What A Healthy CHR Looked Like In 2021

By Sean Ross

In Some Markets, 2021 Was Way Less Sad For CHR

They were the CHR markets where All Time Low’s “Monsters,” AJR’s “Bang,” and Machine Gun Kelly’s “My Ex’s Best Friend” were even bigger hits, even sooner. They were faster on Country or Country-adjacent hits–stations where Walker Hayes’ “Fancy Like” made it into power, sometimes for more than a month, but also where collaborations like Elle King/Miranda Lambert and Nelly/Florida Georgia Line were bigger hits.

WIXX Green Bay, Wis., and WKRZ Wilkes-Barre, Pa., had one of their biggest records of the year with Why Don’t We’s “Fallin’ (Adrenaline).” On WIXX, it was literally the biggest record of the year, according to BDSradio. Throughout the year, WDW returned to power rotation on WIXX every few weeks the same way that the Kid Laroi’s “Without You” did at major-market CHR.

AJR’s “Bang” was in the bigger, faster, and “bigger faster” category at the handful of pop-leaning outliers. But so was “Way Less Sad,” which made it into power for a lot of these stations, as well as the year-end top 20. “Way Less Sad” was No. 12 for the year for SiriusXM Hits 1 which has always had its own watermark singles. This year, Hits 1’s No. 3 most-played song was Machine Gun Kelly & Halsey’s “Forget Me Too,” not a song worked to CHR elsewhere.

Other stations that have more of a pop/rock lean than the national norm include WDJQ (Q92) Canton, Ohio, the Bristol Broadcasting CHRs (WVSR Charleston, W. Va., WDDJ Paducah, Ky., and WAEZ Johnson City, Tenn.), and WVAQ Morgantown, W. Va. WNCI Columbus, Ohio tends to split the difference between its large market iHeart CHR sister stations and the smaller market outlets.

While some radio listening began to ease back toward its pre-COVID patterns this winter and spring, there was little evidence of it at large-market CHR. At year’s end, there is a feeling that pop music is better, but definitely not in the MTV/Michael Jackson-in-1993 or teen-pop-in-1997 way that could yet drive a format resurgence—especially with the impact of streaming on younger listeners.

In the medium- and smaller-markets, things were, well, “Way Less Sad” for CHR as evidenced by the spring ‘21 Nielsens. I’ve written at length about WIXX and WKRZ as stations that somehow chose not to participate in the format downturn. Bristol’s CHRs don’t buy Nielsen. Townsquare’s WKFR Kalamazoo, Mich., and WZOK Rockford, Ill., do buy ratings, and deserve a mention as well.

We don’t have ratings for SXM Hits 1, but as with the satellite service in general, it cast a more unavoidable footprint in the format this year. A decade ago, broadcast Top 40 provided itself on not playing, say, JTX’s “Love in America” no matter how big it was on Hits 1. This year, label reps say those stories are less likely to be dismissed.

Here’s SiriusXM Hits 1’s Top 15 of 2021. Airplay is measured from Jan. 1 through Dec. 2, reflecting the chart year used for the BDSradio/Billboard national charts.

1Billie Eilish, “Therefore I Am”

2 – Glass Animals, “Heat Waves”

3 – Machine Gun Kelly & Halsey, “Forget Me Too”

4Olivia Rodrigo, “Good 4 U”

5 – Doja Cat, “Kiss Me More”

6 – Marshmello x Jonas Brothers, “Leave Before You Love Me”

7 – Tate McRae, “You Broke Me First”

8 – Lil Nas X, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”

9 – All Time Low f/Blackbear, “Monsters”

10 – Taylor Swift, “Willow”

11 – The Kid Laroi & Justin Bieber, “Stay”

12 – AJR, “Way Less Sad”

13 – The Weeknd, “Save Your Tears”

14 – Olivia Rodrigo, “Déjà vu”

15 – Machine Gun Kelly x blackbear, “My Ex’s Best Friend”

Here’s WIXX’s Top 15 of 2021:

1Why Don’t We, “Fallin’ (Adrenaline)”

2 – Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)”

3 – Justin Bieber, “Anyone”

4 – Nelly & Florida Georgia Line, “Lil Bit”

5 –  Dua Lipa, “Levitating”

6 – 24kGoldn f/Ian Dior, “Mood”

7 – Machine Gun Kelly x Blackbear, “My Ex’s Best Friend”

8 – All Time Low f/Blackbear, “Monsters”

9 – Dua Lipa, “We’re Good”

10 – Pink, “All I Know So Far”

11 – AJR, “Way Less Sad”

12 – Lukas Graham, “Share That Love”

13 – AJR, “Bang!”

14 – The Kid LAROI, “Without You” (never switched to the Miley mix because the original was working)

15 – Maroon 5 f/Megan Thee Stallion, “Beautiful Mistakes”

Some other unusual titles among WIXX’s most-played:

  • Keith Urban f/Pink, “One Too Many” (17)
  • Dirty Heads f/Train, “Vacation” (23)
  • Kane Brown f/Blackbear, “Memory” (27)
  • Banners, “Someone to You” (32)
  • Tom Grennan, “Little Bit of Love” (34)
  • Clinton Kane, “Chicken Tendies” (38)
  • Astronomers, “Overthinking” (55) – local pop/punk hit

Here’s WKRZ, which is a little more of a hybrid between the large- and small-market versions.

1 – The Kid LAROI f/Miley Cyrus, “Without You”

2 – Machine Gun Kelly x Blackbear, “My Ex’s Best Friend”

3 – AJR, “Way Less Sad”

4 – All Time Low f/Blackbear, “Monsters”

5 – 24kGoldn f/Ian Dior, “Mood”

6 – The Weeknd, “Save Your Tears”

7 – Ed Sheeran, “Bad Habits”

8 – Chris Brown & Young Thug, “Go Crazy”

9 –  Dua Lipa, “Levitating”

10 – Olivia Rodrigo, “Good 4 U”

11 – Glass Animals, “Heat Waves”

12 – Justin Bieber, “Anyone”

13 – Doja Cat f/SZA, “Kiss Me More”

14Why Don’t We, “Fallin’ (Adrenaline)”

15 – Regard x Troye Sivan x Tate McRae, “You”

Also of note:

  • Nelly & Florida Georgia Line, “Lil Bit” (20)
  • Harry Styles, “Golden” (28)—also #74 on WIXX
  • Shawn Mendes, “Wonder” (31)
  • Zoe Wees, “Control” (37)
  • Pink, “All I Know So Far” (42)
  • Jessia, “I’m Not Pretty” (45)

WNCI is further still toward the large-market model, but still has some outliers of its own. Tate McRae’s “You Broke Me First” was No. 7 in Columbus vs. No. 19 nationally. Duncan Laurence’s “Arcade” was No. 15 vs. No. 39 national. We also saw:

  • Kane Brown x Blackbear, “Memory” (18)”
  • AJR, “Bang” (20)—WNCI is also leading on “The Good Part” as a streaming-driven bringback
  • Harry Styles, “Golden” (26)
  • AJR, “Way Less Sad” (32)
  • Twenty One Pilots, “Shy Away” (41, as you’d expect from the local heroes)

Here are some highlights from WAEZ (Electric 94.9) Johnson City, Tenn., which also tends to take from both lists. A lot of its hits tend to be reflected at its Bristol Broadcasting sisters, WVSR (Electric 102.7) Charleston, W. Va., and WDDJ (Electric 96.9) Paducah, Ky.

