lite into downplaying its well-known handle and becoming even more aggressive on new music. In a year of surprise adult hits like Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” and Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry (Personal),” there was clearly some validity to the notion of renewed adult interest in newer music. You also saw the new adult music emerge in research. Songs from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s polarized the generations; the new adult music was a surprise presence at or near the top of music preference studies from AC to Triple-A. And, for a while, seeing Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” at the very top of an AC music test was a regular occurrence.
So why is it so hard to play Today’s Soft Rock? Why does nobody truly want to be soft and contemporary? It’s not that radio is being disingenuous. There are indeed some issues that are likely holding programmers back:
* An AC specializing in the ’90s and now has 18 years of music to work with. If you go back to the late ’80s when still-enduring ballads like “Wanted Dead Or Alive” or “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” represented a generational break, you’d have more than 20 years of music. But the average Mainstream AC is used to 35-to-40 years of music to work with, giving them the true ability to go a mile wide and an inch deep. I have certainly heard some younger-leaning ACs relying heavily on songs that weren’t on the radio much before a year or two ago (e.g., Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want To Wait,” Janet Jackson’s “All For You”) and you can’t help but wonder whether they’re forced to dig deeper for songs, or else find a much younger, narrower target for whom those songs are as important as “Fire And Rain.”
* Not that many songs have become “Big Girls Don’t Cry” or “Chasing Cars” in the last two years. WLTW, which was willing to be early on a James Blunt or Daniel Powter without support from Hot AC, has reversed course from last year and become more conservative on currents now. And “American Idol” and “Grey’s Anatomy” can jump start only so many songs. Most still have to make their way from Top 40 to Hot AC to Mainstream AC over the course of a year. And while Top 40 is handing down more suitable titles these days, it still plays a lot of music that will never make it down the food chain.
* By dint of reaching AC after a year of heavy exposure elsewhere, the records that populate the ’00s/recurrent category at AC are usually the most burned records on the station, a phenomenon that first became visible with Faith Hill’s late ’90s hits. So if “Bad Day” is now at the top of the list for preference and burn, as is often the case, there’s not always a new record that galvanizes adult audiences coming along behind it. Meanwhile, the ’70s and ’80s material that is being de-emphasized to give the ’90s or now an extra space on the clock, is being rested and refreshed.
* Music from the ’90s doesn’t yet have the same purchase on the affections of the AC audience as ’70s and ’80s music. Much of it was brought to listeners by a relatively weak Top 40 format and didn’t have the same reach as ’70s and ’80s music. It’s also divided among various movements that lasted for one high-school class: Wimpy early ’90s pop; Country (most of which AC doesn’t play); Alternative (much of it too hard, although I do hear Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” on Fresh); Rhythmic (everybody is sure En Vogue will be part of AC soon, but it’s a slow process), and teen pop (still limited to a few Christinas and Backstreets). Only late ’90s Modern AC seems to have become a viable food group for AC.
That said, as time marches on, it’s hard to imagine that a more contemporary version of Mainstream AC won’t take hold. Format trends are often about five years ahead of their time at first inception; the first ’90s and now AC stations are at least three years old (and I expect this column to prompt an e-mail about an even older one). The increased adult success of many Top 40s also suggests that there are adult women searching for new music. And as the Bob- and Jack-FM stations proved about variety, you can’t claim an image without eventually delivering on it. And there was clearly a grain of truth that made the concept of a newer Mainstream AC worth seizing on.
So what can a newer-skewing AC do to make sure it has enough new music? One answer is to keep closer tabs on when CHR hits are reaching their audience. Jordin Sparks’ “One Step at a Time” is certainly a song that sounds like it will play on Mainstream AC for many years to come. But “Tattoo” is still in the AC top 10, meaning you’re likely to wait 6-9 months for “One Step” to kick in. Is that really because adults need the better part of a year to become comfortable with it? Or because many ACs have no mechanism for testing new music except twice a year in a library test, if they’re lucky? And while many mid-to-late ’90s songs may never have acceptable staying power for AC, some will return to playability if PDs continue to look for what new listeners are bringing into the demo window.
Eighteen months ago, there was something very exciting about the prospect of a truly newer leaning AC format – a station that could finally convert those people who walked around saying, “Just because I’m 39, I don’t want to give up on new music” into AC listeners. It’s one of the few things that radio can do that is based in emerging music styles and not in a repackaging of oldies. Recommending today’s music to adults is a franchise that won’t always be up for grabs – Triple-A, Smooth Jazz, Hot AC, and Top 40 all want it, too, and so do Pandora.com, Amazon.com, iTunes Music Store, Internet radio and every TV music supervisor in America. Contemporary soft music is a great image. It will be an even better format if somebody actually does it, and can make it work.

