Intriguing Stations of 2018
There was never much question of Soft AC featuring prominently in the wrap-up of 2018’s “Intriguing Stations,” not necessarily the biggest success stories of the year, but those that either defined, or cheerfully defied, programming trends. Soft AC stations are intriguing every year, but usually because major groups won’t commit to them. This year, propelled by the overall success of upper-demo formats, and CHR’s failure to pass along suitable AC music, WFEZ (Easy 93.1) Miami and KISQ (the Breeze) San Francisco, willful outliers 18 months ago, have unleashed a torrent of “soft, relaxing favorites at work.”
Which of the new stations you like depends on what you’re looking for — truly soft or, as one reader put it, “Adult Hits with ballads.” WFEZ has evolved the furthest toward Mainstream AC. San Francisco’s Breeze has become the most copied station of the format — both by iHeart Radio sisters and others. I like KSWD (the Sound) Seattle, whose summer success became a format tipping point, because it has a little more on-air energy, and because it’s made me hear Delilah in a new way. And here’s what the format sounds like in Canada on CKRA (The Breeze) Edmonton.
The land rush for Soft AC has led at least one observer to ask “is that the best broadcast radio can do?” Even a decade ago, it was often true that new formats were usually built around old music. But don’t begrudge broadcasters for embracing a format that should have been a consistent presence. And not all the intriguing radio stations of 2018 were Soft AC. They also include:
KGSR (Austin City Limits Radio) Austin – Four months ago, KGSR Austin, already one of the poppiest-leaning Triple-A stations, rebranded as Austin City Limits Radio, giving itself license to play any artist who played ACL, and to substitute the music festival aesthetic for a format. Hybrid formats sometimes creep back to normalcy after some trial and error, but I’m looking over this week’s monitors for provocative segues. I’ve got my pick. Post Malone & Swae Lee into Pearl Jam. Foster The People, “Sit Next to Me,” into Hall & Oates (although, if anything, that’s almost too similar).
KOLA Riverside, Calif. — One of the first Classic Hits stations to delve seriously into the ‘90s, now standard practice for many stations. This year, it got industry-wide attention when it began playing about 40 titles from the ‘00s. Some feel like good-time oldies to me (“Since U Been Gone”); some feel more like mainstream AC (“Hey There Delilah,” “Bubbly”), but I can attest that other Classic Hits outlets are moving in that direction as well, having heard “Get This Party Started” on WCBS-FM New York.
WRIT (95.7 Big FM) Milwaukee; WGRR Cincinnati – I could get an entire column out of “Intriguing Classic Hits Stations of 2018,” but for now, let’s consider the stations that best represent the un-KOLA. WRIT and WGRR were often the highest-rated Classic Hits stations in PPM, with a mix that included some ‘60s and more secondary ‘70s. That’s an update of when WGRR went further back into the pre-Beatles era than other then-Oldies stations in the ‘90s.
Radio Disney; SiriusXM Hits 1 – At the end of the year, Radio Disney counted down a top 50 for the year, while Hits 1 counted down 45 titles. Ironically, they’re probably the only two CHRs in America that could have done a top 100 without relying on last year’s holdovers. Radio Disney and its online Radio Disney Country effectively went all-current, even as broadcast CHR tightened. Hits 1 continued to carry the flag for teen punk/pop, and while that’s not new, seeing Panic! At the Disco’s “High Hopes” at No. 1 CHR on broadcast radio is new, and Hits1 was early on the follow-up as well.
Spotify: Today’s Top Hits – A year ago, streaming seemed to bear some responsibility for the narrowness of CHR radio. Spotify’s Rap Caviar sent over Hip-Hop, with which stations struggled. Today’s Top Hits reinforced CHR’s tendency toward mid-tempo EDM and ballads that played like diluted Hip-Hop. But maybe I was unfair. At the moment, Today’s Top Hits has the broadness that many miss from broadcast FM top 40, with almost everything that’s on the “shouldn’t CHR acknowledge…?” list (Dermot Kennedy, Hozier, Lewis Capaldi, Kacey Musgraves, 21 Savage, H.E.R., Ozuna, the next Why Don’t We single, and “Shallow” back in a prominent position). It certainly had something to do with Billie Eilish finally being on pop radio’s radar. And it’s starting to be talked about in trade ads and by industry people in the same way Rap Caviar was in 2017.