  • Machine Gun Kelly x Blackbear, “My Ex’s Best Friend” (1)
  • Tate McRae, “You Broke Me First” (3)
  • Chris Brown f/Young Thug, “Go Crazy” (4)
  • Maroon 5 f/Megan Thee Stallion, “Beautiful Mistake” (8)
  • Harry Styles, “Golden” (10)
  • AJR, “Bang” (14)
  • Justin Bieber, “Anyone” (21)

It’s a different sort of alternate universe CHR, but it’s fun to look at the top 15 Canadian CHR hits, as measured by BDSradio.

1 – Dua Lipa, “Levitating”

2 – The Weeknd, “Save Your Tears” (Cancon)

3 – Maroon 5 f/Megan Thee Stallion, “Beautiful Mistakes”

4 – Lil Nas X, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”

5 – Doja Cat f/SZA, “Kiss Me More”

6 – Ed Sheeran, “Bad Habits”

7 – Justin Bieber f/Daniel Caesar & Giveon, “Peaches”

8 – Shawn Mendes & Justin Bieber, “Monster” (Cancon, although most Mendes and Bieber songs, including “Peaches” are not)

9 – The Kid Laroi & Justin Bieber, “Stay”

10 –  24KGoldn f/Iann Dior, “Mood”

11 – Tate McRae, “You Broke Me First” (Cancon)

12 – Olivia Rodrigo, “Good 4 u”

13 – DVBBS f/Quinn XCII, “West Coast” (Cancon)

14 – Elijah Woods, “Lights” (Cancon)

15The Kid Laroi f/Miley Cyrus, “Without You”

Finally, here are the biggest songs of the year on the handful of English-language Mexican stations measured by BDSRadio. Top 40 in Mexico (and Puerto Rico) has often had more of a European flavor with more dance and more danceable modern rock represented.

1 – The Weeknd, “Save Your Tears”

2 – Doja Cat f/SZA, “Kiss Me More”

3 – Silk Sonic, “Leave the Door Open”

4 Olivia Rodrigo, “Driver’s License”

5 Tiesto, “The Business”

6 Masked Wolf, “Astronaut in the Ocean”

7Marshmello x Jonas Brothers, “Leave Before You Love Me”

8Justin Bieber f/Daniel Caesar & Giveon, “Peaches”

9Ed Sheeran, “Bad Habits”

10 – Majestic x Boney M, “Rasputin”

11 – The Kid Laroi f/Justin Bieber, “Stay”

12 – Harry Styles, “Golden”

13 – Lil Nas X, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”

14 – Maneskin, “Beggin’”

15 – The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights”

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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Radio: Avoid the Abandoned Mall Feeling

By Sean Ross

This column was originally going to be called “why radio detail still matters.” Over the years when I write about the details of radio programming too minutely, the “O” word will inevitably come up. And while “overthink” is certainly a possibility, I don’t hear much evidence of it when I listen to radio. I continue to take extra time during scheduling to fix the things that I hear on other stations. Attention to detail has been a hallmark of several golden eras of radio programming.

But maybe you’ve heard me say that already.

This column was going to be about whether the radio listening experience had become uncomfortably claustrophobic—a sense of listening to the same thing over and over again, a feeling of too many elements that sound the same as each other. Claustrophobia presents itself in ultra-high rotations that go well beyond merely “playing the hits” and an over-reliance on a few artists (six of the current CHR top 10 are from three artists with two hits apiece, not counting feature appearances).

Claustrophobia presents itself in too many similarly-produced hit songs, and not a variety of musical styles. For much of the late 2010s, that dominant style was mid-to-down tempo, repetitious, unhappy. Top 40 flourished when the two-of-the-same segue was “Dynamite” into “Party Rock Anthem.” It was different when the similar sounding hits were Chainsmokers, “Don’t Let Me Down” and Flume, “Never Be Like You.” I do feel that the contemporary music is better now, although there’s still not enough depth and variety to power a CHR comeback.

I’ve also said some of those things before, which sometimes set off the “overthinking” discussion with friends and readers as well. But overthinking on radio’s behalf is part of the brand here. More importantly, the streamlined broadcast radio of the last decade has not flourished. The repetitious CHR and stylistically homogenous Country formats of recent years have not flourished. At this point, the best way to defend radio is not to get defensive about radio.

Radio doesn’t just feel claustrophobic to me sometimes, it sounds lonely, and does so at a time when people are trying not to feel alone. Sometimes radio reminds me of the abandoned shopping malls that we’ve read so much about—the mostly empty malls with shuttered stores that recall the downtowns they usurped decades earlier; the place where shoppers feel creeped out and unsafe.

When I hear a station that is largely unhosted or minimally hosted, it reminds me of the abandoned mall. There is no greeter at the front door of the big box store. There is no clerk to ask if I need help. I’ve always felt that turning on the radio should bring the feeling of a friend greeting you at the door. These days, I often get the feeling that the host can’t be bothered to get up from the couch.

When I see a radio station schedule posted online and seven-eights of the broadcast day is listed only as “WXXX Music,” punctuated perhaps by a morning or afternoon show, it reminds me of the abandoned mall. (I have one friend who sends me at least one example of that from his radio listening every month.)

When I hear a heritage radio station that is now clearly assembled from parts-found-around-the-house, especially if there is no localism or no sense of place, it reminds me of the abandoned mall.

It might feel like pushing the metaphor a little too much to say that an ill-tended radio station feels unsafe. Yet, what we have wanted from radio during COVID-19 is, in part, to help keep us safe. That’s a bigger job than radio can do alone, especially now, but I don’t hear enough of that information on radio.

There’s always a franchise for one station to be the “local” and “personality” station. But when other stations sound generic, thrown together, and barely hosted, the abandoned store feeling makes people less likely to turn the radio on. The shuttered stores hurt the other tenants. The more radio stations do to market and attract radio usage, the more listening there will be for all of us.

I’ve written recently about radio stations being overproduced, but underproduced stations sound lonely and disconcerting as well. That is especially the case when a station’s imaging still has the “police radio” feel of the 1990s—offhand, or even menacing. You expect some sweepers to end with “muh-ha-ha.”

When I hear badly automated radio stations, especially in the transitions to and from streaming stopsets, it reminds me of the abandoned mall. In fact, the ongoing streaming stopset issue—long stopsets made worse by bad and repetitious filler content– was probably the first sign of radio becoming ill-tended.

Over the 14 years that I’ve been writing about streaming stopsets, nobody has ever told me I was wrong or accused me of overthinking. But few stations have addressed the issue either. Radio’s stopset length and content was the equivalent of the mall parking hassle—something no longer shrugged off as “but, hey, what are you gonna do?” once there were alternatives.

One of the things that has set the thriving mixed-use “lifestyle centers” apart from the shuttered malls is the user experience—the knowledge that you could do your shopping with a single click but choose not to. Radio has sometimes tried to replicate how listeners use music at home rather than give them the experience they could not create for themselves.

There have always been things that make more sense for individuals than for radio. Four times a year, I find a new song that I want to play over-and-over again. For radio, that’s a stunt that works every few years at the most. In the ‘70s, stations tried to replicate the “entire album side” experience on the radio. That wasn’t what listeners wanted from them. And no matter how much listeners binge a hot artist at home, I feel reasonably sure that three Justin Bieber songs an hour still feels repetitious on the radio.

Eating cold pizza in the morning is a long-running pop-culture trope. But if you care enough to throw on some clothes and go out to breakfast, you are probably not in search of cold pizza. You are looking for better food and the company of others.

I’m not the first person to make the connection between the travails of radio and those of retail. The parallels are most noticeable at Christmas. Radio has a once-a-year pop-up store that’s more compelling than any of its anchor tenants. The customer traffic might not be as much as it has been in the past, but it will be more than October or February. The experience we provide for people now will matter.