16 replies
  1. Bill Conway
    Bill Conway says:

    Sean, you miss the point. Successful Soft/Mainstream ACs deliver what the AUDIENCE wants. And they deliver good 18-34 demos as well as 25-54. Just because some short sighted executives think AC should be all more recent music won’t change what the LISTENERS want to hear. Pay attention to what the listeners want-in any format genre- and you will be successful.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Nice article with many great points. If radio wants to create a truly ADULT and CONTEMPORARY station then everything about the format must change. I’ll be 38 in January and most of the music I hear on any A/C station does not appeal to me or my 35 year old wife. The whole sound is quite lame to say the least. 80’s Top 40 radio is our “golden age” of listening. Listen to airchecks of those stations. What can’t A/C try to replicate that sound and feel? The “smooth and easy” style doesn’t work for me. I suppose this new station should sound like JACK-FM with a few currents, jocks, jingles, big promotions and fun. “Today’s Soft Rock Favorites with a Better Mix of the 70’s 80’s and 90’s and Less Talk For Your Workday” is my mom’s station.
    Mark Summer

  3. Bob Taylor
    Bob Taylor says:

    Sean, here are some thoughts to consider:
    – Is this just another case of ‘But we’ve always done it this way’. IE: We are going to be an Adult Station not play (fill in the tried and true AC songs here?) And in the case of Now 97.5 they even copied the end title and artist tags utilized from B-101 at the end of each song. I’m sure there are great reasons why this was done, but I still ask: How is this approach special and different than another (very popular) station in the market? What message does this send to the listener? If the station is attempting to be what B-101 isn’t, is this the most effective approach? Even if the concept of the end tags tests well, does the execution have to be virtually identical? Here was an opportunity to build something new and NOW and it appears that the result is emulating B-101’s presentation and music. How does that present a wholesale change to the listener? They are not radio geeks sitting there will clipboards and score cards to document the subtle differences of the two stations.
    – The solution is to base the adult format on sound and era of the songs, and not on just titles. This gets into emotion and why listeners like certain songs. The songs make them feel a certain way. Instead we look at ‘safe lists’ and then build. I’m not suggesting to eliminate tests, but rather what to test and to build the list of hooks based on a sound and what makes the listener feel good and above all if the approach is to be ‘young’ or ‘fresh’ as each song on the AMT needs to pass through these tests before it makes the list. Does it fit the sound (and does it make my audience feel good?) and is it new (not brand new, but recent) and what will my listeners consider ‘young’ or ‘fresh’ or ‘new’. If the song does not pass these two screeners, it doesn’t make the test list as it doesn’t deliver on what we are promising which brings me to:
    – Is the station delivering what it promises? When we project the image of �fresh� or �now� are we fulfilling that promise to the listener? Or are we as an industry still convinced that by telling them that�s what it is, they will believe it? If so we are fooling ourselves. �This is now/fresh and not the same old tired songs� then we play one. And we also have ourselves convinced that the consumer will buy this logic, as they have in the past. Sorry guys, the rules have changed and the folks at P&G learned this a long time ago. It�s not about features and what I tell you, it�s about benefits and how the product makes you feel and most importantly, it needs to be presented in a fashion that allows the listener (consumer) to make that determination on their own, while feeling the station (product) is delivering on what it promises.
    – Enough of the inside mud slinging and terminology. While driving with my wife through Philadelphia and listening to Now 97.5 on Monday and hearing several times �a younger approach to today�s soft rock� I asked my wife (who is not in our business) what does that younger approach statement mean to you? She said �nothing, I don�t get it, why are they telling me that?� My question is: Who is that message targeting? B-101? The agency buyers? The industry? Save it for your audio media kit. How about imaging that speaks to how the station makes you feel?
    – I have seen time and again new ideas fall into the trap �who else is doing it� to validate the concept and approach instead of �now there�s something that no one else is doing.� I�m sure my critics will say, Bob what you suggest will not work! Of course, they have determined this by convincing themselves it will not work without even trying. I agree, if you say it�s not going to work and don�t try, then that will ensure it won�t. And here we are.
    – We sit around as an industry and scratch our heads why we don�t see yesterday�s successes like we used to. Maybe it�s because we are using yesterday�s methods to attempt get results today. �But we always made (ratings) money this way, it must still work!� Things change and change is not easy. The only thing worse than not changing, is fooling oneself that they have made a change and haven�t really changed anything. Actions speak louder than words. Show them, don�t tell them. And our listeners know that. We need to stop being radio geeks and start being listeners.
    Bob Taylor
    Taylor Broadcasting and Consulting

