Are We Ready for the ‘80s Again, Again?

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It’s been almost 15 years since the idea of an all-‘80s format generated any excitement among broadcasters. The format went through a quick boom/bust around the turn of the century – one entirely expected by programmers who had seen the short-lived all-‘70s format seven years earlier. Now, according to Radioinsight’s Lance Venta, an all-‘80s format exists only on four U.S. broadcast stations—two of which are translator/FM combos. Only one, KRKE Albuquerque, N.M., is in a top 100 market.

The ‘80s as a format was rife with challenges. Hot ACs hadn’t relinquished the biggest ‘80s hits. The 10-year window was narrow chronologically, but too broad stylistically. Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” and Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” were nominally from the same decade, but nobody had ever needed to put them on the radio together before. Other PDs overcompensated, doubling down on pop/rock and ‘80s alternative, occasionally including some new wave classics that weren’t American radio hits as currents. It was also easy to overindulge in novelties, or take them out altogether and reduce the era’s fun factor.

At the time, it was an easy prediction that whatever the travails of the format, the ‘80s themselves would find a place on radio. They were the calling card for the Bob- and Jack-FM adult hits boom. They represent about 40% of the hour (and sometimes more) on WCBS-FM New York, and with Scott Shannon in mornings, that station is very much channeling the shared experience of WHTZ (Z100) 30 years ago. A few years ago, the ‘80s also became a touchstone for mainstream AC stations looking to ditch the ‘70s and modernize, although some have chugged further into the new millennium since. But there’s apparent broadcaster consensus that there’s little need to offer a branded ‘80s format.

It’s a much different story on the rest of the infinite dial, however. Satellite and digital radio programmers always acknowledge that their biggest formats are just as mainstream as those of broadcast radio. But their list is typically “top 40, country, and the decades channels.” And when those PDs elaborate further, it’s often the ‘80s channel they’re referring to. Somehow, the ‘80s format, developed and long-discarded on FM, has become the biggest exclusive hit for audio purveyors elsewhere.

It’s not just the brand names audio purveyors, either. On iTunes, going to the directory of streaming stations (now confusingly located under the “Internet” tab to separate it from iTunes Radio) finds you 270 stations classified (some more accurately than others) as ‘80s. At TuneIn, a search of “’80s” gets you 483 listings, and going to the format tab gets you a thousand.

Does that mean listener expectations beyond FM’s walls are different, and maybe less hit-driven? A lot of the ‘80s programming I encountered on the infinite dial hewed to the “everything that happened between Christopher Cross and Kris Kross” format model. (Okay, I’m cheating by two years, but the point stands.) I didn’t hear a lot of songs that weren’t top 10 hits at the time, but I did hear a lot that didn’t endure as consistently well-testing songs. On Tuesday, I managed to encounter “The Safety Dance” on both my morning and evening commutes.

Then there was Pandora. Their “’80s Pop” channel wasn’t easily found when I went looking for it, although my search of genre stations, then decade channels, offered me “’80s Rock” and “’80s R&B.” When I finally found “’80s Pop,” by typing it in as a search, it was almost entirely ‘80s titles that would

test for any AC or Adult Hits station, and nothing that reliably fails to test for mainstream radio. It was confirmation, if you needed it, that the hits are the hits.

If anything, the handful of broadcast stations still specializing in the ‘80s go even wider or deeper than some of their digital counterparts. I’ve already encountered “Refugee” segued into “Theme From ‘The Greatest American Hero’” today. WKZG (KZ Radio) Appleton, Wis., http://mykzradio.com has pushed into the equally lost early ‘90s. KZOY (Sunny 92.1) Sioux Falls is a treasure trove of “oh wow” ‘80s titles, including “Seduce Me Tonight” by Cycle V, which you know from the “Flashdance” soundtrack, even if you’ve never heard it on the radio. A few minutes ago, they played “Yoda” by Weird Al Yankovic.

As a music fan, I’d be disappointed if my friends at Sunny 92.1 changed anything. As a programmer and researcher, I’m beginning to wonder if a hit-driven version of the ‘80s deserves another shot on FM, especially when I’m seeing anniversary salutes to the well-loved, mass-appeal music of 1984. Yes, the ‘80s still really encompass three different eras of hit music. Yes, it seems arbitrary to break an era of pop/rock that really took place between 1976 and 1983 in half, which would mean keeping “Summer Of ‘69” but not “Carry On Wayward Son.” But the ‘80s as a genre is easily understood and somebody is seeking it out.

Here’s the hour of Pandora’s “’80s Pop” that I heard on November 4:

Pat Benatar, Love Is a Battlefield
Blondie, Call Me
Corey Hart, Sunglasses at Night
Billy Joel, It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me
INXS, Need You Tonight
Men at Work, Who Can It Be Now
Michael Jackson, Thriller
John Mellencamp, Jack & Diane
Police, Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
A-Ha, Take on Me
Queen, Another One Bites the Dust
Go-Go’s, We Got the Beat
Kenny Loggins, Danger Zone
Police, Don’t Stand So Close to Me
Dead Or Alive, You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)
Billy Idol, White Wedding

Here’s Sirius XM ‘80s on 8 on November 3:

Corey Hart, Never Surrender
Madness, Our House
Daryl Hall & John Oates, Adult Education
Def Leppard, Rock of Ages
Ready for the World, Oh Sheila
Police, De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
John Parr, St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)
Thompson Twins, Hold Me Now
Aerosmith, Rag Doll
Mick Jagger, Just Another Night (staged as a “Lost Hit”)
Katrina & Waves, Walking on Sunshine
Beastie Boys, (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)
Duran Duran, The Reflex

Here are the ‘80s on Music Choice on November 4:

Men Without Hats, The Safety Dance
Pointer Sisters, I’m So Excited
Steve Winwood, Valerie
New Kids on the Block, Hangin’ Tough
Bryan Adams, Summer of ‘69
Debbie Gibson, Shake Your Love
Wham!, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go
Whispers, It’s a Love Thing
Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
Jack Wagner, All I Need
Terence Trent D’Arby, Wishing Well

Here’s the U.K.’s Absolute Radio ‘80s channel on November 5. About two-thirds of these are songs that you could expect to hear on a British AC station:

Dire Straits, Walk of Life
Paul Young, Wherever I Lay My Hat
Enya, Orinoco Flow
Bruce Springsteen, Glory Days
Prince, When Doves Cry
Traveling Wilburys, Handle With Care
Sly Fox, Let’s Go All the Way
Bananarama, Really Saying Something
Blondie, The Tide Is High
Nik Kershaw, The Riddle
Daryl Hall & John Oates, I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)
Meat Loaf, Dead Ringer for Love
Spandau Ballet, Through the Barricades
Hothouse Flowers, Don’t Go
Wham, Club Tropicana

And here’s Sioux Falls’ Sunny 92.1 on November 4:

Cinderella, Gypsy Road
Miami Sound Machine, Bad Boy
Glenn Frey, The Heat Is On
Bonnie Tyler, Total Eclipse of the Heart
John Mellencamp, Cherry Bomb
Kenny Loggins, Playin’ With the Boys
David Foster, Love Theme From “St. Elmos’s Fire”
A Flock of Seagulls, I Ran (So Far Away)
Henry Lee Summer, I Wish I Had a Girl
Lionel Richie, Truly
Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pride & Joy
Def Leppard, Hysteria
Dokken, In My Dreams
Blondie, The Tide Is High

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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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