One thing that Christmas radio stations need to consider is advertising radio as a whole. The “here’s what we’ll be playing again on Dec. 26” promos shouldn’t just be for your own station. Perhaps they should include cross-plugs for the other stations in the cluster. Perhaps they should include not just the local TV news people but other jocks from inside your cluster. Maybe Dec. 26 needs to be a big day on your radio station with more than just those promos as incentive to stick around. Maybe Jan. 3, 2022—the first day “back at work” needs to be a big day as well.

Radio stations have, over the course of the last year, acknowledged there needs to be more happening on the radio. Some stations have dramatically changed the tenor of their imaging. Others have added full-service personality outside mornings. For those few stations that have managed to excel in off-the-air content, there are further retail parallels in those shopping centers that have flourished through mixed-use. In 2022, there should be a consistent feeling that something is happening at radio again.

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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The New Hub and Spoke: Balancing Strength and Freshness

By Sean Ross

In late July, I heard WHTZ (Z100) New York play “Good 4 U” by Olivia Rodrigo, followed by “Love Again” by Dua Lipa. “Good 4 U” was, at that point, an eight-week-old record, but one of the few that had gone to power rotation almost instantly. “Love Again” ultimately did not go to power for most stations but at that moment, it was a new, uptempo single from a core artist.

The Olivia/Dua segue was compliant with what radio programmers have been taught over the years about “hub and spoke” programming—the importance of playing a confirmed hit every other song. But it was also nice to be excited about any two songs in a row on Top 40 radio—a sign that the product shortage of recent years might finally be improving in a significant way. After eight months of “Blinding Lights” in 121-spins-a-week power rotation, having even a few songs like “Good 4 U” or “Stay” that could be confirmed smashes in eight weeks added some excitement again.

So maybe it’s time to consider a new “hub and spoke.” Radio still needs strength and “hit insurance” every other song. When radio’s “new music” hegemony first began to give way a decade ago, radio programmers decided that playing-the-real-hits would be their franchise. But strength by itself hasn’t been enough to buoy the format for the last five years. I now feel that current-based formats like Mainstream Top 40 also need freshness at least every other record.

Freshness and strength weren’t always mutually exclusive. Power rotation was always supposed to be the place where strength and freshness intersected. Then in the late ‘10s, the supply of Top 40 hits weakened, but spin counts remained aggressive. It’s clear now that “No Promises” by Cheat Code was neither safe nor fresh when it drifted back into power rotation for some Top 40s every few weeks in 2017-18. But Top 40 felt like it had to play something 123x a week, even if it was “the best of the rest.”

For a while, Top 40 tried to protect “freshness” one day a week with one song a week. I’ve long been dubious about the hourly premieres of new superstar releases. Do they risk instantly burning out those songs that would benefit from having some time to burn in with listeners instead? Do they make our stations difficult to listen to on Fridays for anything more than a nine-minute check-in? How valuable are they when you don’t have to wait to hear any new song? When there are a hundred songs on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist? If freshness matters, it needs more of a commitment now.

You can tell radio programmers are a little more conscious of freshness, too. There seems to be a little more of a “when you know, you know” attitude toward a few songs. Justin Bieber’s “Peaches” went to power almost instantly but didn’t linger the way that other hits did. Ed Sheeran’s “Bad Habits” seemed to reach a point a few weeks ago—when it was already at No. 4—where its momentum slowed, and radio programmers were not sure if it was a sustained power. Then “Bad Habits” seemed to solidify again for some stations, even as Sheeran’s “Shivers” became one of the next fast-breaking songs.

Freshness and excitement are hard things to quantify. Radio programmers and researchers know how to ask if listeners are burnt on a song, and we accept that there are some songs that listeners might both love and be tired of. Until they specifically articulate that, however, we assume they are as enthusiastic about the fifth play and the five-hundredth. Isn’t hearing a favorite song inherently exciting? If “Kiss Me More” or “Good 4 U” are still testing power, is it just arbitrary to decide that we need some new ones?

I’m not tired of “Bad Habits” yet. I’m still hanging in there, for that matter, with “Kiss Me More” and “Good 4 U.” But I’ve come to feel that the most important songs on the radio are the tier of songs directly under them—a group that at this moment includes “Shivers,” “That’s What I Want,” “Who’s In Your Head,” “Fancy Like” (a song which has also proven that Country listeners have different priorities than some PDs). There’s also excitement in the next group—“Ghost,” “Cold Heart,” “My Universe,” “Meet Me At Our Spot” already. Those are the songs that most make me feel like I still need radio.

In recent weeks, Z100 has blurred the difference between “power” and “power new.” Through late August, monitors showed it playing five powers, topping out around 117-122x a week. This week, its eight most-played songs are getting between 82x and 72x spins per week. Those most-played songs go as far back as “Déjà vu” and as recent as “Shivers” (meaning that both Sheeran hits are included). Z100 has recently introduced a personality afternoon show, which would naturally affect available spins, but it didn’t rework its rotations immediately.

A year ago, this column found a direct correlation between CHR ratings and spin count. Those stations with the most extreme power rotations were, on average, the lowest rated in the format. The handful of stations still around or under 100x a week were among the most successful. It will be interesting to revisit that exercise once Z100’s new strategy has a while to take hold. (It also must be acknowledged that sister WWPW (Power 96.1) Atlanta is having its best ratings ever after increasing its top spin.)

It’s also necessary to acknowledge that, as much as I’ve derided the “No Promises” strategy over the years that radio’s rivals are also willing to bend the time/space continuum on songs. Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves” is No. 6 on Spotify Today’s Top Hits. Camila Cabello’s “Don’t Go Yet” is still on the list, even though radio is done with it. “Meet Me At Our Spot” is eighteen months old, and yet it still took until now for its TikTok moment. Your fifteen-year-old might have known it last year, but did they ratify it before now? It makes calculating freshness more difficult than just looking at newness.

The hardest songs to calculate from that standpoint are those that are no longer new and aren’t yet powers. One of the reasons Top 40 has had so few consensus powers in recent years is not knowing what to do with songs in the middle. “Levitating” clawed its way back from that grey area, and sounded plenty fresh, even as an eight-month-old power, in part because airplay had been throttled down for a while. “Love Again” may not be headed for a rebound of that magnitude, but I would have had no problem treating it like “Peaches” or “Bad Habits” until listeners decided, because it created excitement on the radio for a minute. And I fully expect to see it creep into power somewhere in a few weeks, since even Lipa’s “We’re Good” resurfaced for a few stations.

Programmers are trained early on that “playing the hits” means ignoring our own internal timing on songs and accepting that the audience moves on its own timetable. I would have happily ignored how I felt about the hits of the last five years if the format was thriving. I feel okay about suggesting that we’re still working out the timing issue as well. Both the ratings and the excitement with which the next “That’s What I Want” or “Who’s In Your Head” is scarfed up suggests that the audience feels that way too.

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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Powergold Launches The World’s Fastest, Most Intuitive Music Scheduling Software Yet – Powergold NXT

  • Powergold NXT was built for world scale broadcasters that have many concurrent users scheduling music in tough networking conditions.
  • Real-world proven during the worldwide pandemic, delivering outstanding next-level speed and performance.
  • Auto-detects slow or high-latency VPN/WAN connections and instantly optimizes them, delivering millisecond responsiveness.
  • Purpose-built on Microsoft SQL Server database technology and runs on all versions of MS SQL Server, including free Express editions.
  • Evolved Powergold NXT feature-set delivers enhanced scheduling experience, quality control, and team collaboration.