  4. Michael McDowell
    Michael McDowell says:

    Simple question. Easy answer. Compare Ed Ames’ “My Cup Runneth Over” or Don Cherry’s “Band Of Gold” to whatever Mariah Carey or Clay Aiken track fits the format. No contest. Ed Ames, Don Cherry, etc. had substance. Can’t say the same for many of the current pretenders to the throne.

  5. Jeff Scott
    Jeff Scott says:

    Here’s my 2.5 cents, for whatever it’s worth:
    Combine your questions a bit: “why is it so hard to be “soft & contemporary,” I think at least part of the answer lies in defining exactly what those terms mean to today’s potential listener.
    First, the 15 year demo spread we used to look for (ie: 25-40 or 30-44) was fine (and necessary to dominate ratings) in 1990 when we put KHMX on, But I don’t think it works in our super-segmented world of today.
    It’s just too hard to find artists that a 25 year old and a 40 year old agree on today…I’m not sure there are enough “legacy artists” to span the 15 year age gap.
    So let’s say we narrow it down to 7-8 years. But to own some territory, we’ve got to get out of the way of the CHR demos and go a bit older. That probably means a minimum age range of 28-36 or so. In some markets, it could be older depending upon the competition.
    Just for argument’s sake, we’ll set the music formative “experiential age” for the target 16 years old. Meaning we’ve got roughly between 12 and 18 years of music to work with, if we allow for the 28 year old to accept maybe 4 to 5 years worth of songs they would think of as “oldies” that were before their time.
    This sets our library era as 1990 to present at best. Maybe even 1992 to present. So now we’re down to testing for compatible “contemporary” artists across the age spectrum…to do that, we have to have an open mind about the “format.”
    In the past, I think most would agree that ACs have made a living off of songs that were, at one time, big on the CHR charts. This is particularly true for the multiple power ballads that eventually became the exclusive territory of Soft AC in the mid-late 1990s. On KHMX, we chose a “pick me up” mood service AC station seeking to find disenfranchised CHR listeners. So many notable programmers were shocked when we debuted, playing songs such as “Give A Little Bit” by Supertramp AND “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls, neither of which was considered by programming cognoscenti be “AC” material at the time. One was classified as “Classic Rock”, and the other “Alternative.”
    However, perceptions change over time and a gazillion music tests told us that both songs worked with the target and intended mood service. But then again, station would never have been the success it was if we hadn’t looked outside of conventional format boundaries for the material which would allow us to redefine it.
    “Soft Rock” in some ways splintered off of HOT AC again and became it’s own renewed franchise by the mid and late 1990’s by playing those very power ballads and pop songs HOT AC was busily casting off in favor of “pop-alternative,” in it’s effort to stay relevant to the demo and to maintain it’s “pick me up” mood service.
    This brings me to the question of just what is “SOFT” by today’s standards? In the early and mid 50’s, Hoagy Carmichael and Doris Day were “pick me up” artists. By the 70’s those artists and their songs had become “elevator music.” I think mood service tends to be defined by the overall packaging and presentation for the target demo. If the delivery vehicle is exciting, the music seems to rise to that level perceptually. If the delivery vehicle is relaxed, the music seems to fit that mood service.
    For example, my wife tells me our local “Jack” station is the one she listens to for relaxation. She told me the low key delivery and lack of air talents makes it sound “laid back” to her. But the actual playist, by my definition, is anything but relaxed.
    The time tested strategy is to research the right people with a broad range of music from a defined era; take the best songs from that research and run with it. Does that still work? Let’s take a look at our near future as “narrowcasters.” While we may have to winnow down those music eras to 6 or 8 years in order to find compatible artists groups, surely there are 120-180 songs out there that work as a “format??” In our future world of wireless internet streaming in the car, pull-media and radio markets with 60 HD and HD2 formats, that ought to be enough songs to make up a format.
    Of course, by then we’ll each be selling 16 stations for the same exact revenue as we currently have with 8 (if we’re really lucky,) but that’s another issue entirely…

