This Is What It Sounds Like When Formats Die (Or Don’t)

by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming

You only need to have been in radio for a decade or so to know that few formats really ever die. Otherwise, there would have been no Modern Rock revolution in 1994, no Top 40 resurgence in 1997, and no revenge of the redneck women at Country in 2004. That last rebound took place after just a few truly fallow years, but the cycle usually takes more than a decade to play out. Gold-based AC, seemingly made obsolete by the Oldies explosion in 1989-90 is now returning in multiple configurations to replace many of those stations.

You can still find at least a few more-than-viable stations in a lot of formats that have been (or are being) marginalized by the industry.

You can still find at least a few more-than-viable stations in a lot of formats that have been (or are being) marginalized by the industry, whether it’s Oldies, Jammin’ Oldies, Adult Standards, or Classical. And even when the trappings of a format disappear, something usually comes along to serve the same need. The ’70s and ’80s stations didn’t last, but listeners who grew up with those songs still wanted to hear them and found an outlet in Bob- and Jack-FM. Smooth Jazz programmers never like the comparison to Beautiful Music, but when you’re mixing soft vocals and instrumental covers so listeners can relax, it’s hard to dismiss it entirely.
But even if the audience never entirely abandons a format, broadcasters do. One might think that national trends would mean nothing to the owner of a 10-share Oldies station. But, hey, there aren’t a lot of programmers willing to stick with the record that is a hit only in their market, either, and that decision has a lot less riding on it. So how many owners can stay sanguine about a five-share Oldies station that is now a 3.5 share station.
Besides, a decade is a long time to ride out a crisis of confidence, especially when the buzz turns bad in public. The New York Times in the mid-’80s famously killed off country two comebacks ago, just before Randy Travis’ career exploded. And it took only reports that a national publication was researching an “is rock dead” story for consultants Fred Jacobs and Jeff Pollack to issue rebuttals. After all, agency buyers read these stories and rival salespeople are happy to make sure your clients see them.
One irony is that trends are often being extrapolated from what happens in that least typical of radio markets, New York City. The Oldies-to-Jack-FM change at WCBS-FM New York spurred more consumer press about the format in three months than it had seen in the previous three years combined. And New York is now a market without a Country, Adult Standards, or current-based Rock station. The issue of whether a format would work in New York is often very different from whether the market’s current owners are willing to do it, but that’s often hard to communicate in a single press quote.
Besides the ownership agenda, here are some things to look at when you’re trying to assess the overall health of a given format:
Are Shares Really Down, Or Just Fragmented Too Many Ways?
The truest sign of a format boom is that many markets will end up with more of something than even an enthusiastic fan can support. Occasionally, as in the early ’90s Country boom, new stations can end up expanding a format’s audience. Just as often, however, a nine-share for a given format becomes two four-and-a-half shares. And any place where there is, say, an eight-share Country station at No. 1 will look like a more Country-friendly market than one where there are two five share Country stations in the middle of the pack.
But even before Gretchen Wilson, consolidation and Country’s cooling off period had indeed cleared the decks of the second stations in many markets, once again leaving some major Country stations all alone in the end zone at a time when R&B and Top 40 stations were being fragmented. Interestingly, while many owners had wanted to leave only one Country station standing in a market, the industry had spent the late ’90s building “rock walls” that almost ensured the fragmentation of the audience in to relatively tight niches. And when a three-share station loses any shares, it doesn’t look good.
Are The Shares Moving? Or Evaporating?
In markets like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., it’s been clear that what might be an untenable position for two or three rock stations suddenly looks pretty good for the last station standing. Even in New York, where there was no full-signal Oldies replacement for WCBS-FM or for the Alternative format that K-Rock shed earlier this year, you could still follow the shares to a handful of suburban stations: WHTG Monmouth/Ocean, N.J., for Rock, WBZO Long Island and WMTR Morristown, N.J., for Oldies.
It’s when a station changes formats and its old audience doesn’t resurface at the competition that a format really has a problem. You could see that with Top 40 in the late ’80s and early ’90s where a station switched formats and its rival showed almost no gain. Often, the second Top 40 station was itself gone soon thereafter. That’s because the former Top 40 listeners were amenable to what they heard on the Country or Hot AC stations that replaced what they had been listening to. Which prompts you to ask:
Who’s Got The Coalition?
Formats never do as well as when they control multiple positions or attract the folks who wouldn’t previously have listened, whether it’s adults and Top 40 in 1984 or teens and Country in 1992. R&B/Hip-Hop usually controls enough listening to dominate most major-markets, but during the periods where it can double as the Top 40 station, it looks even better.
All of these formats benefited from some particularly great periods for their current music, which makes the recent travails of Alternative that much more baffling. But Rock radio apparently had more of a coalition four years ago when White Stripes fans expected only an occasional morsel between Nickelback and Linkin Park records. Now, the current rock audience is split into Death Cab For Cutie fans and Shinedown fans, in many cases.
So while the “Middle of the Rock” concept makes sense on paper in markets where there’s now only one young-end rock outlet, it’s going to be hard to put all the audiences together. Some of the new “Middle of the Rock” outlets have been dealing with the rift in current music by emphasizing the one thing the entire audience can agree on, Classic Rock. But some, like WWDC-FM (DC101) Washington have done a great job of going from Weezer to Seether and throwing in that Led Zeppelin and AC/DC as well.
DC101 has often doubled as the Modern AC/Rock Top 40 station for its market as well. With the poppier feel of some of today’s Alternative and the rhythmic lean of many Top 40s, you might think that there’s an opportunity either for more pop-leaning Alternatives or rock-leaning Modern ACs and Top 40s. But Modern ACs have had such a hard time staying pure in recent years that it’s hard for Hot AC programmers to imagine life without Avril Lavigne or Kelly Clarkson right now.
One more thought on coalitions: In the past, stations have used mass-appeal morning shows to create new fans of their music. When Howard Stern hit Washington in 1981, a lot of unlikely AC/DC and Pat Benatar fans materialized. These days, it’s harder to use the morning show to teach your music to the audience because they’re not playing much of it.
External marketing also helped stations broaden their audience and there hasn’t been as much of that lately, either. It was about the time that Oldies stations stopped marketing that younger listeners stopped wandering in to sample their music. The heavily marketed Bob- and Jack-FMs, on the other hand, are doing a pretty good job of drawing in listeners who should be too young to appreciate the music.
Is The Audience Leaving The Format? Or Vice-Versa?
We’ll never get to know how long the traditional Easy Listening format would have lasted because so many stations got out at a time when their audience was still demonstrable, just not desirable. And even in the last years, youth-minded stations were diluting the traditional Easy Listening format–adding more vocals, adding new age product, etc It didn’t prolong Beautiful Music’s lifespan by much, but did manage to alienate some of the audience they had.
So when five-share Oldies stations become three-and-a-half share Oldies stations, it’s hard to know whether “Cherry Cherry” and “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” are losing their luster, or whether traditional listeners are rebelling against all the ’70s music that programmers are shoehorning in, or both. Did the Adult Standards audience fade away? Or was there just less of an appetite for the format once the Carpenters and Barry Manilow supplanted Sinatra? Owners are rarely inclined to hang around and find out. Certainly, all of Top 40’s early ’90s attempts to reclaim adults succeeded only in alienating teens.
Ultimately, almost every format crisis has come down not to a shift in audience interest, but what owners felt they could make money with. When they get out, it’s because of a feared over-reliance on teens (Top 40 in the early ’90s or Alternative now). When they come back, it’s often because new national agency dollars have emerged, as they did over the last decade for black and Hispanic-targeted formats. And the 25-to-44 year olds who are now prompting a glut of gold-based stations include those same post-boomers who supposedly didn’t exist in large enough numbers to make Top 40 viable during its crisis.
When stations do the right thing, they usually transcend both their demographic clichés and national format trends. Los Angeles was a market where there was supposedly not enough Anglo audience for Classic Rock until KCBS-FM became Jack-FM. (And, hey, who said that only Anglos can listen?) Philadelphia was a market where Hot AC had been whittled down to nothing until WMWX (Mix 95.7) became WBEN-FM (95.7 Ben FM). You may argue that Jack and Ben weren’t truly Classic Rock or Hot AC stations, but they filled those needs in their respective markets. More important, they expanded the available audience and created a coalition, which may be what any faltering format most needs.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or

