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What I Learned Scheduling Hot AC

Girls Like You Maroon 5Over the last decade, I’ve mostly scheduled Classic Hits stations. I was excited when an opportunity to fill in at a Hot AC for a few months came along. Readers know I’ve been critical of what I hear at contemporary formats, but I’ve always suspected that some things—the lack of tempo, the lack of stylistic variety—might be hard to reign in. So here’s what I learned from scheduling Hot AC.

You can control tempo, but only so much. It was possible—if you were so determined—to keep from playing back-to-back ballads. But it would have been nearly impossible without the gold. And it was certainly hard to remain uptempo for any significant number of songs. That wasn’t necessarily a priority in scheduling as much as strength and familiarity, but I was still trying to avoid bouncing up and down with each new song.

You can’t rock out on Friday night.   It always pained me to drive home and hear a Classic Hits station playing “True” or “Take My Breath Away” or even “Dream On” at 5 p.m., and when I began working in that format, I tried to keep 5 p.m. and weekend nights rocking. When the power currents are Lauren Daigle, “You Say” and Dean Lewis, “Be Alright,” you can forget that. And the more tempo you put around the currents, the harder it is for the sound of the station not to crash into them when they come up.

What one thinks of as ‘tempo’ changes. When I started scheduling Hot AC, I vaguely recall that I would have regarded Halsey’s “Without Me” as a ballad, and would have tried to keep it away from “You Say.” It wasn’t long before they became two entirely different things, and I heard myself saying, “I can pick things up here with Taylor Swift, ‘Delicate’ or Lauv, ‘I Like Me Better.’” 

Then I stopped being so fussy about artist separation, too. When I was able to pull “Without Me” more than 30 minutes apart from Benny Blanco/Halsey/Khalid “Eastside,” I was flush with achievement. (There was also the Ariana Grande issue, although not like at CHR).

Sons of Sheeran Flock Together. I could keep “Be Alright” away from Lukas Graham, “Love Someone” or James Arthur, “Say You Won’t Let Go” away from Sheeran’s “Perfect.” But it took some doing, too.

Halsey needn’t have worried. There’s no living “Without Me.” It’s not as hard to keep EDM ballads away from each other as it is in CHR, but there’s still a lot of gently pulsating mid-tempo records to deal with. I’m not sure every Hot AC listener has signed off on that. From what I’ve seen, only a few songs in that genre go on to be all-ages/all-format smashes like “The Middle.” Hot AC is relying on EDM ballads because that’s what CHR hands down, but that doesn’t make it a center lane sound.

CHR’s not handing down much to begin with. “High Hopes” and “Girls Like You” were powers when I began and powers when I wrapped three months later. For the last month or so, the Hot AC powers barely changed at all. Songs kicked in late and stayed around forever—no surprise since they often do the same thing in CHR these days.  The songs that CHR was eagerly embracing for tempo and pop balance—“Sucker,” “Sweet But Psycho,” “Dancing With A Stranger”—weren’t bigger than the holdovers, at least not three weeks ago. (But if they become powers, they’ll still be there in October.)

Hot AC’s not advocating for much of its own. The songs handed down from CHR often felt edgy, but the songs developed by Hot AC (or brought over from Alternative and Triple-A) were often born to mid-chart, given the number of stations who wouldn’t consider them or give them meaningful rotation without a CHR story. If CHR would at least support a “Love Someone” or “Be Alright” in medium, it could become a Hot AC power, Otherwise, it took other lateral support (Dan + Shay’s Country crossover hits) or a movie (Pink’s “A Million Dreams”). Proof that Pink was one of the few artists who didn’t need to be ratified elsewhere came when “Walk Me Home” came out while “A Million Dreams” was still top 10 and was already an AC hit by the time its (still slow) CHR journey began.

Summer may pick things up. I’m looking over the major Hot ACs and the powers are still, in general, what they were for the format three weeks ago. But “Dancing With A Stranger” is a power in some places. Taylor Swift’s “Me!” became an immediate sub-power. There’s a little less earnest male balladry although Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Love” will likely kick in right around the time that “Be Alright” kicks off. But…

The format is morphing again. For a while, it looked like Adult Top 40 would differ from Mainstream CHR only by (slightly) slower rotations and (a little) more library. That gave Mainstream AC the ability to move almost into Hot AC’s old “’80s, ‘90s, and now” position (and with fewer ‘80s as things went along.) Then the CHR product that powered both movements slowed to a trickle. Mainstream AC suddenly regrouped to fight the new Soft AC outlets. Mainstream AC stations gave up on trying to be “millennial AC” (and have effectively stopped playing any true currents). That’s given Hot AC a place to move as well. It’s hard to ignore the success of some Hot ACs that have become musically less aggressive as well. The dream of “millennial AC” may not be dead. It may be what Adult Top 40 becomes.

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1 Comment
  1. Nathan Obral says

    I remember having an off-the-record convo with a longtime AC programmer a few years back, when there was this large influx of new product in the different forms of AC. What he had said to me was something to the effect of, “we’ll keep adding and playing the hits until they aren’t there.”

    I wonder sometimes if the previous morphing of the AC formats in the early 2010s went almost a bit too much, and that this is a corrective measure.

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