  6. Larry LeKool Hollowell
    Larry LeKool Hollowell says:

    The “repackaging of oldies” pretty much says it all for terrestial radio. There will always be a “companion” top twenty to go along with the oldies from the 70s and 80s. Hey, maybe the winner will be the station with the snappiest slogans while they spin the same ol same ol. But, no, that could never happen because the average listener simply is not that disengaged, not that shallow and indifferent…..On second thought, yes they are. Let’s hear it for products and boards of directors, for without them radio wouldn’t exist at all.

  7. Jason Steiner
    Jason Steiner says:

    I remember the ACs in the 90s who used a variation of the positioner “Not too hard, not too soft, no rap, heavy metal, or sleepy elevator music”. Those stations usually did very poorly. The conventional wisdom was that they failed because they were telling listeners what they weren’t instead of what they stood for. That was probably part of it, but perhaps there just wasn’t a big hole for an AC a shade hotter than the heritage mainstream soft AC?
    IMO the “today’s soft rock” ACs are this eras version of the “no rap, no sleepy elevator music” ACs of the 90s. It sounds great on paper, but the demand isn’t that huge in real life.

  8. Mike McVay - McVay Media
    Mike McVay - McVay Media says:

    Love you article. You ALWAYS make the gray matter in my head “Come Alive!” When the AC format first started, it played contemporary songs for adults. It was a time when the format was ARTIST driven. The Police, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, Genesis, Kansas and even Steve Miller worked their way onto one radio station.
    Today the format is SONG driven. Much is said about the change in times. Honestly, I’m not so sure that it’s just that we weren’t as sophisticated back then as we are today. We didn’t have the types of research available to us then as we do now. Who knew if it was really ARTIST driven versus SONG driven. The competition wasn’t as significant is it is today. We didn’t have a ton of NOISE from all of the entertainment media world.
    I will say that in all of the AC research I see today, young women … even 18-34’s … love some of the classic’s. The AC listener of today (18-49 or 25-54) doesn’t have the format boundries in their minds that many programmers place on their stations. They accept, and maybe love, country – rock – CHR – Oldies …. and more. As you point out … AC does have “variety.”
    What Bill conway said does apply. Play what the people want. However, what Bob Taylor said can also apply and that’s where the dynamics of a market come into play. WBEB is one of the greatest AC stations in North America. If you’e going to take on a market and format dominant station, you have to do something that’s significantly different and better than them to beat them.
    Greater Media is a smart radio company. They must know something that we don’t know. However, if what they’re doing is what they’re going to be doing in another thirty-days … it’s going to be a tough row to hoe to beat Jerry Lee’s station.
    Game on!

