“Hi, Sean! A few radio-related items have been on my mind, so I thought I’d send them along to get your take. Maybe fodder for future columns?”
So began the e-mail from reader Matt DelSignore. I came to know Matt as a reporter for the former all-news station WNEW Washington, D.C., when it became clear he followed music radio as closely as anybody on this side of the business. And some of the things that he’s observed lately are, indeed, worth discussing at greater length. So I decided to take the dialogue public, beginning with:
Topic I – Where Is Beyoncé At CHR?
Matt: I was really glad to see an industry publication [Billboard] tackle this question re: Beyoncé and [the lack of airplay for the “Lemonade” album at] pop radio. Last summer, it struck me how CHRs excitedly touted their Beyoncé concert ticket giveaways while ignoring the music from “Lemonade.”
Sean: I don’t in any way discount any of the possibilities raised by my former Billboard and R&R colleague Gail Mitchell: age bias against a 20-year CHR artist; reactionary PDs who became less supportive after the “Formation” video. I think those or any other issues are nevertheless informed by, as one R&B programmer put it, having “no pop record to jump on.” Only one song, the No. 33 “Sorry,” was worked to pop radio.
Readers know that my number one explanation for why radio fails to seize a lot of pop culture moments is that almost no record can find a quorum at CHR radio without being worked there. The most recent example is PDs not aggressively seeking out the next potential hit from the Ed Sheeran album, but I already feel like I’m writing about that issue at far too regular intervals.
When the “Beyoncé” album revolutionized the music industry four years ago, the singer had come off two projects where the kickoff single wasn’t the one that emerged as the hit. “Déjà Vu” gave way to “Ring the Alarm” before “Irreplaceable” broke through. The next time out, “If I Were A Boy,” the attempt to give pop radio its “Irreplaceable” song right away, was upstaged by the track that went to R&B radio, “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).”
You can’t blame Beyoncé for throwing her hands up, and not just in a video. The strategy with “Beyoncé” was clearly to put out a record and let radio worry about what it wanted to play. When that album became phenomenal, that strategy worked, to a degree, as CHR tried to play “XO” then “Drunk In Love,” even if neither became a full-fledged hit. But it’s hard to count on CHR doing that work on multiple projects.
I still think the pop hit on “Lemonade” is “Hold Up.” That song is melodic. It’s built on an early ‘60s pop/MOR sample. It’s still getting 350 spins a week between Urban, Rhythmic, and Urban AC (where I think it should have been bigger as well). I don’t know how many pop PDs even heard it, but I think they could go back for it at any time, were PDs inclined to do that sort of thing these days.
Topic II –The Changing Sound of AC Gold: “Pour Some Sugar On Me”
Matt: A few years ago, you wrote about “More Than a Feeling” representing the new sound of AC. I think there’s a case to be made that Def Leppard is the new Boston, as “Pour Some Sugar on Me” becomes a staple on stations from WLTW New York (one of the earlier ACs to add, I believe) to WSHH Pittsburgh (a locally-owned station with a softer, more conservative history).
It’s interesting to observe the gradual integration of hair bands and hard rockers into AC playlists over the years. “Livin’ on a Prayer” leads to “Here I Go Again,” which leads to “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” which leads to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on a growing number of stations. This is kind of a stretch, but could “You Shook Me All Night Long” be far behind, especially as several ACs position themselves against a strengthening classic hits competitor that can easily play G’n’R and AC/DC?
Sean: “Pour Some Sugar On Me” is in the top 250 most played AC songs with 250 spins this week. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” has less than ten spins at AC. “You Shook Me All Night Long” is getting 16 spins, but ten of those are at WMGF Orlando, Fla., (which is playing the other two as well). “You Shook Me…” has long been acknowledged as an all-ages weddings/parties song, but both AC and Classic Hits seem to view it differently than Def Leppard, and maybe at this point, it’s too old for some ACs to go back for—squeaking in under the January 1980 cutoff by about seven months.
Since the emergence of the AC format on FM, there’s always been some “I can’t believe it’s AC” record. In the early ‘80s, it was the (then-decade-old) “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress.” Def Leppard always had a good shot at becoming that, because they lived a double life (like most of the hair bands) as teen pop idols. A decade or so ago, as “Pour Some Sugar” resurfaced in multiple formats, I remember seeing programmers’ surprise as it performed even better with women than men. But it made sense. And it’s been amusing seeing “More Than A Feeling” go from being the record that was too hot to consider at AC to a song that’s too old to play (because it’s from fall ’76).
For me, the jolt was seeing Def Leppard on KOST Los Angeles. It wasn’t that long ago (okay, maybe a decade or so) that KOST had gone back and begun playing the Carpenters again to make a statement. AC often seems to verge these days on becoming an entirely different format, playing any bright, uptempo song from the past 35-or-so years that adult women love. One AC programmer recently commented to me that his station was more consistently uptempo than the CHR in the market, as that station slogged its way through the available EDM ballads.
The only issue is that many of those stations are KOST or WLIF Baltimore, occupying the dial position of a station once expected to be the most relaxing thing on the dial, and unobtrusive in the workplace. PDs often consider themselves more constrained than guided by those expectations, but they’re hard to outright defy. WLIF has successfully forged ahead anyway, and its recently launched sister station, WTDY Philadelphia, without any heritage to grapple with, has landed in a place where it is Hot AC in texture but AC in terms of gold/current percentage, timing on newer songs, etc.
Topic III – The Changing Sound of AC Currents
Matt: What, if anything, does it say about the state of EDM, the AC format and WLTW when three of Lite-FM’s eight most-played songs are by EDM artists: the Chainsmokers, DJ Snake and Calvin Harris?
Sean: For starters, it says that AC and Hot AC are both dependent on what CHR is handing down to them. Songs that you think would be doing even better at AC, like Train’s “Play That Song” or Niall Horan’s “This Town,” aren’t as big as the songs that CHR has more enthusiastically ratified. If CHR doesn’t want to invent records, AC doesn’t even want those songs worked to it if they don’t have lateral support elsewhere.
AC has been used to busy-sounding, EDM-flavored records for more than five years now, ever since the songs in question were “Only Girl In The World” and “DJ Got Us Falling In Love.” In some ways, today’s loping “trop-house” EDM is less disconcerting. And if core artists like Ed Sheeran and Maroon 5 are making those kind of records, why be hung up on a technicality like a new, similarly flavored Justin Bieber song technically being credited to DJ Snake?
I’ve clearly had concerns about CHR being focused around so many similar sounding songs over the last year, and I think the ratings bear me out. I’ve also seen evidence that not every AC or even Hot AC listener is entirely comfortable with that sound. But if you don’t consider yourself constrained by “softest, most relaxing” or “unobtrusive at work,” perhaps it’s different.
About Matt DelSignore: “After 13 years as a radio news reporter, covering everything from Hurricane Katrina to Barack Obama’s inauguration, I’m currently a stay-at-home dad living in San Francisco who loves discussing all things radio–as long as the boss, my one-year-old son, is napping.”