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AC and Classic Hits posted on September 17th, 2014

By Sean Ross

There was no intention to “push poll” my dentist. But I was seeing him for the second time in a few weeks, and the same song was playing on AC WLTW (Lite FM) New York, Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.” So I asked, “What do you think about this song on Lite FM?”

“What do you mean?”

I tried to express it as neutrally as possible. “It’s not the kind of song they used to play.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said.

I had one more session with him. At the next appointment, he was playing the Classical station, WQXR.

I related that story to a colleague who is married to a doctor. He was driving her to work and Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World)” came on. This prompted her to announce that her office had switched to Oldies/Greatest Hits WCBS-FM after complaints from older patients.

Over the course of the summer Nielsen PPM measurements, WCBS-FM was up 6.3 – 6.4 – 6.9 6-plus. During that same period, Lite was down 7.1 – 6.2 – 6.1. That’s the kind of down month many broadcasters would be thrilled with, of course. It does coincide with a Nielsen press release declaring Classic Hits (still the Arbitron designation both for former Oldies stations, the format I call “Greatest Hits,” and softer Classic Rock outlets alike) to be the upset winner of the “Format of Summer 2014” crown, based on its growth.

Since onetime WLTW programmer Jim Ryan took the PD reins of CBS-FM, and even before, the intent of the station has been pretty clear: assume the format space once occupied by Lite-FM. The ‘80s, once something tolerated grudgingly by Greatest Hits listeners, are nearly the center lane, and the prominent recently hired morning man Scott Shannon is associated with those songs as well. The ‘60s have virtually disappeared, and the early ‘70s are now about once an hour.

It’s not as if WLTW has overtly distanced itself from its previous position, or completely ankled the ‘70s. They still play a handful, and I heard “You Are So Beautiful” by Joe Cocker a while ago. I can’t speak for anybody there, but the format sure seems to be “big songs that appeal to adult women.” In the PPM measurement era, there is a tendency by some programmers to ignore niceties of texture in favor of satisfying cume. And Lite FM has always been a little aggressive in that regard.

Under Ryan, WLTW always played songs that seemed to dent the format definition of Mainstream AC as well, some of which later became format standards. The difference is that “Hurts So Good” came over when it was more than a decade old, not less than a year old, like Perry. The song playing against Rihanna on CBS-FM was Van Halen’s “Jump,” an AC staple by a once-edgy act that has had three decades to soften.

As Mainstream AC grapples with just how many songs on Mainstream Top 40 and Hot AC are currently appealing to adult women, Lite FM has finessed that transition better than most. But every AC, no matter how gradually it has brought listeners along, faces the specific peril of a format evolution – new listeners will come in and swell the numbers at first, but one day the old listeners will decide this is no longer their radio station.

The worst-case scenario is in markets where an increasingly successful Adult Top 40 format fulfills the clear 25-plus appetite for “now” among adult women. The Oldies/Greatest Hits format grabs the “then” franchise – still big enough for at least a few stations in any given market. That situation doesn’t yet exist in New York, where WLTW is much bigger than the Hot AC stations. It also doesn’t exist in markets such as Atlanta, Houston, or Washington, D.C., where, despite the success of WCBS-FM, KRTH (K-Earth 101) Los Angeles, and others, no owner is willing to consider the Greatest Hits format on a viable signal. And in markets such as Long Island, San Diego, and Hartford, Conn., new owners have actually steered stations away from “Greatest Hits” to a more Bob- and Jack-FM-like Adult Hits format.

Regardless of how the Mainstream AC format is flanked, it has not just tempo and era to deal with, but also the matter of currents. Rotations at the Greatest Hits format have become bolder lately, following the success of KRTH, whose power ‘80s can play more than 25 times a week. But WLTW is up to 35 times a week on power currents. That’s not a lot, but it’s enough that you might notice hearing the same song on two consecutive visits to a station that never did that.

There’s one more disturbing possibility. With broadcast radio TSL continuing to decline, by most accounts, it is certainly possible that a format with 45-54 appeal, such as Oldies/Greatest Hits, would be hurt less than other, younger-targeted formats. Almost every Greatest Hits outlet looked awesome in the first days of PPM when not all demographic targets were indexing as well. I always root for the format, but I hope we haven’t returned to those days.

I’m not against ACs continuing to contemporize. I help stations with it all the time. I’m fascinated with stations like WALK Long Island, N.Y., and KYXY San Diego that look like Hot ACs in their current rotations (98x a week in KYXY’s case), but have the libraries of a bright AC. They also play currents when they’re hot, not after two months of saturation on multiple rival stations. In that regard, they’re very similar to the successful German ACs that often end up playing songs like “Little Talks” or “Let Her Go” before American AC radio gets to them.

The danger for Mainstream AC is being trapped between positions. As a researcher, I work with stations where the answer to “do you like today’s music” is not necessarily the same as “should we play a lot of it.”

The danger for the Greatest Hits format is that some operators may not be interested no matter how well it does. It seems like an odd time to disenfranchise those listeners most enamored with radio, but that practice continues.