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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