What Is the Sweet Spot for CHR Power Rotation?

Over the years, it has been hard for radio programmers to know when they’re playing their power rotation songs too much. And for some, the prevailing “radio law” is that there’s no such thing.

CHR programmers in America had long become used to a listener misperception that they played “the same songs on the hour every hour,” even before that inched closer to being reality over the last decade. When broadcasters saw research tagging their stations with the “plays the same songs over and over” image, they took it as affirmation that they were “playing the hits.”

In the mid-to-late-’90s, stations that spun their powers in the 90-100x-a-week range were typically insurgents — second CHR stations in a market looking to make an impact. In the late ’10s, as second CHRs proliferated, that strategy more often meant 122x a week. The switch to PPM ratings measurement brought with it an almost existential approach to power rotation for incumbents and challengers alike, one that emphasized having the best hit song in the moment above everything else.

That strategy took hold during a particularly strong period for CHR in 2009-11, driven by up-tempo music that reflected an overall societal optimism. Even before COVID-19, CHR radio was dealing with diminished shares, greater competition, and a rapidly proliferating second and third tier of music driven by streaming stories but very few consensus power-rotation songs.

The mother/daughter coalition that propelled CHR a decade ago was already faltering, at best. During COVID-19, when there wasn’t even a 20-minute ride to and from school to bring parents and kids together, CHR stations were among those most sharply affected. A format built on cume and multiple short listening occasions was now particularly vulnerable when cume was down so sharply and in-car listening was most threatened.

I’ve long sensed there was a difference between listener complaints about CHR stations playing their hits 70x a week in the mid-’90s, 90x a week a decade ago, and 120x a week today. Perhaps there was a tipping point where too much repetition really did become too much? But since listeners have been complaining since the days of 70x a week, it all sounds like “sure, that’s what they all say” to PDs.

But now there are some numbers you should look at.

For the August monthly, I tallied the 6+ numbers for 78 CHRs in Nielsen’s PPM-measured markets and measured them against the station’s highest spin count on its most rotated power. Some stations, like New York’s WHTZ [Z100], have significant numbers in multiple markets and were counted once for each market. At this writing, September ratings are starting to roll out, but won’t be complete until Friday.

The average ratings share for these 78 CHRs was a 3.6 share. The average power rotation for these stations was 119x a week.

When you look at the stations by spin count, a dramatic pattern emerges:

Top Spin On Powers Average Share Number of Stations
130x or higher 3 13
120x-129x 3.5 30
110x-119x 3.8 21
100x-109x 4.1 9
Under 100x 5.5 5

Similarly, when you look at the highest-rated CHR stations vs. the lowest, there is a clear pattern:

Share Range Top Spin On Powers Station Count
5-Share or Over 112x 11
4.0-4.9 share 117x 18
3.0-3.9 share 120x 26
2.0-2.9 share 123x 14
2-share or under 126x 9

To be fair, there are asterisks here. WXKS-FM (Kiss 108) Boston, tied for the top-ranked CHR in August, played its top power 98x in the week measured. Kiss 108 is buoyed by a heritage morning show that plays 4-5 songs an hour in morning drive, thus lowering its spin count. A few stations with big morning shows have weathered the CHR downturn better than others, and some programmers might see lower spins as a byproduct, not the driver. And yet, there’s a clear pattern across 78 radio stations with a wide range of circumstances but generally aggressive spins.

Here’s one more calculation:

We also looked at the top two stations in each PPM market in formats that play some current-based music. Those stations could range from the very conservative — Mainstream AC and Adult R&B — to R&B/Hip-Hop stations with rotations in the same neighborhood as CHR. The 98 stations we looked at included eight CHRs, but the most represented stations were Country (20 stations), AC (19), Adult R&B (16), and Hot AC (9). The average rating for those stations was a 6.6. The average top spin was 55x.

headphones-kidTop 40 and Mainstream AC aren’t supposed to run on the same paradigm, of course. In ways other than power rotation, CHR has taken various programming tenets from AC and Country (particularly a blurring of the lines between current and recurrent), and I’m not sure that has helped either, particularly as the format tries to sort out how to acknowledge and rotate the many stories created by streaming. But our belief that listeners consciously want every format to be programmed for listenability over longer spans except CHR, Rhythmic CHR, and Hip-Hop/R&B, may reflect industry habit more than COVID-era usage.

We also should consider whether the current CHR product supports an average spin of 119x a week. CHR is currently plagued by glacial turnover among powers and brutal churn among sub-powers, leaving few songs able to make the leap to power. Besides the nine-month run of The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” in power, CHR has also seen many stations go from playing two powers by Dua Lipa, one of them effectively a recurrent, to two powers from Harry Styles, one of them also effectively a recurrent. The upshot is that an artist with three CHR hits (Lipa) and an artist whose only solo CHR hits are his currents (Styles) are separated by a half-hour or less, thus also increasing the claustrophobia of the format.

If you’re one of the European programmers reading this column on Powergold’s site, you are correct in noting that the ultra-high-spins are a particularly U.S. issue. In the U.K., the top spin among the three CHR networks is 81x a week. (In Canada, only one top 10 market CHR cracks the 100x level in a given week.) It’s also worth noting that European listening levels have remained comparatively strong over the last six months, and many of them have relaxed rotations. So have some medium-market U.S. CHRs with more relaxed rotations.

Long-term, more than power rotations are likely to change at CHR as stations grapple with the format’s multiple competitors and multiple issues. The intent here is only to suggest if the threshold between “you are always playing my favorite songs” and “you are always playing the same damn songs” is perhaps lower than we think it is. Instinctively, I now wonder if the sweet spot is somewhere more like 100x a week than 120x—still aggressive and hit-driven, but not draconian.

There are numerous other challenges from our contracting corporations to our competition to the world we live in. But there’s little evidence at the moment that the thing listeners need now from CHR is the same song every 1:10 for nine months.

Sean Ross is a veteran programmer, researcher, and the author of the Ross On Radio newsletter. Find him or subscribe free @RossOnRadio on Twitter. Contact him at rossonradio@comcast.net

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