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Could CHR Be A Better Upper-Demo Format?

K92 92.3 WXLK RoanokeSummer was, over the years, a Top 40 stronghold. For the last few years, however, it’s been mostly a vehicle for Nielsen press releases about the success of Classic Hits and Classic Rock. And it’s part of why I’m rethinking how CHR might rebound.

I railed against CHR’s “25-54’itis” of the early ‘90s that turned the format into Hot AC, sapping it of the excitement readily available at Country and Hip-Hop/R&B radio. I cheered for the WHJX (Channel X) Jacksonville, Fla., and WKZW (KZ93) Peoria, Ill., attempts at an MTV-like blend of rock and Hip-Hop, and particularly for WHTZ (Z100) New York, which seemed to get traction before going too far Alternative. I was 30-years-old at CHR’s nadir and I remember thinking “what 25-54-year-old is this for”? It wasn’t me.

Later, though, I had to admit that through the worst of the doldrums, when many believed that CHR could disappear altogether, it was the WXLK (K92) Roanoke, Va.-type stations that lasted: heritage stations that weren’t trying to be hip. Even the first CHR rebound success story, KHKS (Kiss 106.1) Dallas, was, despite the press-release, a Hot AC at the outset, before morphing into something more complicated (adult female-friendly rhythmic pop).

The first green shoots for the format were Melissa Etheridge, Hootie & the Blowfish, and Sheryl Crow. They were far better for the format than, say, Go West, “Faithful” or Restless Heart, “When She Cries,” and certainly more engaging to listeners. Some of the format’s early one-offs (e.g., Dogs Eye View or Primitive Radio Gods) had the hip credentials of starting at Alternative. But the first songs that saved CHR weren’t that different in texture from the ones that almost destroyed it. “Wannabe” and “MMMBop” took another two years to come along, and without the format’s growing momentum, there might have been no stations to play them.

In reality, “25-54’itis” never left CHR. It just became more listenable. In the early days of deregulation, there was talk of cluster strategies allowing stations to commit to a 12-to-24-year-old audience. But with the exception of the early 2000s—the time before “Since U Been Gone,” remembered now (but barely) for Trapt and Eamon—CHR has benefited from the mother/daughter coalition and it wasn’t really necessary to think too much about who the format was for.

The irony of the mother/daughter coalition was that neither party consistently got to vote. At moments when the music was mass-appeal, an 18-to-29-year-old could successfully represent both teens and the surprisingly robust 35-plus audience for the format. Now, that target has led CHR to a particularly mushy middle with little tempo and little variety. The format’s “what now?” songs show up too late for the 16-year-old who has known Travis Scott, “Sicko Mode” for months, but still manage to confound adults.

Radio’s long-term future depends on creating products for each generation of potential listeners. But could a CHR rebound begin with making the format better now for its oldest listeners? Because they are the ones who gave CHR the wide demo spread that protected it from the vagaries of measurement fluctuations. They are the ones who turn on the radio in the carpool for kids who might otherwise ask to stream Spotify Rap Caviar. They are the ones who currently have quarter-hours to give to broadcast radio, and at this moment, they’re giving them to Classic Hits, Classic Rock, and Mainstream AC.

I started to think about what “CHR for 45-54” would sound like a lot in the mid-‘00s. Then we steered into a golden age of pop music and the topic went on hold for a while. But recently, I’ve suggested that rebuilding the coalition might start with moms, not kids. A decade ago, I got this far:

  • It wouldn’t be Mainstream AC, because it would be based in today’s hits, not library, and would have tempo and texture.
  • It wouldn’t be Hot AC, because it wouldn’t necessarily be musically slower or less texturally aggressive than CHR. Since then, of course, Adult Top 40 has evolved to almost-CHR, and a station like WKRQ (Q102) Cincinnati isn’t that far from what I’m thinking of.
  • It would offer the “all-the-hits” variety that adults most rhapsodize about when they talk about their influential stations, whether that was Madonna, Van Halen, and Prince in 1984 or Notorious B.I.G. and Third Eye Blind in 1997.
  • It would have the tempo and presentational momentum of Classic CHR—something which is probably a secondary driver for today’s Classic Hits success. I can’t tell you that a 16-year-old wouldn’t find that cheesy. But maybe they just haven’t head it the right way yet.
  • Maybe, just maybe, it would play an occasional heritage artist that came out with the right song. I’m negotiable on this one, however, since I remember how lame I thought Roberta Flack’s “Set the Night to Music” was in 1992.

I can now add that this station would play “Sicko Mode.” As part of a balanced diet, that song would be no more disconcerting than Frank Zappa, “Valley Girl” was in between Soft Cell, “Tainted Love,” John Cougar, “Hurts So Good”, and Dazz Band, “Let It Whip” in August 1982. Not every song has to have tempo, bounce, and melody—just enough. And that’s not what we have now.

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