Little Rock, AR (October 4, 2021) Powergold Music Scheduling, the world’s fastest, most intuitive music scheduling software for radio, has introduced the next-level version of its software – Powergold NXT.

Powergold NXT boasts the fastest scheduling performance of any software in the industry, especially across complex networked environments. This ground-breaking music scheduling software release is a purpose-built response to the evolving needs of some of the world’s largest broadcasters.

“Broadcasters around the globe were already moving toward technology hubs and decentralized working even before the worldwide pandemic. We observed these shifts and subsequently began to build Powergold NXT a number of years ago,” said Lance Olvey, CEO/CTO for Powergold. “COVID-19 only accelerated the need for a more robust scheduling solution that could accommodate many concurrent users working remotely in less-than-ideal networking conditions. It turned out to be the perfect environment in which to deploy Powergold NXT!”

Powergold NXT has set a new standard for the industry and is built on Microsoft SQL Server database technology. This allows for a seamless experience for radio programming teams wherever they work—at home, on-the-go, or in-station.

One of the key innovations developed by the Powergold team is a Network Optimized Mode which automatically detects and compensates for poor networking performance, especially a slow or high-latency VPN/WAN connection, resulting in a no-compromise, lightning-fast user experience.

“Powergold has always been about speed,” said Steve Silby, Sales Manager, UK and Ireland, for Powergold. “Our engineers were light years ahead of the competition, having optimized the pure SQL code base from the beginning to make Powergold NXT deliver under the toughest connection conditions. From the SQL architecture that works with all versions of MS SQL Server, including the free Express editions, to the Network Optimized Mode and the many enhanced user features, Powergold NXT is a real game changer for any programmers in any market who are working remotely. Imagine scheduling a whole week in just a few seconds, from anywhere!”

Powergold NXT is the only music scheduling software that has been purpose-built and real-world tested to meet the needs of world-scale broadcasters.

In addition to achieving industry-leading advances in network performance, Powergold NXT has also enhanced functionality and flexibility within the user experience that gives programmers more control over their music scheduling. Rule optimization, schedule snapshots, element merge functions, music research imports, and a powerful ‘undo’ function back to any point in time, among other features, ensure that Powergold continues to be the first choice in programming tools among programmers.

Powergold NXT is focused on connecting your world. A growing list of integration partners will be announced soon.

With the introduction of Powergold NXT, the radio industry is now up to speed on the world’s fastest music scheduling software. Visit www.powergold.com to schedule a demo now or call +1 (501) 821-1123 to reach the Powergold team.

About Powergold Music Scheduling

Powergold has long been recognized as the industry’s fastest, most intuitive music scheduling software with the most highly regarded support team in the business. Powergold’s intelligent programming tools are not only smarter than competing tools, but they also help programmers work faster and more creatively, which means a superior music experience for them and their audiences. For more information on the company, visit www.powergold.com or follow @powergold on Twitter.

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Do Broadcasters Still Need To Narrowcast?

kjoyFrom the moment that AC WKJY Long Island, N.Y., returned to its longtime K-Joy 98.3 identity, it was never quite as consistently soft as some of its new Soft AC counterparts. The station was positioned as “Long Island’s Place to Relax,” but it didn’t sound as much like KISQ (the Breeze) San Francisco as much as a Mainstream AC from around 2005. The station wasn’t particularly soft, but it did play the ‘70s pop and soft early ‘80s that had been left behind as AC music became newer and more aggressive sonically.

Over the last four months, K-Joy’s ratings have gone 3.9 – 4.8 – 5.0 – 5.1 6-plus. In the just released August Nielsen PPM monthly, the station was tied for No. 1 for the first time, despite some signal holes. K-Joy still uses the “place to relax” positioner, but you might hear it in front of Dua Lipa,Levitating.” 

liteFMOf the Soft ACs launched or relaunched in recent years, some have found success being tightly defined, such as KISQ and sister WLIT (Lite-FM) Chicago. But another iHeart station, WISX (The Breeze) Philadelphia has moved closer to mainstream AC recently. WLTW (Lite-FM) New York has found success in recent years re-adding Air Supply and Peabo Bryson titles to pre-empt a Soft AC attack, but it also plays Chris Brown’s “Go Crazy” and Doja Cat’s “Say So” at the contemporary end.

WKJY’s success got me thinking again about WFEZ Miami, which has been consistently successful in recent years despite broadening in a way that stretches its Easy 93.1 name. WFEZ still plays Celine Dion, but it also plays The Weeknd. WFEZ has also done well incorporating more ‘90s, even though all-‘90s WMIA (Totally 93.9) remains a niche player 15 months after its launch.

It’s the convergence of two patterns we’ve seen repeatedly over the last 25 years. ACs go softer to get attention, then pick up the tempo. Formats built around one decade run their course quickly, but the music at their center finds acceptance and changes the composition of other formats—whether Classic Hits or Mainstream AC.

xmIt’s interesting to consider whether the demand for Soft AC is for a consistently soft station or just for AC to bring back some of the big songs it dropped during the rush to contemporize. Then you wonder how narrow stations should be in the playlist age. Even on satellite radio, channels are tightly defined. Sirius XM’s rapidly proliferating online-only channels are subsets of those music formats. Do broadcasters still need to narrowcast?

The notion that modern marketing demanded increasingly tightly-defined radio stations was programming law in the ‘90s, then dented by the resurgence of Top 40 in the late ‘90s and the rise of Bob- and Jack-FM-type Adult Hits stations a few years later. Programmers used to ridicule a competitor’s “trainwreck” segues, now they were bragging about their own.

Over the last decade, however, many formats, particularly those where current music is still significant, feel like they’ve gotten narrower. It wasn’t as much of an issue at CHR during the early days of “turbo-pop” or Country’s youth movement in 2012-13. Eventually, those formats felt claustrophobic. So did an R&B/Hip-Hop format that had less of the former. So did Active Rock and Alternative as they pulled further away from each other. CHR’s musical troubles trickled down to Hot AC and AC, helping to spur the rise of Soft AC to begin with.

silkIn recent years, many formats have addressed that narrowness. R&B/Hip-Hop has more of the former from H.E.R., Jazmine Sullivan, and Silk Sonic, although there’s more balladry and still little center-lane, midtempo product. Active Rock’s resurgence last year coincided with a wider variety of available music. Country made a concerted effort to play more female acts. Top 40 is playing a true Country crossover and a hard rock cover of a Four Seasons song by an act that broke through Eurovision.

The gold library has been part of the attempted solution too, whether that meant been more music from the early ‘00s on Country or “Throwback Weekends” on CHR and Hot AC. For AC, it’s been the return of Air Supply and Christopher Cross, whether on a dedicated Soft AC or a Mainstream AC that is covering its bases. Relying more heavily on library has always been seen as a reflection on the strength of recent product, but maybe it speaks to a lack of variety among the newer songs as well.

Here’s K-Joy just before 9 a.m. on Sept. 13:

Bryan Adams, Summer of ‘69”

Yvonne Elliman, If I Can’t Have You”

Paul Young, Every Time You Go Away”

Taylor Swift, Shake It Off”

Rick Springfield, Jessie’s Girl”

Dua Lipa, Levitating”

Savage Garden, Truly Madly Deeply”

Bangles, Manic Monday”

Pink, Who Knew”

Foreigner, I Want To Know What Love Is”

Harry Styles, Adore You”

Ace, How Long”

Madonna, Like A Prayer”

Green Day, Time of Your Life”

Beyoncé, “Halo”

Simple Minds, Don’t You (Forget About Me)”

DHT, Listen To Your Heart”

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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What the World Needs Now Is Love Songs

By Sean Ross

Both of these things are true:

Pop music and pop radio have been suffering from a shortage of uptempo hits.