Read other articles by Sean Ross

3 replies
  1. Adam Jacobson
    Adam Jacobson says:

    Great article, Sean.
    Formats indeed do not die. Rather, they evolve. Now that’s not to say they will not disappear from a market. Look at the history of Top 40 and CHR/Pop in both San Francisco and Washington, DC, which are strikingly similar when it comes to a marketing and sales standpoint. KFRC and WPGC were each giants in their respective markets, yet both markets had spurts and starts when it came to CHR/Pop. In the Bay Area, rhythmic rules and the radio experts insist CHR/Pop in San Francisco and/or San Jose won’t work. Why not? Because Z95.7 was mediocre and no one remembers X100, Live 105’s days as a CHR or KMEL before it moved to its Urban/Rhythmic ways?
    Remember this fact: KHQT was a very successful CHR that went through what the entire format went through when Susquehanna opted to simulcast KFOG on the 97.7 signal in San Jose. Don’t tell me for one minute a format hole doesn’t exit in that market today.
    Meanwhile in Washington, DC, the slow, painful death of WAVA in 1992 left a gaping hole in the market. The white kids made WHFS a giant for a few years, while the blacks and Latinos went to WPGC. The upper end went to Mix and WASH. And then a funny thing happened: In 1996, Z104 came on the air with a very dancy product. That faded, and the “experts” gave up on CHR. But Clear Channel knew better. They had some market veterans that understood what it took to make CHR/Pop successful from a sales and ratings standpoint.
    Today Hot 99-5 is doing EXACTLY what it is designed to do, and is perhaps the best CHR in the market since Don Geronimo was at WPGC with Scott Shannon all those years ago. The music is tight, the station is fun to listen to and the ratings are solid.
    Up the road in Baltimore CHR died once again, but what’s stopping an operator from getting the right recipe and signing on a successful station? Fear? History (B104 was Hot AC before there was a format, blah, blah)?
    Formats don’t die. They just disappear for a while and reappear when smart programmers and smart owners see the dollar signs.

  2. Bill Wise
    Bill Wise says:

    Great article on “do formats ever really die”?
    The answer on Long Island is obviously no!
    Adult Standards WHLI jumped 3.6 – 4.0 in the summer book!
    Oldies WBZO (B103) jumps 2.3 to 3.7.
    Thanks for a great article.
    Bill Wise
    Program Director
    WBZO (B103)
    Long Island, N.Y.

  3. Jim Zippo
    Jim Zippo says:

    Outstanding observations. I’ve lived through some of those changes.
    What about the big apple? Someone should jump on those formats, yes?
    Thanks for the great article.
    Jim Zippo
    Mornings/Program Director
    KOOL 94.9/KPKY-FM
    Pocatello, Idaho


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