What AC And Hot AC Must Do Now

I feel a little better about the music in play at Top 40 radio these days. The superstar-laden beginning of fourth quarter had been upstaged, for a few years, by April/May releases jockeying to be Song of Summer, but this fall, it’s definitely a more inspiring group of songs than we were staring at four months ago, to the point where one programmer told me recently that, for the first time in recent memory, he had more worthwhile potential adds than he could accommodate in a given week.

Portugal, The Man’s “Feel It Still” has changed the timbre of the format, now rapidly adapted by the same CHR PDs who let Fitz & the Tantrums songs stay on their side of the CHR/Hot AC divide. There is excitement about Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5. There is universal acclaim for Sam Smith—not a record that fixes the tempo issue, but a quality song that everybody seems to love.

Then there’s “Look What You Made Me Do.” The “Taylor Swift, right or wrong” fans are guarded in their assessments. The detractors aren’t guarded at all. And yet CHR radio has made “Look What You Made Me Do” top 5 while they figure out whether it’s a hit or just an event record—perhaps a meaningless distinction now anyway. I don’t mind. It’s a three-minute energy jolt that has gotten CHR running again, even if it’s running on vitriol.

These apparent format rebounds are always fragile. They hinge on a few records and they don’t always pan out. I remember writing a “hey, look at all these hits” column in early 1992, a few months later, we were plunged into CHR’s worst doldrums ever. And even if “Feel It Still” actually breaks the grip of 85 b.p.m. EDM ballads, the major labels still have six months’ worth of those songs, and loping midtempo tropical pop, to move through the system before anything can really change.

Either way, what Hot AC and Adult Contemporary radio must do is clear now. It wasn’t a great thing for CHR, Adult Top 40/Hot AC, and AC to be jammed so close together even when the music was good. The PPM moment when it seemed to work for everybody to play the same hits was short-lived (and at a time when any actual changes in formats’ fortunes may have been obscured by Voltair anyway). Eventually, fewer differences meant fewer reasons to listen to any station for a sustained period.

Now, it is possible to listen to Hot AC and hear that format and Mainstream AC struggling to digest CHR’s leftovers. I had that experience a few weeks ago with an Adult CHR that was still heavily invested in nine-month-old to two-year-old CHR hits, particularly EDM ballads. Some were undeniable hits on the “Don’t Let Me Down” magnitude. Some were the next tier of the genre—“Sit Still, Look Pretty” followed by “Starving” a few songs later.

AC doesn’t usually get to the second tier of songs. But its present model for current music is a six-to-nine month ratification of CHR hits. Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” becomes not the Song of Summer 2016, but winter 2017. Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” a song that ignited at CHR immediately upon its release on Jan. 6, goes 2-1 AC this week.

Sometimes the lag has worked in Mainstream AC’s favor. Earlier this year, when Top 40 was at its sludgiest, AC still had “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and “Cake By The Ocean” in current rotation. An AC client remarked that his had become the station in the market for tempo, and he was correct. But now, AC is going to be processing “Say You Won’t Let Go” and “Stay” for a while, if the pattern holds.

Mainstream AC has another issue to contend with. Over the past six months, a lot of the late ‘00s pop music has started to look shaky in AC music testing. It often looks very different from station to station—it might be a single artist or several. Even if I didn’t want you to do your own research, I would warn against any across-the-board response to that statement.

But the concept of the “millennial AC,” so exciting a few years ago, is challenged now by a simultaneous softening of the current product, and weakness in the library titles that PDs were so depending on. It’s not necessarily the fault of those songs, as much as the way we’ve handled them. They didn’t get a chance to go away and come back a few years later. Instead, AC had to take in “Firework” and “Hey, Soul Sister” when they had 40% burn at CHR. And unlike the ‘80s category, it was a relatively small handful of artists and music styles.

Hot AC programmers have the easiest remedies, beginning with better use of their gold library. There was never any law that “’90s to Now” had to mean “but mostly now.” There are a few Adult Top 40s—WKRQ (Q102) Cincinnati, WQAL (Q104) Cleveland, WWMX (Mix 106.5) Baltimore—that are successfully operating as the current hit music stations in their markets. For most others, the franchise is being the relief button from CHR, at least until Top 40 gets consistently better.

There are also Hot AC programmers who see an opportunity to delve back into pop/alternative titles again. For most, that means more attention to a relative few titles—Portugal, Judah & the Lion, the Revivalists, the next Imagine Dragons—but the idea of a Modern AC comeback now is intriguing. And Sinclair Communications, which has tried an Alternative/CHR hybrid in the past, is doing so again, this time on former CHR KSXY (the 101) Santa Rosa, Calif. 

The notion of taking control of current product will be daunting for many Hot AC and especially AC PDs. Adult formats have gotten used to being handed viable product from Mainstream CHR. Even as the pipeline began to clog this spring, they were more excited to play songs that had been ratified by CHR, even if they weren’t a perfect fit, than to help develop a “Million Reasons” or “Play That Song.”

For many programmers now, the reaction could be relying even more heavily on the exact recurrents that have been making CHR less exciting for the last year. It’s a natural instinct, like turning down the radio after a near miss on the highway. But I’m not sure what the benefit is in “play mediocre records more and hold on to them longer.” And it hasn’t helped Country or Alternative much. For AC and Hot AC, the answer is going to be going both older and newer, and recognizing the dearth of music from the last 18 months for what it is.

What AC And Hot AC Must Do Now

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