Pop music and radio have been suffering from a dearth of love ballads.

Only the second statement will surprise regular Ross on Radio readers. I’ve always considered a steady supply of a certain type of mid-to-uptempo record to be a bellwether of Top 40’s health. Keith Naftaly, president of A&R for RCA Records, teases me about that on a regular basis. RCA has brought us ballad hits from “Love Lies” to “You Broke Me First” — often nudging the boundaries of what hit songs sound like. Every now and then, Naftaly e-mails to ask “why are you so hung up on tempo?”

Many of the record people who have had to work ballads to Top 40 over the years would agree with him. Charlie Foster is an industry promotion vet who read my recent complaint about “a nearly endless stream of not-so-melodious, not-so-uptempo records, opening with the same manipulated vocal chops.” “You [say] ‘not-so-uptempo-records’ as if it was a bad thing,” Foster says. “I believe women don’t listen for tempo, they listen for lyrics. In fact, many of the biggest hits are ballads.” The quest for tempo, he contends, comes from male PDs, not female listeners.

Foster and I are not actually in disagreement. The last five years have seen a tempo issue, but also a dearth of hit ballads — particularly of a certain type. Top 40 is only now emerging from a place where the typical hit song was, well, “not-so-melodious, not-so-uptempo, and opening with the same vocal chops.”

Don't_Let_Me_Down_(featuring_Daya)_(Official_Single_Cover)_by_The_ChainsmokersBut when I wrote that, I wasn’t complaining about ballads. I was thinking more of the moment that EDM became slow and sludgy, reaching the point in 2016 where CHR radio became Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down” followed by Flume’s “Never Be Like You,” and remained in a similar place until relatively recently. Individually, many of those songs were real hits. Collectively, they made pop music both more passive and more aggressive. If CHR had flourished, I would have just assumed that I had become too old to follow a younger audience to the next phase. But CHR didn’t flourish.

Ballads have been through their own cycle. In 2010, at the height of CHR’s comeback, and shortly after the advent of PPM measurement, ballads had almost disappeared. Only a few rap ballads such as Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” and B.o.B’s “Airplanes” presaged what was to come. Hayley Williams could sing the latter song’s hook, but Paramore’s “The Only Exception,” which should have been that band’s No Doubt “Don’t Speak” career-broadening ballad moment, had little chance.

ab67616d0000b273dedc7f921f6d6d23890683b6In early 2011, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” exploded, followed by “Someone Like You,” the undeniable song that punctured the ballad blockade. By 2013, we saw three piano ballads — Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man,” Pink’s “Just Give Me a Reason,” and Rihanna’s “Stay” — become hits simultaneously. It was now clear that “Someone Like You” had redefined the hit ballad, making it starker, less produced. As a radio formula, big Diane Warren/David Foster-style ballads had been in decline for a decade or so. Now it was official. I only wish that “Rolling in the Deep” had been just as influential.

maroon-5Over that last five years, there have been surprisingly few true ballad hits. That becomes apparent when looking at a soft AC like KISQ (the Breeze) San Francisco, which plays only five ballads from the last three years. The most recent of those are Maroon 5’s “Memories” and Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved.” The ballads that do become CHR hits are descended from “Someone Like You.” They are often solemn (Justin Bieber’s “Lonely,” Duncan Laurence’s “Arcade”) or, in the case of “Memories,” literally elegiac. We have breakup songs and personal laments. They’re hits, but we have no traditional love ballads.

One reason there haven’t been many ballads is that both Adult Top 40 and AC have been taking their cues from Top 40 rather than breaking their own hits. But we also have relatively few musical memes within pop these days, and they take longer than ever to spend themselves out. Doo-wop-inspired unchained melodies such as Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” or Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” added some bounce and positivity. Now, the renewed influence of ‘70s R&B, from SilkSonic’s “Leave the Door Open” to Bazzi’s “I Like That,” sounds great again. (Last time, it gave us “End of the Road.”) But overall we have a relatively few hit templates at any tempo, and, as such, fewer hits.

To a great extent, it’s logical to view midtempo hits like Olivia Rodrigo’s “Déjà Vu,” Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” or The Kid Laroi’s “Without You” as our new power ballads. When Justin Bieber released “Anyone,” it was refreshing to hear an ‘80s-style power ballad, too. In Bieber’s flurry of 2021 singles, “Anyone” got crunched between “Lonely” and “Peaches,” but it’s been in and out of power for a certain type of successful medium-market CHR like WVSR Charleston, W. Va., or WIXX Green Bay, Wis., where “Anyone” was back in power as recently as two weeks ago.

If it’s recurring Ross on Radio themes you want, the need for balance, not just tempo, is undoubtedly the one I’ve returned to most over the years. Context means a lot. If “Never Gonna Let You Go” by Sergio Mendes had come out in summer/fall ’81, it would have been one entrant too many in the yacht-rock regatta of that moment. I minded it far less on the radio two years later next to “Wanna Be Starting Something,” “Is There Something I Should Know,” “Electric Avenue,” “Stand Back,” and “Every Breath You Take.”

Doja-Cat-releases-new-album-You-Right-music-video-with-The-WeekndTikTok- and streaming-friendly, our current midtempo hits are often the ones most easily identified by our large-market CHRs. They work better for me now because there is more tempo. I really enjoy Doja Cat’s “You Right,” and I like it particularly as a change-up from “Kiss Me More.” This is not the summer of “Thriller,” but it still works out nicely that “You Right” dropped on the same morning as Ed Sheeran’s “Bad Habits.” Then, uptempo Camila Cabello and the Weeknd singles followed at regular intervals.

An interesting thing happened when turbo-pop truly took hold in 2009-10. After years in which they were the safest, most reliable songs in radio’s music research, Nickelback’s early ‘00s ballads and other gold titles like them suddenly stopped testing, first at Top 40. There was a preponderance of happy, uptempo music, and America, having just avoided a second great depression, liked feeling good. Did 2013’s piano-ballad triple-play mean that happiness had become fatiguing? Maybe, but turbo-pop had given way to more extreme EDM, and Rihanna’s “We Found Love” had given way to “Diamonds.”

downloadSo what should pop music should be at this moment, following an actual worldwide trauma that we did not manage to avoid? “Blinding Lights” found a balance of driving and melancholy, then hung in for a year because few other songs did. But listeners have also rewarded Dua Lipa four times for her fun, uptempo, and just-edgy-enough diversions. We need songs now for both our anxiety and our aspirations. (As it happens, Foster is working American Authors, “Nice and Easy” at Hot AC, while RCA has Walk the Moon’s “Can You Handle My Love,” landing at Alternative now — two positive songs by acts who provided buoyant moments even as hit music changed in the mid-‘10s.)

Beyond that, what the world needs now are love ballads — positive ones — that update the classic love song for 2021. If they work on a dual level, speaking to both relationships and fellowship (think “Don’t Dream It’s Over” or “I’ll Stand by You”), even better. We don’t need a glut of love songs. We just need a steady supply so that my Soft AC radio friends have a new song more often than every 18 months. At this moment, love is the only thing that there’s just too little of.

