Ross On Radio: Keeping Top 40 From Getting Too 'Mid-Turbo'
Ross On Radio: Keeping Top 40 From Getting Too 'Mid-Turbo'

As it was for hit music, 2012 was a surprisingly good year for "intriguing stations," particularly those based on a new body of music, not just the creative repackaging of oldies. In some, but not all cases, musical sea changes at country and top 40 didn't drive brand-new stations as much as reconfigure existing ones. And, as is increasingly the case in recent years, not all the intriguing stations were on FM radio. But there are enough intriguing stations for a two-parter this year, beginning with:

SiriusXM: The watershed moment came about a month ago when a friend who lives four hours away and I found ourselves enthusiastically discussing "To Win Your Love" by Dominique Pruitt, an indie hybrid of Adele and Carlene Carter. That song was on only one monitored station, but that station was SiriusXM's 20 on 20, which evolved to a "top 40 discovery" format last year. In general, it felt like SiriusXM was responsible for more non-industry listeners being aware of songs that might have once been relegated to the music director's private stash. Three channels worth mentioning:

- Alt Nation: At its outset, Alt Nation was an outlier-true alt in a Linkin Park format. But along with KTCL Denver, it has done the best job in anticipating where the format was going. In a year of successful alt rock that doesn't really rock (or has to, apparently), not playing Breaking Benjamin no longer seems like the indulgence of a Smiths fan in denial

- Underground Garage: The initial mix of '60s garage rock and the newer music influenced by it has expanded to what can be best described as "cool oldies" from every genre.

- 20 on 20: It wasn't just Pruitt, it was the scores of other indie obscurities that this channel found. It was taking "Zou Bisou Bisou" from "Mad Men" to power rotation. Or trying to bring the Rolling Stones back to top 40 with "Doom and Gloom." And the appetite for hit music discovery was acknowledged elsewhere this year.

IHeartRadio's Rock the Cut/Edge;
Q100 20 Atlanta; Radio.com -Tomorrow's Hits Today:
By the end of the year, all three major groups had expanded their own top 40 music discovery efforts-on FM translators, online, even in the streaming stopsets of Clear Channel stations. Music discovery was everywhere except, it seems, on full-signal mainstream top 40 stations, where it remains an enemy in the PPM wars. The full potential of new music discovery won't likely be tapped fully by radio until there's a hosted, over-the-air effort with the appropriate resources, but in 2012, there were more, and better-curated, places to hear new top 40 music.

WHBA (Evolution 101.7) Boston: Electronic dance music's migration from iHeartRadio channel to FM is the biggest major-group vote of confidence for the genre since Cox's WPYM (Party 93.1) Miami more than a decade ago. It was also a consumer-press masterstroke for Clear Channel, immediately eclipsing smaller-scale attempts at EDM, like the just--shuttered KDHT (Hot 107.1) Denver. Then again, if the Evolution had remained online-only, it had an excellent chance of becoming a major national brand without a stick. That job falls to . . .

Radio BDC: When WFNX left Boston's 101.7 frequency, there was a surprise battle for its legacy between the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Globe, which launched not just an online alternative station but a hosted one featuring former 'FNX personalities. It's a challenge. Alternative rival WBOS still exists on the FM dial. Evolution 101.7 may itself be the new alternative-the true successor to the WFNX of 1984. And "hey, we're still available online" has usually been an unsuccessful short-term strategy for mollifying a few disgruntled listeners. But the notion of hosted, curated radio beyond the FM dial is a correct one.

KQKQ (Q98.5): Q98.5's "Modern Hit Music" has made this year-end list several times since the mid-'00s, but its alternative/top 40 hybrid has never found more than a few other takers. A year ago, Q98.5 was dabbling with Rihanna and other pop titles that it wouldn't have played in the past. Now, of course, there's no shortage of available product and Q98.5 has notched its best numbers in recent memory. An encouraging development for proponents of the format.


Next week: More "Intriguing Stations." Truly young country, big top 40 launches, and your suggestions (email me at sean.ross@billboard.com).

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