WTDY Philadelphia – Last year as a Hot AC, it began playing some of the rhythmic early ‘00s titles that had powered predecessor WRDW (Wired 96.5). This year, it finished the evolution to Mainstream CHR, but some of those songs stayed. The CHR battle is still being fought in mid-pack in Philly, but WTDY had pushed ahead of WIOQ (Q102), playing both “Hit ‘Em Up Style” 9x a week and “Sicko Mode” (until this week) in power.
Air1 – As a younger companion to Christian AC K-Love, it was often accused of not sounding different enough. Then it rebranded as “worship now,” imaged around a new slate of praise and worship acts that have gotten surprising traction among younger listeners. In doing so, it became something we haven’t seen much of lately — a station built around an emerging genre of music.
WKLB (Country 102.5) Boston – It was the Country station where you could count on hearing Dan + Shay, “Tequila,” or Maren Morris, “Rich,” in significant rotation when the bulk of the format was keeping them mired in the 25-35 range on the Country chart. At the end of the year, it was the Country station that played “Shallow” from A Star Is Born, because it was phenomenal. As it happens, the PD is David Corey, trained at a time when MDs and PDs still displayed enterprise for new music. (WKLB’s Classic Hits sister WROR also made an interesting move as 2019 began, segueing from its “hit Classic Rock” version of the format to a more typical pop/rock mix.)
KBLX San Francisco, WKAF (The New 97.7) Boston – KBLX is playing Lady Gaga, too (although it went for “I’ll Never Love Again” instead). In general, it’s still full of the little real radio touches that I remember from PD Elroy Smith’s WGCI-FM Chicago. Speaking of radio classics, WKAF is doing March “R&B Madness” this week and has a lot of industry admiration, among those familiar with it, for its “little station that did” story.
XEPRS San Diego – Classic Hits Max 105.7 until a dispute between the station’s Mexican owners and its American operators, Max 105.7 continued as a fully staffed streaming-only station. The FM station is now an unusual mix of mostly ‘80s new wave punctuated with Christopher Cross B-sides (yes, literally), the Eagles, and some recent dance that you can only hear in the market or follow through Mediabase outside San Diego. In San Diego, where “Living in Oblivion” by Anything Box is not quite as obscure as other places, it has gone 2.4-1.2-0.7 since the change, but it speaks to the market that there’s still somebody out there.
KGAY Palm Springs, Calif. – iHR’s Pride Radio lost its over-the-air HD1 FM in 2018, but Palm Springs found itself with both Entercom’s talk/music hybrid Channel Q and K-Gay, owned by a non-profit and billed on its website as “a new type of public radio.” KGAY is mostly a yesterday-and-today dance/rhythmic AC, but it’s deeper/broader than Pride Radio (which is hardly narrow/shallow) and punctuated with, say, U2, “Beautiful Day.” It’s a playlist, but it’s veteran PD Chris Shebel’s playlist and thus of interest. And the recently played tab shows both “If I Had No Loot” by Tony! Toni! Toné and “Superhero” by Daze.
There were certainly those stations in 2018 that were intriguing just for their ability to keep on keepin’ on. The CHR malaise spread to big heritage stations that had managed to avoid it thus far. As I write this, KQMV (Movin’ 92.5) Seattle is looking pretty good again, and a lot of the midtempo EDM that I don’t like elsewhere sounds pretty well assembled there. Urban AC WBLS New York “continues to deliver and sound great,” as colleague Adam Jacobson notes. Hot AC KSTP-FM (KS95) Minneapolis hasn’t been as affected by CHR’s product issues as others, while rival KTCZ (Cities 97) was due for a mention after segueing back to more of a Modern AC.
So what are your intriguing stations of 2018 (and the first two months of 2019)?