Sumthin’ Serious About Something Trivial
In early 2007, Top 40 was on a rebound and WHTZ (Z100) New York was again one of the most influential stations in America. That was in part because, since the early ‘00s, Z100 had been aggressive in finding music that Top 40 could play and own. Before Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” that could mean Matchbox 20’s “Bright Lights,” but at least they were trying to force the pop songs in.
But by then, there was better than “Bright Lights” to choose from. The top 100 of 2006 has its extremes—James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” to Yung Joc’s “It’s Goin’ Down.” But 2006 had plenty of the uptempo medium-weight pop that made those extremes work on one radio station: “SexyBack,” “I Write Sins, Not Tragedies”; “Hips Don’t Lie”; “Promiscuous”; “S.O.S.”; “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley; “Unwritten”; and the Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons,” among others. As both pop and R&B started to take on glossier EDM elements, it was the beginning of what this column often refers to as the “turbo-pop” era.
One Friday night in late February. I heard Z100 play a song I didn’t recognize. It sounded like Pussycat Dolls, although there were rapped verses. For at least a day or two, you couldn’t find this song on either BDS or Mediabase. Had you been able to figure out that it was “Sumthin’ Serious” by Audio Club, you would have found it only available on iTunes as part of an Ultra label dance compilation, not available for individual download.
“Sumthin’ Serious” was a side project from Brooks Buford, best known for the Alternative charter “It Don’t Matter” by Rehab. Eventually, it was reported that then Z100 MD Tim ‘Romeo’ Herbster had found and championed the song. Z100 had plucked a record on indie dance label Ultra from obscurity, giving it about 250 spins before it returned there.
Later that year, Lady Gaga would arrive with a slicker, more realized version of the same provocative-but-bubblegummy rhythmic pop. But even in the spring, there was no need to hold on to a song that didn’t take. By the time “Serious” ran its course, there was already “U + Ur Hand,” “Glamorous,” “Say It Right,” “The Sweet Escape,” “Girlfriend,” and “Umbrella.” Many were by established artists turning to hot writer/producers to punch up their sound. But soon that sound would lead to a new artist’s breakthrough as well.
That’s because the next time Z100 stepped out, it did redeem itself. Shortly after Audio Club, the station went digging on a new artist’s album and found the cut that would propel her beyond Disney Channel stardom. For a week or two, Z100 was the only station playing “See You Again” by Miley Cyrus. But then it wasn’t.
I loved that Z100, a big station in the biggest market, was willing to stand by itself on a record of its own invention. (Even Radio Disney hadn’t played “See You Again” yet, although it played lots of other Cyrus/Hannah Montana music.) That one of its secret weapons was eventually ratified nationally, while another was just sort of fun to hear for seven weeks was utterly beside the point.
In 2007, PPM’s monitored ratings technology was brand new and still being unveiled in Philadelphia by the then-Arbitron. Songs weren’t yet being scrutinized for their retention ability among a small number of meter holders. But the adage that “you can’t get hurt by what you don’t play” was decades old and had more currency than ever. In addition, the promotion scandals of 3-4 years earlier had created a situation where traditional small market starter stations were slower than ever on new music, while only a station like Z100 or KHKS (Kiss 106.1) Dallas had enough authority to find the hits.
I don’t remember how long that sort of enterprise continued at those stations. The upswing in pop music, and PPM’s ability to reflect it, led to more CHR competition, including New York, where Z100 first got a direct competitor (Now 92.3) and then took its own sister station, WKTU, to CHR as a flanker. That competition, along with PPM, did make programmers more self-conscious about music. Herbster left iHeart for an Internet venture, the short-lived GoomRadio, where he oversaw a CHR format that can now be recognized as Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits playlist a decade earlier–the hits as we know them but augmented an artist’s next single, international success stories, etc.)–except that it was produced and hosted.
It’s easy now to tag “Somethin’ Serious” as the type of song that would have lived out its seven weeks on “Today’s Top Hits.” And as the sort of song that would have lent itself to Tik Tok videos. Today’s Top Hits is where you find Cyrus as alter ego Ashley O, whose “On A Roll” has been phenomenal online but is getting significant airplay only on Radio Disney and WBZZ (100.7 Star) Pittsburgh.
This is where a consumer press story would say “and broadcast radio never does this anymore” and be done. But a few months ago, Z100 did step out on “Timebomb” by Walk the Moon, a midchart Alternative record that really belonged more on CHR, but hadn’t been worked there. KITS (Alt 105.3) San Francisco gave about a month’s airplay to “Bring You Down” the pop/rock song on the Lil Nas X EP.
Herbster is now a Portland, Ore.-based Regional VP for iHeart Media. Under his watch, relaunched CHR KBKS (Kiss 106.1) Seattle gives power-type spins to developing titles. To bring things full circle, those included Cyrus & Mark Ronson’s “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart.” Kiss is also playing Judah & the Lion’s Alternative charter “Why Did You Run” in sub-power.
Full disclosure requires me to note that KBKS hasn’t yet made major inroads against KQMV (Movin’ 92.3). That very successful CHR is headquarters for morning stars Brooke & Jubal and not vulnerable in any obvious way. Movin’ often sits out chart songs beyond its rhythmic pop core sound and so far, it has not been hurt by what it does not play. So far, the only brief I can write is that playing exactly what they play probably wouldn’t help a rival either. That said, over the last few months, much of CHR has started giving heavier spins to its most exciting new titles as well, if not quite at KBKS levels.
Will one PD still try to create a story? Sometimes, especially if they were already doing it before PPM. Can one local PD still create a story? The key word may be local. The best example of a song broken by one station recently is “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” by Panic! At The Disco, which racked up hundreds of spins on Sirius XM Hits 1 while local CHR was still playing “High Hopes” (also following Hits 1’s lead). Fighting for the music discovery franchise requires local PDs who can still display enterprise. And then the question becomes how broadcast radio creates national platforms where that enterprise can be showcased on a large enough scale.