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Constructing The Next Decades of Classic Hits

There was genuine excitement last week when I reported that Classic Hits KOLA Riverside, Calif., was filtering in titles from the early 2000s. KOLA had been aggressive, and successful, by forging into the ‘90s ahead of most stations. When I reported that they were on the move again, some readers thanked me for telling them about the station. Cumulus VP of programming Brian Thomas called my attention to an earlier trade publication article where he was among several PDs predicting a move to the 2000s, partially because so many of us perceive the ‘90s to be a dead zone for mass-appeal hit music.

Everything that follows comes with multiple caveats about doing things for the right reason. KOLA gets to be both Classic Hits and gold-based AC station for its market. Other Classic Hits stations have benefitted from being left alone with the ‘70s while Mainstream AC tests its boundaries with EDM/pop. Programmers are excited to forge into the ‘90s and ‘00s because, in many cases, it is the music that they grew up with. But they need to make sure the listeners agree.

But I couldn’t resist the exercise of looking forward and trying to figure out what might become playable in the next few years. At this moment, the format is doing so well in most places that the future deserves to be well thought out.

Moving Classic Hits ahead is always a mix of proven hits and hunches. The proven hits often come from Mainstream AC, the format that has already tested them. It often means that the first songs from any new era are ballads, the least “good time” of the “good time oldies” one can imagine. It sounds funny now to say that a ‘70s staple like Fleetwood Mac, “Dreams” was a sonic breach at the outset. So perhaps I’ll come to grips with Extreme, “More Than Words” or Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Under the Bridge,” both songs that are both hard to sit through for me, and hard to deny.

The hunches are another story. Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy” is a song that’s starting to surface at a number of successful Classic Hits stations. I never object to hearing Crow, one of my favorite ‘90s artists, but that song has never been a reliable AC tester. In retrospect, it wasn’t a true hit as a current, regardless of where Crow’s career momentum may have carried it on the charts.  And it doesn’t add tempo. “All I Wanna Do” was an easy entry point to the ‘90s for many stations, so “Happy” seems like a logical next step. But if we’re nurturing ‘90s songs into playability, I’d rather put the effort into bringing back White Town, “Your Woman” or Len, “Steal My Sunshine” or something with a higher fun factor.

And we don’t really have to invent oldies. We just have to be thorough about following the listeners.

We’re not done with the late ‘80s: There’s a breaking point around 1987-88, beginning with “Livin’ on a Prayer” when CHR music changed, often in ways that were dismaying to the people who loved the format in 1984-85. As the older group moves beyond the music research window, once-derided songs are starting to resurface: New Kids on the Block, “(You Got) The Right Stuff”; Tiffany, “I Think We’re Alone Now.” There will be at least a few more.

The ‘90s deserve some reconsideration: We think of the ‘90s as a polarizing decade during which CHR almost fell off the face of the Earth. CHR’s crater was deep and damaging, but it was really a several years period from roughly summer ’92 to summer ’94. In other words, it was not much longer as the early ‘80s doldrums of 1980-82. If the decade seems barren now, it’s because…

There’s a lot of ‘90s left to try for Classic Hits: We’ve mostly looked at the Soft AC and Modern AC ‘90s. When programmers became more comfortable testing, say, TLC’s “No Scrubs,” the ‘90s began to look like much less of a wasteland. That song in particular has turned out to be not so different from “Waterfalls” in its enduring appeal at Mainstream AC. It seems like a leap at Classic Hits now, but one day, it won’t. And then “This Is How We Do It” or “No Diggity” won’t seem like stretches either. Will “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” be on Classic Hits? KOLA has been playing “Bust A Move” and “U Can’t Touch This” for years.

We haven’t really figured out how to handle the biggest Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, and Spice Girls titles on the radio yet. In some places, it’s the Hot AC audience that likes them; in some markets, they test for Mainstream AC. But now that we know somebody wants to hear those songs again, wealso  know that they’ll come to Classic Hits at some point.

We haven’t thoroughly plumbed all the quirky alternative/pop one-hit-wonders yet. “Your Woman” and “Steal My Sunshine” aren’t such wacky ideas, when you consider that Chumbawamba, “Tubthumping” and Cardigans, “Lovefool” turned out to be playable songs.

The good-time ‘00s are out there: One of the reasons that each new decade has been challenging is because of the pattern (not broken until the early 2010s) of each decade starting out in a pop music doldrums. But even in the early ‘00s, there are enough fun and uptempo songs for the category, we just have to choose them. Both Jimmy Eat World, “The Middle” and Avril Lavigne, “Complicated” were hits. Today, “Complicated” is more neutral and the easier choice. But “The Middle” is the good-time-oldie. Soon, it won’t seem like such a stretch either.

6 Comments
  1. provencountrypd@gmail.com says


    Fly – Sugar Ray
    Straight Up – Paul Abdul
    Lovefool – Cardigans

    1. Sean Ross says


      All good, and all on the “list” already for many people.

  2. dxnerd86 says


    In Australia our classic hits station, ‘WS FM’, has already ventured into the 2000s in a big way. You can have a look at the playlist here: http://onlineradiobox.com/au/1017wsfm/playlist/. Plenty of 90s in the mix too. WS FM is considered a very safe station music wise (I call it ‘Wuss FM’)!

  3. Steve West says


    Hey Sean, I agree with most of this but I’d probably add that what’s bust for one format is boon for another. The 90s saw something that IMHO, most NEVER thought would happen. Country. When KUSA’s “America’s Music” Jingle package hit the nation’s country stations, the music was just coming up to what I call modern standards. The perception, going into the 90s, was that Country was all Merle Haggard, Hank, et al, and the young audience, if you asked them, said that was old fogey redneck music… But somehow, artists like Travis Tritt, Restless Heart (a decidedly 80s band) and even mainstays like Alabama managed to change that perception. When CHR took that big hit, Country, Alternative and Hip Hop stepped in and those three formats all did very well.

    I think that any look at Classic Hits song adds from the 90s AND the 00s would be well advised to include a strong number of songs from all three of those formats. Depending upon the format lean, of course… because we all know that as formats mature, they fragment into sub genres based upon a parent genre.

    Perhaps, this gets even too deep and nitpicky? At any rate, GREAT article!

  4. cary pall says


    I had a good laugh recently reading how the current generation of classic hits PDs have totally written off the 90s as a time when no mass appeal music existed. They lived by the charts then, and they died by the charts now. The decrepit nature of choosing hits during that period was based on CHR radio’s inability to get out of one genre of music, along with AC PDs’ inability to look even one millimeter beyond complete and total consensus in research. There were loads of hits out there…but no one was MINING for them. That’s a story for another story. But a lesson is there for today’s classic hits PDs. Define the center line of what your core music sounds and feels like. Then, as you push your boundaries, look for the songs that FEEL like they could have been hits among that core of music. I know of at least one station of the 90s that built phenomenal success on that premise.

  5. provencountrypd@gmail.com says


    My man Cary Pall is right. Torn, Smooth Criminal and I Love You Always Forever are not part of 1330/107.9 KXJ’s database. Interesting enough, I tweeted Sean and told him, we have added 30 power 70’s to Full Service AC 800/103.5 KINY- Get Down Tonight, Margaritaville, Imagine etc.

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