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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In Search of ‘Oldies XL’

By Sean Ross

There hasn’t been much opportunity over the last 18 months to discover new stations by dialing around on a road trip. But a few weeks ago, I was in Southern New England. When I hit seek again, I knew I wanted to stop on the station that played “Got a Hold on Me” by Christine McVie. I knew I would like the station that followed that song with “Giving You the Benefit” by Pebbles.

onlogo2020250Over the course of the next 18 hours, I heard WOON (O-N Radio) Woonsocket, R.I., play a lot of deeper ‘70s (literally — one of them was “Deeper Than the Night” by Olivia Newton-John). I also heard “Pushing Too Hard” by the Seeds, and other similar mid-level hits from the mid-‘60s. I heard pre-Beatles. I heard a great Cowsills song I didn’t know, “All My Days,” staged as an “O-N Special.” I heard a couple of TV themes and movie songs, including one of the nuns’ songs from Sister Act and “UHF” by Weird Al Yankovic.

paul-simon-mother-and-child-reunion-cbs-sony-s (1)You’ll hear plenty of songs on O-N like the Supremes’ “Love Child” or Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion,” big hits that were readily available on the radio for years, but are less so now that the ‘60s and early ‘70s are less available on broadcast radio. But the song that just followed Simon was “I Just Want to Dance With You” by George Strait. And on the first day of my O-N listening, I heard it play Simon’s “Run That Body Down” from the same album. Now it’s playing “All the Way to Reno” by R.E.M.

Longtime readers know that “oldies stations beyond the safelist” are a staple of this column. Many ROR readers program those stations, either on the air or online, including a few that are programmed by personal friends. I’m always afraid to write a story on stations like that because I’ll leave somebody out. I do want to mention the July 4 weekend programming on Pop Gold Radio, which counted down WRKO Boston’s all-time Top 68, and Big8Radio.com, which created a never-before assembled Top 100 of 1969 based on the surveys of CKLW Detroit.

I’ve found stations that fill this need in Classic Rock, Classic Country, and Classic R&B as well. (I have a friend in Nashville who now texts on a weekly basis to tell me what R&B oldies WVOL Nashville is playing, especially on those occasions when it plays something that goes beyond R&B oldies.)

220px-Bad_Medicine_(song)In my role as a researcher and consultant to radio stations, I respect and am happy to facilitate those stations that want to play 220 immaculately testing Classic Hits titles. I’m even happier when a PD wants to color that in a little. I have reached the point where I don’t need to hear “Livin’ on a Prayer,” but I want to help you hear it, and make sure you get it from broadcast radio, not somewhere else. And I’m very happy to report that I’m starting to hear “Bad Medicine” by Bon Jovi on well-executed, well-researched radio stations a little more often.

Stations beyond the safelist used to be the kind that you would only stumble across on a radio road trip. Then streaming made them easier to find. The proliferation of FM translators also meant that the fourth satellite sports station in the market might be willing to try music again. There’s always something to listen to when I’m working and just can’t listen to “Adore You” by Harry Styles on an AC station again. Still, every new WOON is a boon.

kazg250WOON got me thinking about what to call this genre of oldies station. There are degrees by which stations diverge from the safelist. Many, such as KAZG Phoenix or the True Oldies Channel, specialize in the big ‘60s or ‘70s songs that were part of the format’s safelist of 15-20 years ago, before the ‘80s became the center of the format. WMTR Morristown, N.J., bills itself as “Classic Oldies,” and I think that’s a pretty good name for that flank of the format, differentiating those stations from “Classic Hits.”

But there are also stations like WOON that represent another level of depth — the span from pre-Beatles to early ‘90s; the presence of the movie themes or collectors’ songs and other things that were never on the safelist to begin with. I have dubbed this wing of the format “Oldies XL.” The SiriusXM decades channels certainly have the depth, but they do not, by design, have the same breadth.

The break between the various groups of stations is never clean. I certainly hear songs that surprise me on WMTR or Scott Shannon’s spikes on True Oldies Channel from time to time. There are a growing number of stations programming some mix of ‘60s oldies and ‘70s pop. Those stations are another model unto themselves, and some, such as KDRI (the Drive) Tucson, Ariz., are happy to be unclassifiable.

No two Oldies XL stations sound the same; they’re usually programmed by people with very strong feelings about music. What they have in common, to paraphrase the mantra of the wide-variety Adult Hits format, is being a mile wide but at least a little more than an inch deep.

aXwFznZqqGOldies XL stations usually have a mission that doesn’t depend on winning in rated markets. WOON is a full-service community radio station. That it plays “Money, Money, Money” by Abba is a bonus. But “ratings winner” has been coming in a lot of different shapes and sizes lately, as evidenced by WAKY Louisville, Ky. (which is at least in the “Classic Oldies” camp), leading the market with a 6.8 share 12-plus.

I’ve always felt that Oldies stations with unique formats tend to overperform in streaming — sometimes too much. WAKY is currently geofenced. WMTR stopped streaming for a while, a victim of its own success, then returned by popular demand. Recognizing the worldwide sales potential of such a format isn’t a priority for every niche oldies operator, but I nevertheless believe that potential exists, even for a station like WOON with a small-market community mission.

Here’s a recent sample of WOON in middays:

Luther Vandross, “Power of Love/Love Power”

Box Tops, “Neon Rainbow”

Neil Diamond, “Soolaimon (Live)”

Queen, “Another One Bites the Dust”

Cookies, “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad About My Baby”

Jim Croce, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”

Yardbirds, “Heart Full of Soul”

Kenny Nolan, “I Like Dreaming”

Eric Carmen, “She Did It”

Beatles, “Fool on the Hill”

Frankie Valli, “I Make a Fool of Myself”

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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How To Have More Hits

By Sean Ross

We need more hits. We could have more hits. I’m thinking about Top 40 and Hot AC when I say this, but every current-based format, with the exception of Christian AC, feels challenged at the moment. When radio stopped being the gatekeeper for new music, it staked out a new role as “the legitimizer,” available to let you know which 14 songs were true hits during your multiple eight-minute listening occasions. That model didn’t hold up so well in a time of disruption, especially when the answer to “okay, so what are the hits?” was “oh, ‘Blinding Lights’ still.” Some individual stations are rebounding now as listening patterns shift again, but there is no sign of pop radio recovering symmetrically.

We have a few more hits already. It only takes a few–“Peaches,” “Kiss Me More,” “Good 4 U”—to feel more hopeful. I also feel like we have more potential hits. When I scanned the charts a year ago, I would get to the low teens before encountering those songs that I knew I would never actually hear on the radio without a concerted effort. Now that stretch starts below the top 25. And perhaps it was always thus. When SiriusXM plays its vintage ‘70s “American Top 40” show on Saturday, it is usually in the place below No. 25 or so that listeners are most likely to tweet “how did I miss this song at the time?”

Dua Lipa

Dua Lipa

We know radio almost bobbled one of the biggest hits of the year. I’ve already written about “Levitating” by Dua Lipa—a song that everybody played before it peaked earlier this year, but not a song that every station powered the first time. Dua Lipa has helped confirm that the uptempo “radio song” still matters. She probably could have had more hits. The never-promoted-in America “’Physical’ should have been a massive single,” tweeted WPLW (Pulse 106.9) Raleigh, N.C., APD Jax this week. The Miley Cyrus duet “Prisoner” lingered on Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits long after radio moved on. “We’re Good,” upstaged by a resurgent “Levitating,” is still on Today’s Top Hits as well.

When it peaked in January/February, “Levitating” was in power for some groups, but still testing unfamiliar for most of iHeart’s stations. Even then, it had streaming stories. “Levitating” certainly sounded good on the radio and provided a center lane “radio record” to balance a streaming hit like “Astronaut in the Ocean” or “Put Your Records On.” Powering “Levitating” 117x a week without a programmer’s full confidence would have been an indulgence. But maybe there was probably a place for it around 75x a week. And there’s evidence that nothing deserves 117 spins a week these days.

