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First Listen: KSXY (Y100.9) Santa Rosa

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It takes willfulness not to play recurrents (or gold) on a top 40 station at this moment. From the moment the first PPM-derived retention score was calculated eight years ago, recurrents have become the most valuable songs on the radio for many PDs. Recurrents are practically a format unto themselves these days, with adult top 40 having turned into a format that differs from mainstream top 40 primarily in timing, not in tempo and texture.

It’s a model that’s hard to argue with at the moment. The success of KDMX (Mix 102.9) Dallas not only spurred imitators in numerous other markets, but AC rival KVIL has also since segued to a similar Hot AC format. KDMX is third in the market, despite sister KHKS (Kiss 106.1) reigning at No. 1, but even stations that don’t do as well can usually land somewhere in the four-share range. And they often find four shares no matter how many outlets in a market are already playing the same hits.

Even so, I’ve seen a number of articles recently suggesting that programmers are too far ahead of their audience, and encouraging them to play more recurrents and gold. That’s a longstanding trope. When callout research gained popularity in the late ‘70s, the response of one top 40 station was to return the year-old “If You Leave Me Now” by Chicago to its No. 1 slot.

These days, however, I just wonder which PDs the authors of these articles are talking about. Aggressive champions of new music are easily outnumbered these days by their very hit-driven counterparts. The upshot is four to six stations in many market still giving double-digit spins to Maroon 5’s “Animals” or Sam Smith’s “I’m Not the Only One.” Is that faster than the audience? And at a time of declining TSL for all radio, can one discount the compression between CHR, Hot AC, and AC? With six stations playing the same songs in mega-rotations and a declining number of discrete choices, why linger?

One key story comes from the earliest days of PPM in Philadelphia, one of the first markets where two CHRs both topped the 100-spin mark on power-rotation songs. The earliest PPM-based audience retention figures showed Timbaland’s “The Way I Am” rebounding the week the two CHRs slowed it to recurrent. That was posited as proof that PDs were leaving hits on the table. Having lived with the two stations in question, I took it as the audience’s thank-you for finally taking the song out of power.

That makes you wonder where another Philadelphia station, Mike Joseph’s WCAU-FM, would have fit in. Joseph’s all-current “Hot Hits” format is credited with reviving top 40 in the early ‘80s. Many of those stations had powers that bordered on recurrent, but with a 50-song playlist (to make up for recurrents and gold), you could stumble on some oddities. Most of the “Hot Hits” stations quickly broadened with recurrents, then gold, and the experiment hasn’t been repeated much in the last 30 years.

That’s where Sinclair Communications’ KSXY (Y100.9) Santa Rosa, Calif., comes in. A few weeks ago, Y100.9, the distant second top 40 in Santa Rosa, stopped playing recurrents and gold. In their place, Y100.9 added some alternative titles and, more notably, country titles that aren’t being played on CHR radio. One stager on Y100.9 promises “all the hits: pop, country, and alternative.” Sinclair is also planning to add a liner that declares “all the hits and all new music: when you get sick of a song, we are too.”

Programmers have been wondering for a while whether or how to acknowledge the overlap between radio’s two most successful new(ish) music formats. Top 40’s usual playbook of acknowledging all the hits except country, or playing a few country songs when they were promoted to the format six months later, never seemed natural. These days, however, with top 40 manufacturing so many of its own hits, it’s harder to imagine country on a format that doesn’t always acknowledge R&B or alternative titles.

But there have been steps in both directions. Cumulus’ longtime country outlet KSCS Dallas has been heard experimenting with Ed Sheeran, Ellie Goulding, Rihanna’s “FourFiveSeconds” and the “pop” titles from Taylor Swift. Emmis’ KNOU (96.3 Now FM) St. Louis has played a handful of country recurrents as part of its recent launch. (Emmis and Sinclair are co-owners of stations in Austin, Texas.)

Y100.9, designed by owner Bob Sinclair, PD Dray Lopez and Sinclair Norfolk PD Brandon O’Brien, goes considerably further. Although Sinclair says the country percentage has been dropped from 30% to 20% since the launch, there are still currents from Brett Eldredge, Cole Swindell, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, Thomas Rhett, Darius Rucker, Chris Young, Miranda Lambert, Sam Hunt, Keith Urban, Billy Currington, and even some that aren’t powers yet elsewhere, such as Waterloo Revival and Kelsea Ballerini.

Even without recurrents, the rotations on Y100.9’s powers aren’t extreme by today’s standards. There are six songs in the 90-105 spin range—a few more than you might find on other CHRs. What’s different is having so many other songs in the type of “power new” rotation usually reserved for a mere handful of titles elsewhere. And with both country and alternative having been even more conservative in rotations than CHR recently, the rotations on those titles stand out as well. Robert Delong’s “Long Way Down” got 48 spins on Y100.9 last week. Only eight alternative stations played it more.

If Y100.9 were tackling only the country-crossover issue, or only challenging the recurrent model, either of those would be significant moves. They’re both big challenges to take on, and as with Classic Rock KZPS Dallas (which tried to replace spots with sponsorships and add Americana titles), there’s the opportunity for supporters of radio orthodoxy to dismiss two valid concepts with one wave of the hand if it doesn’t work. I hope Y100.9 turns out not to be ahead of the audience. Until then, I’m happy to have a place to hear new CHR (and other) music again.

Here’s Y100.9 just before 9 a.m., March 23:

Ed Sheeran, “Thinking Out Loud”

Thomas Rhett, “Make Me Wanna”

The Weeknd, “Earned It”

Jason Aldean, “Just Getting Started”

Nick Jonas, “Chains”’

Pitbull f/Ne-Yo, “Time of My Life”

Robert Delong, “Long Way Down”

Who Is Fancy, “Goodbye”

Ne-Yo f/Juicy J, “She Knows”

Jason Derulo, “Want to Want Me”

Miranda Lambert, “Little Red Wagon”

Ellie Goulding, “Love Me Like You Do”

Zedd f/Selena Gomez, “I Want You To Know”

Rihanna f/Kanye West & Paul McCartney, “FourFive Seconds”

Sam Hunt, “Take Your Time”

Maroon 5, “Sugar”

Calvin Harris f/Ellie Goulding, “Outside”

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

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