As you might expect, Alan Burns’ “Movin'” format has been a big phone topic this week, between the promising first ratings for KQMV (Movin’ 92.5) Seattle and last week’s surprise flip from Country at KZLA Los Angeles. In between came the Clear Channel’s Smooth Jazz WJJZ Philadelphia switch to a like-minded but differently executed Rhythmic Hot AC as Philly’s 106.1 FM. And already, when somebody asks, “So what do you think of this Rhythmic AC format?” you have to ask them, “Which one?”
WJJZ goes back about 10 years further on music than KQMV, including some ’60s Motown and plays more ’70s disco. And in a market with no traditional Hot AC, WJJZ also has a pop/rock component. KZLA’s musical parameters are similar to KQMV, but its “oh wow” factor is a little more aggressive. Consultant Guy Zapoleon, who is also involved with KZLA, has used the term “Rhythmic Jack” to describe his older-skewing “Rhythm & Gold,” but it’s not inappropriate here. And just as there turned out to be a lot of ways to do the Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrid, there is already a lot of variance here.
…already, when somebody asks, “So what do you think of this Rhythmic AC format?” you have to ask them, “Which one?”
And other broadcasters have had similar ideas, going back even to the ’90s Rhythmic AC formats at WBMX (Mix 98.5) and WYXR (Star 104.5) Philadelphia. WKTU New York’s initial wedge was ’70s disco, but it’s added more music from the late ’80s and early ’90s in recent years. KBIG Los Angeles is older in era than KZLA, but does have some late ’80s rhythmic titles. And KDAY Los Angeles briefly tried what could best be described as “the greatest hits of KPWR [Power 106]” a few months ago, before returning to Urban. Now KPWR owner Emmis is tapping that legacy as well.
What the three markets have in common is a similar heritage. Because of KUBE Seattle, KPWR, and WIOQ (Q102) Philadelphia, rhythmic music, not pop/rock, has been the dominant sound with younger listeners for more than a decade. And even in markets without a particularly rhythmic legacy, there’s as much top-of-the-page music test passion among Hot AC listeners for “Let’s Get It Started” and “Hollaback Girl” as there is for any recent Modern AC title.
Then there are the late ’80s/early ’90s rhythmic titles that can best be described as “Lost Churban.” A handful of them-“Gonna Make You Sweat” or “Funky Cold Medina”– have popped up on the Bobs and Jacks, or on CHR and Hot AC special programming. For the most part, however, they are the last major group of songs to disappear from the radio and not come back until you get to the recently vanished late ’90s teen-pop era.
Until recently, the lost Churban era was lost for a reason. It was very hard to get anything built around that era to show any significant research strength. The listeners who grew up with those songs seemed to be a fairly isolated group. Those songs, while hardly edgy now, were too rappy for older siblings and disappeared from the radio before younger listeners could hear them. Burns has said that there was a format study done before KQMV’s launch. If what the Sandusky folks saw holds in other markets, it will be a significant turning point.
The same goes for finding a viable number of titles. In the same way that the universality of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me” doesn’t extend to Winger’s “Headed For A Heartache” or other hair-band hits, there’s been a pretty clear line between “Gonna Make You Sweat” and, say, “Do Me” by Bell Biv Devoe. One hopes that a station like KQMV that starts with a core of like-minded listeners will identify more hits from that era. But you can already see some of the songs-that-have-never-tested spreading among stations in the same way that equally marginal pop/rock titles did in 2005 when new Bobs and Jacks were popping up every week.
Rhythmic Hot AC also has the same challenge as its big sister, Jammin’ Oldies. A lot of the listeners who grew up with “Gonna Make You Sweat” also liked “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” That forces you to strike a balance between not being focused enough and not being the one station that plays the hits of a generation-something that the Jacks and Bobs finally seemed to solve for listeners 10 years older. And one of the issues for Rhythmic music on Top 40 for the last 15 years has been whether women who like it do so to the ultimate exclusion of everything else.
Finally, there’s “freestyle”-the late ’80s/early ’90s dance music that was very much a part of the Rhythmic era in many markets, particularly in New York, Los Angeles, Philly, Miami, and San Jose. WKTU plays some freestyle. “Classic Dance” rival WNEW started to, and then backed off. And the likes of Stevie B and Lil’ Suzy are noticeably absent from WJJZ, even though Top 40 sister WIOQ has itself thrown in an occasional freestyle record over the past few years. Freestyle is unlikely to be a viable-testing cluster in any research project, but the very vocal people who do love it passionately are likely to gravitate to this format because there’s so much other music from similar years and adjacent genres.
And even during KDAY’s short-lived fling with Rhythmic AC, there was speculation about whether there was room for both KDAY and KBIG. Hiring Rick Dees, who many thought would end up on KBIG after his KIIS tenure ended, is an important point of differentiation for owner Emmis. And it’s a move that could be replicated in any markets where the early ’90s heritage morning show is finally running its course at a Mainstream Top 40. And radio strategy fans have noted that KZLA gives Emmis to flank the dominant KIIS at both the upper and lower ends.
Ultimately, a lot of the potential success of this format is going to come down to balance issues, and if that declaration seems a little too obvious, well, not a lot of Jacks or Bobs have worked out that balance either. Playing enough lost songs to service somebody who graduated high school in the early ’90s without overindulging them will be key. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t be made to work.
Here are some of the other articles we’ve written about Rhythmic AC:
So What Is AC Going To Do About The Early ’90s?
First Listen: KQMV Seattle (Alan Burns’ Movin’ Format)
First Listen: “Philly’s 106.1”