Marshmello & Halsey

Marshmello & Halsey

“Levitating” was unusual in having made it to the top five before PDs lost focus the first time. Marshmello & Halsey’s “Be Kind” was more typical. It still plays 26x a week on WKTU New York, where it did well enough that even co-programmed AC WLTW (106.7 Lite FM) recently tried it for a few weeks.  Last June it peaked at No. 13 in a familiar scenario—an up-tempo song by a name artist that was neither a TikTok record nor a tester after six weeks. I’m pretty sure that “Be Kind” hung around on Today’s Top Hits as well last summer, just as “Goosebumps,” “Hold On,” “The Business,” and even “Girls Like Us” by Zoe Weiss are now.

We have more metrics and more stories than ever. We are better at finding the records that are phenomenal at the start. We have always been good at identifying those songs that won’t die. We still have problems with the songs in the middle. Besides that, many of our metrics—whether traditional radio callout or the Hot 100—are affected by the reduced radio listening of the last year. Airplay charts are harder to parse than ever—the same song can be +50 spins on Friday and +1200 spins by Monday.

banjo-and-country-music-FY3XA6CThere are two possible solutions. One is the Country scenario: a relatively small number of songs sit on the buffet table for a year. A few, by superstars or with an obvious hook like “I Was On A Boat At The Time,” become hits right away. Others become hits after 35, 45, 55 weeks. For those Country stations on an AC template, this works. But those stations trying to compete with streaming for the “new Country” feel more threatened than ever.

Leaving every song on the buffet table indefinitely is not an appetizing prospect for Top 40. For one thing, it’s not the franchise. Even when radio no longer claims to be first, CHR still has stations branded as “Now” or promising “today’s best music.” We wouldn’t offer listeners a station positioned as “the best we’ve been able to come up with over the last 15 months or so.”

Having more hits could happen with a very simple change in mindset. If we agree that we want more hits, having them is as simple as looking for stories to keep a record on our radio stations, not get rid of them. On a balanced radio station, the songs with a streaming story, the songs with a traditional callout story, and the songs that provide tempo and definition won’t necessarily be the same ones.

Nelly-Florida-Georgia-LinealbumWe don’t trust radio’s ability to create its own stories. The PDs who lobbied to bring back songs or hold on to them longer in the ‘90s—the practice that still influences today’s charts—were the same PDs who went through every cut on the Janet Jackson album to find “Escapade” before it was a single. I keep writing about “Lil Bit” by Nelly & Florida Georgia Line. That song is +169 spins today. It was losing spins earlier this week. But “Lil Bit” keeps returning to power at WIXX and WKSZ Green Bay, Wis., two stations that rarely agree about songs. With so much external stimuli, I find it particularly meaningful now when a song can become a hit in one market, or when the competition is forced to acknowledge it.

It is scary to lobby for “make the hits,” not just “play the hits.” But we are at a place now where “play the handful of songs we can agree on” hasn’t worked so well. Looking for more songs that sound good on the radio provides listeners with the energy and fresh start that they’re looking for this summer. Having 24 viable songs instead of 18 also takes some of the burden off that second tier; if our best records can’t stand up to 117x a week, imagine what over-rotating our second-best songs is doing. I feel radio has product to offer people now; some of it is just a matter of having confidence in our own judgment.

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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The “No-Wow” Oldie: Now There’s A Name For It

By Sean Ross

The concept of the “oh wow” oldie has been around for a while. As I have found out from writing about the “Lost Factor” of various hits over the years, everybody’s threshold for what song evokes the “oh wow” response is different, often dependent on whether they listen to satellite radio or their FM Classic Hits station. A song can be readily available on my phone, but still provoke surprise and delight if I hear it on SiriusXM’s ‘70s On 7 format and particularly if I hear it on broadcast radio.

The “no wow” oldie is easier to pin down. A “no wow” song is the enduring hit still heard on multiple formats and stations within a market—most obviously those songs at the “Don’t Stop Believin’”/”Summer of ‘69” level. They are clearly still well-loved records, but even the listeners still delighted by those songs are not surprised by them.

The “no wow” oldie is most often those ‘80s songs shared between AC, Adult Hits, Classic Hits, and Classic Rock, or some combination thereof, but there are other examples. With ‘90s and early ‘00s rotations fairly tight at Mainstream AC, if I monitor an AC station (particularly a Soft AC) or two during the course of the day, I can pretty much depend on hearing, say, “Because of You” by Kelly Clarkson at least once, or maybe multiple times.

Certain songs have evolved from “oh wow” to “no wow” over the years, particularly those by non-superstar artists who became unhip quickly after their hit streak ended. It’s easy to remember when “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” by Cutting Crew, “Your Love” by the Outfield, and even “Take On Me” by a-Ha were once scarce on the radio. In the mid-‘00s, those songs became the secret weapons of the Adult Hits format in the mid-‘00s. Now, they’re Classic Hits and AC warhorses.

How you feel about “no wows” depends on your programming philosophy. They have become radio staples for a reason. For some programmers, they are meant to be arrayed one after another—proof that listeners are getting what they come to a station for. Over the last year, with listening habits upended, there has been mounting evidence that more listeners want some balance of hits and variety.

Five years ago, I asked readers to tell me “Songs You’re Sick and/or Tired Of.” I recognized that “Jack and Diane” and “Sweet Home Alabama” were still hits. I had just reached the point where I could not sit through them, even while monitoring a client station. For readers, songs like “Jessie’s Girl” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” were already on the list. Interestingly, so were certain hits that hadn’t been on radio for years—“You Light Up My Life,” “Seasons in the Sun,” “Achy Breaky Heart”—but hadn’t lost their power to traumatize.

Recently, though, I shared the concept of the “no wow” song with Twitter followers, and it was easy for them to grasp. “I hear ‘Livin’ on a Prayer,’ ‘You Give Love A Bad Name,’ and ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ … on six radio stations locally, getting played a lot,” wrote Tristan Sanchez. “Same with several Journey songs and Def Leppard’s ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me.’” That is overkill.

“By the end of the ‘80s, I was burned out on Prince’s big hits,” wrote Tom Lane. “That lasted for a long time. Not ‘When Doves Cry’ though; always loved that one. I did come back around to those other hits after he died.”

“Two examples that will always make me change the station, ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ and ‘(I Just) Died in Your Arms” wrote Eric West. WUBE (B105) Cincinnati PD Grover Collins cited the Outfield song. “’In The Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins is single-handedly killing FM,” said recent Ross On Radio contributor Jason Kidd.

Readers weren’t instructed to come up specifically with songs they were burnt out on—only those that are in no way surprising to hear on the radio. I’d cited “Time After Time” as a current power gold that I still always enjoy hearing, compared to, say, “Eye of the Tiger.” That led Martin Collins of the U.K.’s Smooth FM to comment: “’Time After Time,’ forever classy. ‘Eye of the Tiger’ always naff and horribly cheesy.”

CIND (Indie 88) Toronto PD Ian March listed “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Someone Like You,” “When I Come Around,” and “Summer of ‘69” as “’no wows’ that I still enjoy.” That “Summer of ‘69” is still on the list is a particular accomplishment given the relationship between Canadian PDs and the “Cancon” titles that still comprise 35-40% of their music by regulatory fiat.

“No Wow” songs can be rehabilitated. “Two that revived for me were ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Brown Eyed Girl,’” writes CHIRP Radio’s Mike Bennett. “My then-five-year-old fell for them and their super sing-along [appeal], and her joy was contagious.”

