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Come Back When You Grow Up: Teens & CHR

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It was a finding in sync with many broadcasters’ experience in their own families. Recently, my employer Edison Research reported that teens were spending less time with broadcast radio (on any platform) than with pureplays such as Spotify and Pandora. Shortly thereafter, my Edison colleague Larry Rosin pointed out, correctly, that “virtually no radio stations perform formal research for music among teens nor target teens directly in their marketing or strategy.” The youngest, most aggressive CHR I ever worked with as a researcher began to include listeners at age 15, and they were the exception.

Top 40 has long been conflicted about teens. It wasn’t that long ago that the format was orphaned to small operators and marginal signals by large groups unwilling to sell a 12-to-24-targeted format. After consolidation, some owners saw top 40 as a now-viable niche, only made possible by having three other adult stations in the cluster. It was only once the mother/daughter coalition became apparent that top 40 became a format that attracted multiple owners in a market, or seen as a potential market leader.

That’s why top 40’s relationship with teen acts has been so convoluted for the last 25 years. Top 40’s brief moment of New Kids on the Block mania is pegged to the format’s early ‘90s decline. The next wave of teen acts, from Hanson and Spice Girls to Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, is credited with its resurgence, but radio chose to throttle it anyway — drawing a “line in the sandbox” against most further teen acts, and embracing more “extreme” music, even when that meant handing pop culture over to hip-hop and alternative stations for five years.

But teen acts found another home. Even before top 40 rebounded in the mid-‘00s, Radio Disney was enough of a cultural force that certain moms knew all the words to “I Can’t Wait,” the Lizzie McGuire theme song, without ever having heard it anywhere else on the radio. But Top 40 waited until Hillary Duff was promoted to them with an “adult” album. It gave Duff modest hits with “So Yesterday” and “Come Clean.” And then Kelly Clarkson came along.

By the late ‘00s, top 40 had enough of its own mainstream hit music from other sources – Clarkson, Pink, Gwen Stefani – that it could afford to take a hard line on teen pop. WHTZ (Z100) New York was savvy enough to find “See You Again” as a Miley Cyrus album cut, when it wasn’t even being played on Radio Disney. Usually, however, the strategy over the last decade has been along these lines:

* Do little to acknowledge a Radio Disney act until the “adult album,” usually signified by the switch from Walt Disney Records to “big” sister label, Hollywood.

* When the adult album arrives, or when an act like Justin Bieber or One Direction comes more directly to top 40, by dint of being signed to a non-Disney label, allow their singles to chart no higher than the low teens, with occasional hard-fought exceptions (e.g., “Story of My Life”).

* Support an act most dramatically after they’ve graduated from teen-idol status. Some acts, like Justin Timberlake, got there through the Michael Jackson route, persevering long enough to make records that were the equal of anybody – at least for a time. But if you were Cyrus or Britney Spears or Justin Bieber and willing to renounce your teen status by provocative (or just bad) behavior, that worked, too.

Bieber was an interesting case study. He began doing radio shows again. His “Believe” album yielded at least three enthusiastically received singles that got real, not grudging, airplay. Three years later, with no real follow-up project and perhaps too much bad behavior, it is as if those singles never even existed.

But other former teen acts who were once resisted beyond Radio Disney, including Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, now comprise a significant amount of the product at mainstream top 40. The spot that Bieber’s “Boyfriend” occupied three years ago is now going to Nick Jonas’ even bigger “Jealous,” a No. 1 mainstream top 40 single and, now, a reverse crossover to R&B/Hip-Hop stations. Jonas took both the Justin and Britney routes to top 40 – a more mainstream record and racy photos – but delegated the Bieberesque acting out to Joe Jonas.

After their brief flirtation with power rotation on “Story of My Life,” One Direction found themselves back in their usual chart range with “Steal My Girl” and the still-climbing “Night Changes,” both of them more sonically consistent with their new more mature sound. Five Seconds of Summer found themselves peaking in the low teens — the same place where previous One Direction singles had stalled — with “She Looks So Perfect.”

Meanwhile, Jonas is on the rise again with his second single, “Chains.” The punchline, though, is that Nick Jonas, the project that radio wanted, is an album that is not selling in large quantities. The 2007 Jonas Brothers album, from which the band could manage no bigger a single than “S.O.S.,” sold 1.9 million units, according to Nielsen Music. Nick Jonas has sold 129,000 copies so far, even with a No. 1 single. Not even a precipitous drop in music sales accounts for that difference.

There’s no disparagement of Jonas intended here. Nick Jonas is a consistently solid album and an impressive self-reinvention. But by waiting until acts like Bieber, One Direction, or Jonas make records that are more in the pocket with what’s already on the format, top 40 is showing itself as more comfortable with “product” than “phenomenon.”

(There are exceptions. Ariana Grande, with an exceptionally determined label behind her, got top 40’s attention on her second project. Taylor Swift came to top 40 as a proven commodity, but even she has chased the sound of today’s top 40. “Blank Space” and “Jealous” are much more of a piece than anything Swift or the Jonas Brothers released in 2008.)

In some ways, today’s top 40 strategy for teen acts is fairer than what some acts experienced in previous generations: a few months of frenzy, then complete exile, no matter how much their music matured. Leif Garrett got 18 months at top 40. Shaun Cassidy and brother David’s Partridge Family both got about a year. The DeFranco Family got five months. The Bay City Rollers got two years exactly in the U.S. The Osmonds got all of four years — partially by making their “Story of My Life,” 1974’s “Love Me for a Reason,” about three years in.

And therein lies radio’s conflicted relationship with teens. Top 40 PDs of the 1970s had their own cynicism toward “bopper music,” but they wanted to play teen acts while they were hot, rather than waiting for those acts to follow their audience into adulthood. In times past, “my older sisters’ favorite band” was a pejorative. Now it’s a policy statement. Through the ‘00s, teens were told to expect to hear their favorite acts (at least in significant rotation) somewhere else. Are we surprised that listening somewhere else became a habit for some of them?

Last year, when Radio Disney announced the selloff of most of its broadcast-band properties, it was taken by some as a vote of no-confidence in AM/FM radio, but others correctly noted that the bulk of Radio Disney’s power had never come from its AMs, but from its Sirius XM channel and online listening. It was impossible to divorce the power of Radio Disney from that of the Disney Channel anyway. And once majors other than Hollywood took an interest in teen acts, and top 40 started showing just a scooch more interest, Radio Disney seemed like less of a cultural bellwether.

But last year, at my daughter’s piano recital, where students were allowed to choose their own music, one of the other kids played Zendaya’s “Swag It Out,” a song that I didn’t even know existed. Minutes later, she released her Hollywood debut and “Replay” made its brief appearance at CHR.

After that, I understood that Radio Disney-type teen acts continued to exist, even if my daughter had outgrown the channel. A lot of Radio Disney music is now shared with top 40, but you’ll still find R5 in their top 10 and Zendaya and Sabrina Carpenter further down. And if anybody is listening to Radio Disney because top 40 won’t play those acts, or won’t play Fifth Harmony or 5 Seconds of Summer enough, most of that listening is no longer accruing to broadcast radio.

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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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