  9. Bob Taylor
    Bob Taylor says:

    I agree with Mike McVay’s comments and would like to add that I have the utmost respect for the folks at Greater Media. To this, I have high expectations for Now 97.5 (along the lines of what they have been doing successfully at Magic in Boston for years) and felt (even though B-101 in Philadelphia owns the same position Magic holds on Boston,) they could, (and will) do better and now have the ability to quickly fine tune, especially with resources like PPM. I guess expected more at launch, as there is room to do this, while still protecting Ben 95.7. I look forward to seeing the results.

  10. E Gill CVI
    E Gill CVI says:

    Hi. I have some issues with this particular piece. :)
    From where did you get the notion that ’90’s music doesn’t “have the same purchase on the affections of the AC audience as ’70s and ’80s music?” It’s hard to back up such an assertion without conducting a survey. Or I suppose one could be qualified to make that statement if he was in his teens and twenties during the ’70s, ’80s, *and* ’90s…but that seems all but impossible.
    The “relatively weak Top 40 format” which you say “didn’t have the same reach as ’70s and ’80s music” was, in the mind of this 34-year-old, actually a great time for Top 40 radio! A lot of great, enduring artists were producing hits at that time. And a lot of artists who didn’t endure put out material that a lot of us would love to still hear! You mentioned also that “En Vogue will be part of AC soon, but it’s a slow process.” Personally, I don’t think it needs to be *this* slow! I think AC programmers are scared to take the risk which is insane because without risks, they’ll never figure this thing out! This window of opportunity is not going to be open forever, guys. The industry really is facing one of its biggest-ever “p***-or-get-off-the-pot” moments.
    Your point about music testing was right on the mark. Younger-skewing AC’s definitely need to perform more frequent music testing if they actually intend to hold the interest of a younger set. It’s common sense and if companies are going into this new “younger approach” idea without realizing such a simple fact, this is never gonna work.
    That “many mid-to-late ’90s songs may never have acceptable staying power for AC” is not a surprise. But the statement isn’t specific to mid-to-late ’90s songs. All eras of music included many songs that never had long-term viability at AC. But AC is a new and evolving animal these days. In addition to Hot AC, we now have interesting mutations (like Modern AC and Rhythmic AC) which not-too-long-ago weren’t viable themselves! I believe there is definitely room at AC for ’90s music–including stuff from 1995 to 1999.
    There is *still* something exciting about the prospect of radio giving adults an AC format that plays hits from their high school/college years while managing to introducing newer material. But it’s something new…and new is risky. Radio doesn’t like taking risks, which is why this stale industry seems to be imploding on itself.
    The format can work. Someone just needs to grow a pair and take a leap of faith.

  11. Chuck Geiger
    Chuck Geiger says:

    Funny nobody has mentioned elements other than music. We saw some great AC research in Wichita a few years ago. You have to win two ways with mainstream AC: Strong morning show or strong at work. Or the double whammy, both of them. I am not an AC PD or claim to be one, I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night either. The Fresh stations haven’t made an impact and the best AC’s (like any other format) will continue to play what the people want to hear from music tests. Pearl Jam and Daughtry are better left for HOT AC and not on mainstream AC. It also depends what kind of rock and oldies stations the market has to wether you will mire yourselfs in the 70’s and 80’s or 80’s, 90’s and now. One of the best AC’s I have heard recently is KSTT Coast 101.3 in San Luis Obispo. They use no slogan, just COAST 101.3 and are pretty hip for the room.

  12. Helene Lieberman
    Helene Lieberman says:

    Why did the soft AOR format vanish? I grew up w/KNX-FM and KPOL. They played deeper cuts. It paved the way for AC but today its just singles driven. Why won’t album driven AC make a comeback?

  13. Larry Hollowell
    Larry Hollowell says:

    It took Mike MCVay’s perspective to explain what has been happening in the past fews years where AC radio is concerned. Many of us who couldn’t see the forest for the trees didn’t see the ‘shift’ taking place regarding radio looking at tested songs over mega artists.


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