As Classic Hits stations emphasize the ‘80s and beyond, there were fewer mentions of ‘70s songs than five years ago, although KNCI Sacramento morning man Tom Mailey still cites “The Joker.” But fewer songs are at that level now. Five years ago, “Carry on Wayward Son” was hard to sit through; that song has hardly become “lost,” but I might not punch it out now. I don’t think “Sweet Home Alabama” has reached that point yet, however.

“No wow” songs can be come less burnt over the years. Can they become “oh wows” again? It’s hard for me to imagine ever feeling that way about the songs that were once Oldies “safe list” perennials. Then again, as PD John Sebastian’s KOAI (The Wow Factor) Phoenix continues to evolve and grow, there’s an increasing emphasis on those ‘60s titles, including some like “The Letter” or “Groovin’” that were power rotation for years. So it’s possible that many listeners consider “oh wow” anything they haven’t heard lately.

If more ‘60s and ‘70s are becoming special again, it will be interesting to see what happens as the ‘90s and early ‘00s filter in. One Twitter follower cited Santana’s “Smooth” and two named Outkast’s “Hey Ya” as “no wow” candidates. For the most part, though, many 1990-2004 songs are just starting to come back to the radio. When a reader complained about “Baby…One More Time” five years ago, I likened it to “Achy Breaky Heart” as a perma-burnt song that you’re not likely to encounter much on-air. But these days, it’s much less surprising on the radio.

There are always songs beginning their Outfield-like arc at radio. “Wannabe” has gone from risible to reliable over five years’ time. I am not surprised by encountering it on the radio, but nor am I anywhere near tired of it yet. Same goes for “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by the Backstreet Boys. If I lived in South Florida, which has several stations pounding ‘90s titles at the moment, I might feel differently. But “No Scrubs” by TLC still sounds great after 6-7 years on the radio.

How songs will travel from being a hit to taking a timeout to becoming burnt out in the future is hard to predict now, not only because of radio’s competition, but because of changes over the last few years in how stations play songs. Will “Hey Ya” become burnt enough to go away for a few years? Or will the relatively small number of playable early ‘00s song keep it on the radio for a while? What about the Katy Perry/Pink pop of the mid-‘00s? (If it’s any indication, I find “Call Me Maybe” fun again after a while.) It’s possible that the usual trajectory of songs through the years will be upended by streaming; more likely, there will be new “no wows” that we cannot anticipate now.

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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Gradually, The ‘90s Come To Adult Contemporary

By Sean Ross

For a long time, the ‘90s were an almost non-existent decade at Adult Contemporary radio. The challenges were the same as ‘90s product on the radio in general. There had been relatively few consensus hits in the ‘90s, at least until Top 40’s late ‘90s comeback. Much of the Modern AC/singer-songwriter product of the time had run its course at Hot AC, but didn’t take hold at Mainstream. Many of the hits that eventually did emerge were late ‘90s teen-pop or Hip-Hop inflected.

Until recently, most Mainstream ACs played no more than one ‘90s title an hour. Some didn’t even have a ‘90s category. The few undeniable ‘90s titles—“Iris,” “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing—might instead play as part of an ‘80s or early millennial category. Pop from the ‘90s—whether Celine Dion, Savage Garden, or Mariah Carey—was often the poorest testing category in station research. 

totally939But more ‘90s are making their way onto the radio in general, as kids of that era move into the AC and Classic Hits demo. Those songs are coming from various places. Only a few markets have a station like Miami’s WMIA (Totally 93.9). But the resurgent Soft AC format has cheerfully played Celine, Savage Garden, and Mariah. Even Classic Hits stations are pushing forward, often differently from station to station.

At many major AC stations, the ‘90s are still a once-an-hour occurrence (although it should be noted that even once an hour probably represents a change from a few years ago). But, in those markets where the ‘90s have some foothold, the number of ‘90s per hour is often higher, and the type of ‘90s may be different as well. Now, “I Will Always Love You” and “End of the Road” are format mainstays too. 

We looked at the presence of the ‘90s on more than 20 AC and Soft AC stations in markets ranging in size from New York to Honolulu. Specifically, we looked at how many ‘90s titles stations had played between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., according to BDSradio. 

About a third of the stations we looked at were playing one ‘90s song an hour, or in one case, less. Many of those included iHeart Radio’s mainstream ACs—WLTW (Lite FM) New York, KKCW (K103) Portland, Ore., KDGE (Star 102.1) Dallas. So was Saga’s WSNY (Sunny 94.7) Columbus, Ohio and Bonneville’s KSFI (FM100) Salt Lake City. Connoisseur’s WKJY (K-Joy 98.3) Long Island, N.Y., was a rare Soft AC that played only three ‘90s in four hours (0.75).

That said, even at those stations playing one ‘90s an hour, that song might be an “Under The Bridge”-type format mainstay, but it could as easily be “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by the Backstreet Boys, as it was in hours we looked at for both WSNY and nearby WRRM (Warm 98) Cincinnati, (1.5 ‘90s per hour). A few years ago, we wrote a story about how Classic Hits WCBS-FM New York had started playing “This is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan. Now that song plays a few times per week on Mainstream AC WLTW (Lite FM).

A few other prominent stations were slightly above one ‘90s per hour, including KOST Los Angeles (1.25) and Midwest’s WJXA (Mix 92.9) Nashville (1.75). CHFI Toronto, always a relatively contemporary station, played 1.5 an hour. (There was one hour where both ‘90s songs were Canadian; in others the ‘90s songs were “internationals.”) 

But there are also a number of case studies where the amount of ‘90s is noticeably higher, especially if there’s some sort of lateral support for them.

1015LiteFMMiami: Entercom’s WLYF (Lite 101.5) still plays one ‘90s per hour, but Cox’s WFEZ (Easy 93.1) has tried to blunt the impact of WMIA, thus far successfully, by upping the ‘90s content and positioning around it. WFEZ played 3-4 ‘90s in the hours we heard (average 3.75). At WFEZ, a ‘90s title could end a sweep (“Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough”) and begin the next one (“Save the Best for Last”).

San Francisco: The Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey ‘90s have been a significant part of Soft AC KISQ (The Breeze). Now, when KOIT plays “End of the Road,” it’s with a brief sweeper that says “KOIT ‘90s.” On the afternoon we looked at, the two stations differed by one title: 2.25 for KOIT, 2.5 for KISQ.

Chicago: WSHE launched a few years ago with the ‘90s as a calling card. WLIT (Lite FM) retrenched a few years ago around Soft AC, similar to KISQ. When we heard them, Lite played 1.75 ‘90s an hour; WSHE played four. The difference was the type of titles. WLIT was playing “Fields of Gold” and “How Do I Live.” WSHE’s titles could include “Tubthumping” or Robyn’s “Show Me Love.”

b985Atlanta: WSB-FM (B98.5) Atlanta has long been one of the hottest/newest Mainstream ACs. It played two ‘90s an hour through the afternoon we looked at. WSTR (Star 94) is a recently relaunched Rhythmic AC, which played anywhere from two to four titles in the hours we looked at, for an average of 3.25. Again, Star’s ‘90s could be a typical AC song like “Waterfalls,” but it could also be “Rhythm is a Dancer.”

Honolulu: There are all sorts of approaches in this market. iHeart’s KSSK plays one ‘90s an hour like its sister stations. But the market also has Pacific’s Soft AC KPOI (The Wave), which plays three ‘90s an hour, and Summit’s KRTR, which also plays three. Like Miami and San Francisco, soft R&B has a significant history in the market. KRTR was one of the few AC stations to play “Angel of Mine” by Monica as a current; now it’s one of the few playing it as a gold.

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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